Galway's players need to share in the blame
Cunningham not helped by a lack of on-field leadership as Laois look to ambush Tribesmen
ANTHONY CUNNINGHAM did his best to disguise the reality, but it was too stark for that.
Galway hurled abysmally against Laois in last year's Leinster semi-final but, in the immediate aftermath, Cunningham chose to talk up Seamus Plunkett's feisty warriors rather than publicly criticise his own players. That was understandably loyal but it fooled nobody.
The story from that June afternoon in Portlaoise was one where a well-organised side from a lower league had pushed a so-called superpower much closer to the edge than the seven-point differential suggested.
Cunningham spoke of how Galway expected a fierce challenge from Laois and expressed his satisfaction at getting through such a tough game which, he reckoned, would have a hugely beneficial impact on his side.
"We're delighted to have got that sort of game today. It will sharpen us up no end. Laois have been going very well this year and that was just what we wanted, really," he said.
Publicly, it's all he could say, since a straight depiction of Galway's failings wouldn't have gone down well in the dressing-room while also coming across as disrespectful to Laois.
And yet it needed to be said. All-Ireland runners-up from the previous year should beat Laois more easily than Galway did.
Laois were well-structured for a containing game, pulling their corner-forwards out the field and dropping the half-forwards further back. It was a clever design by Plunkett, shaped to congest Galway's approach routes, while also nicely set up for counter attacks.
It worked to perfection well past the three-quarter mark, at which stage Laois led by a point after Tommy Fitzgerald whipped in a goal. Galway won the remainder of the game by 2-5 to 0-3, but the final result couldn't camouflage the fact that a team which featured six All Stars from the previous year had scored only 0-12 in 57 minutes against opposition that had been in Division 2A a few months earlier.
Cunningham believed the tough test would bring Galway on, but it didn't. Dublin demolished them in the Leinster final and Clare comfortably out-smarted them in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Naturally, in an age when the buck doesn't so much stop at the manager's door as glue itself to the frame, Cunningham came in for heavy criticism for failing to build on the 2012 advance. Even he wouldn't claim to have been blameless last year but dumping on the manager has been an all-too-familiar pattern in Galway.
It's an easy cop-out, focusing on a single, identifiable target, who is deemed responsible every time anything goes wrong. Even Cyril Farrell, who led Galway to three All-Ireland titles in the 1980s, wasn't immune to criticism, even during that period, and certainly not during his subsequent term in charge in 1997-98.
Jarlath Cloonan and Mattie Murphy (two terms) took the hits too while Noel Lane steered Galway to the 2001 All-Ireland final but was gone after the 2002 championship. Conor Hayes had his detractors prior to 2005 (Galway reached the final that year) and again in 2006 when Galway were thumped by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Ger Loughnane, welcomed into Galway as a messiah for the start of the 2007 season, was shown the door at the end of 2008. John McIntyre was given three seasons but could never really unite the county behind him. Cunningham bought credit time when Galway reached the 2012 All-Ireland final, only to have much of it withdrawn last year.
Blaming the manager is the common denominator in most of Galway's self-assessment – but what of the players? Where does their responsibility begin and end?
Take, for example, the poor performance against Laois last year, which turned out to be the forerunner to a miserable championship campaign. Laois were set up in a formation designed to make life as awkward as possible for Galway. Surely, that didn't come as a big surprise but, even if it did, Galway should have been able to calmly and systematically work their way through it, without reference to the manager.
It called for on-field leaders, men who could figure a way out of the snares relatively early on, before cruising to a comfortable win. Does anyone believe that if Kilkenny were in the same situation, they wouldn't have solved the Laois puzzle inside 25 minutes and made it look easy from there on?
Three weeks after making Galway look so ordinary in O'Moore Park, Laois were nine points down to Clare at half-time in an All-Ireland qualifier tie en route to a 20-point defeat. It made Galway's laboured effort look all the poorer.
In last year's Leinster final, Galway were level with Dublin after 15 minutes but finished the half eight points behind. Those calamitous 20 minutes called for on-field leadership from Galway, with players working out for themselves how to stop the bleeding. It didn't happen. Instead, they lost enough blood to leave them seriously weakened for the second half.
In the 2012 drawn All-Ireland final, Galway led Kilkenny by seven points after 32 minutes, only to be out-scored 0-10 to 0-2 over the next 22 minutes.
In the replay, Galway led Kilkenny by three points after 20 minutes, but lost the next 34 minutes by 1-13 to 0-5. That's four examples of games in less than a year where Galway's problems had nothing to do with management and everything to do with the players.
Most teams encounter difficult periods at some stage of various games but the key to survival is to concede as little as possible when the storm is at its highest. Galway are notoriously poor at that and have no chance of winning an All-Ireland until they sort it out.
Obviously, the management has a huge role to play in setting the basic framework to assist in that process, but ultimately it's down to the players to work through a crisis when it arises.
Galway will beat Laois tomorrow but the manner of the victory will be important. They know what to expect from Laois but will they react in a more organised fashion than last year? If not, it will be a very bad omen.
Galway have had nine different managements (including Mattie Murphy's two stints) since their last All-Ireland win in 1988. Dozens of players have gone through the system in that period, many having come from successful underage teams.
Yet, for whatever reason, Liam MacCarthy hasn't been persuaded to cross the Shannon. Management has taken much of the criticism, even when it wasn't warranted while players somehow succeeded in dodging the bullets.
That unproductive policy continued last year when Galway's decline made them all but unrecognisable from the previous year.
If Galway have another insipid championship, Cunningham will be gone, despatched as another manager who didn't deliver.
Isn't it time the players stood up and took responsibility? After all, they're the ones inside the white lines.