Galway face ultimate test of character
It has been quite some time since Galway headed into the All-Ireland hurling championship with so little confidence among the supporters, the majority of whom will - from what I've been hearing - watch the game on television rather than travel to Croke Park.
The last two years were so disappointing that they appear to have spread a thick blanket of pessimism right across the county.
That's understandable to some degree, but it also ignores the unquestionable reality that, on their day, this Galway squad can match any opposition.
Now, the big question is this: will the pessimism, which has taken over the supporters' mindset, seep into the players' minds? If it does, they might as well stay at home tomorrow.
Of course, separating the mood in a county from the mood in a camp is not as difficult as it might appear. It's nearly 30 years since myself, Phelim Murphy and Bernie O'Connor took a Galway team to Croke Park for an All-Ireland semi-final in circumstances which, shall we say, weren't exactly inspiring confidence among a sceptical public.
And since Cork were providing the opposition in the 1985 semi-final, the view was that our new-look team would be out of its depth.
We worked very hard at closing out negativity and were rewarded with a winning performance, which was the start of a great era for Galway.
I'm not suggesting that the circumstances are exactly the same now but, in terms of confidence, the bottom line never changes. Believe in yourselves and anything can happen; doubt yourselves and you're doomed, irrespective of how much talent you have.
As for what people outside the camp are saying, ignore it. After all, other people's opinions won't make or stop a score.
In many ways, tomorrow's game is set up perfectly for Galway. They go in as outsiders, on the basis of their defeat by Dublin in their final 1A League game, followed by a poor performance against Waterford in the quarter-final.
But how much will that count tomorrow? Not a lot, I reckon.
Limerick were sloppy in 1B and sloppier still against Dublin in the quarter-final but looked a completely different team against Clare last Sunday. That's the contrast between league and championship.
The Galway players are well aware that they are being seen as underachievers, lads who didn't kick on from 2012 when they came so close to winning the All-Ireland title. They are the only ones who can sort it out.
It's easy for supporters to blame management, but games are won on the pitch, not in a theory-filled room. I have disagreed with some of Anthony Cunningham's calls in recent seasons, but the ultimate responsibility has to rest with the players. Management can only do a certain amount.
The players are the ones facing the direct challenges on the pitch and they are the ones who must sort them out as they arise.
For example, Galway have gone through some awful bad periods in several games over the last few years, where they conceded heavily while scoring very little.
That's a killer but only the players can correct it. It's about leadership, putting bodies on the line, doing whatever it takes to make sure than when the storm has passed, you're still in with a chance of winning.
I keep hearing about how Galway should be playing this or that system, based on what others are doing. My view is that the only structure they should look at is Kilkenny, who trust themselves to play a pretty straight-up formation.
Okay, so they drop half-forwards and midfielders back at times but it's a relatively simple adjustment that doesn't interfere too much their natural flow or what they they've been used to all through their careers.
In terms of skill and physique, Galway have a lot going for them. The problem is that they haven't been able to fit the jigsaw pieces into place on a consistent basis.
Inevitably, Joe Canning comes under most scrutiny, but how fair is that? Henry Shefflin was Kilkenny's main man for a very long time but they had several other leaders across every line.
That's what Galway require now - players who put their hands up looking for responsibility. Canning will definitely do it, but he needs help everywhere.
They are plenty others good enough to provide leadership so why haven't they done it on a consistent basis? Only they can answer that. Tomorrow offers them a big chance to get it right.
Dublin will be delighted with how the transition from Anthony Daly to Ger Cunningham has gone.
They were favourites for relegation from 1A at the start of the league but beat Tipperary, Kilkenny, Galway and Limerick before losing rather unluckily to Cork in the semi-final. That's impressive form.
They will try to bully Galway early on tomorrow, which should make for a high-temperature opening. Because if Galway are to put themselves in a position to win, they must not only stand up to that, but actually win the physical battles.
They're big enough to do that but the spirit has to be right too. I think it will be, which is why I fancy them to upset the odds.
While the Dublin-Galway game is the main hurling attraction this weekend, there's plenty going on off-pitch too, not least, the departure of 'Cheddar' Plunkett as Laois manager,
If, as has been reported, it was linked to a few players playing a club game last Monday, I'm surprised that he didn't deal with it in a different way. Could he not drop them off the panel?
His decision to step down has impacted on the entire squad, which is a pity. He has done an excellent job with Laois, but now the danger is that their championship prospects have been seriously damaged.
After all, a manager leaving the camp less than two weeks before a major championship game has to be extremely disruptive.
Finally, a few reflections on last Sunday's Clare-Limerick game. Naturally, Clare supporters were very disappointed, but when things settle down and All-Ireland qualifier time arrives, the Banner will be still a mighty force.
After all, Clare lost the 2013 Munster semi-final heavily to Cork. We all know what happened after that. Clare are still very much in the All-Ireland mix, despite the latest setback.