Sunday 18 February 2018

Henry Shefflin: Being ridiculed in public hurts and Galway have reached the point of no return

Criticism as men more than hurlers has to provoke a big reaction - Joe Canning needs to know who his friends are

The Galway players line up before the Leinster final against Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
The Galway players line up before the Leinster final against Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

Criticism stings. Even when it's constructively-delivered friendly fire from across the dressing-room floor, it can pierce the hardest of shields. No player or manager, I believe, is immune to it, regardless of what they say.

Back in 2008 I was still shaking off the effects of my first cruciate tear but my form in that year's Leinster Championship had not been good. The team weren't going particularly well either and we all sensed it.

So we sat in one of the rooms in Nowlan Park on the Wednesday night before the All-Ireland semi-final with Cork and thrashed it out.

When Michael Kavanagh spoke I could instantly sense the glare. There was no eye contact from anyone in the room but discreetly I was being held to account for my performance levels that summer.

A disappointed Joe Canning after the final whistle at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
A disappointed Joe Canning after the final whistle at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

"Some of our so called top players..."

I remember gritting my teeth as I sat, bristling. I'm sure I raised a few chippings in the car park afterwards with the haste of my departure. The food in Langtons? I might have given that a skip.

Deep down I was seething. I knew there was merit in what Michael had said and I demanded a reaction from myself for the rest of the week.

'I'm going to show these lads how much I'll be back,' I told myself over and over again.

Mentally I prepared myself to be strong, to be ready for how I planned to attack the game.

A disappointed Joe Canning after the final whistle at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning after the Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny

I thought of that in the weeks after Galway's Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny and the torrents of criticism, and, let's face it, insults, that came flooding their way.

What had been said in my direction had been constructive and delivered privately in our dressing-room by a well meaning colleague without names being named.

Galway's trial has been public, damning and, above all, personal. 'Heartless, gutless' and so on. It's been open season on them, a licence to shoot, it seems, provided by their decision to remove Anthony Cunningham as manager last autumn.

No one has lowered the blade more on them than Ger Loughnane.

His words have been particularly stinging towards Micheál Donoghue, the current manager, and Joe Canning.

They've been held up to scrutiny and ridicule as men more than hurlers and that must be creating an even stronger dynamic in the Galway dressing-room in the last few weeks. If it's not, it should be. It was about who they are, not how they hurl and that takes it to a different level.

It's not something likely to be mentioned openly in the environment of the dressing-room, not something either Joe and Michael can raise either but for those around them it simply has to be a burning issue.

No point dismissing it as irrelevant and meaningless when it's so public and so cutting from a former Galway manager, a two-time All-Ireland-winning manager and an analyst who commands plenty of broadcast and print space. Is he reflecting wider public opinion, they'll privately ask themselves?

Players might like to portray indifference to such commentary but the fact is, it's being discussed in smaller groups, before training, after training, at home, on the street. You can't insulate yourself from it.

We'd often sit in groups of three or four in Langton's when we'd be eating after training and if something had been said it would be part of the conversation.

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Ger Loughnane (INM)
Ger Loughnane

Ironically, Ger gave us a little fuel when he was Galway manager prior to our 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final meeting when he sought to highlight our tackling methods, the inference being that we were a dirty team. We finished that game strong and I'm sure what he had to say played a little part.

Then we had 'Croker Chokers', a sub-headline in these very pages after the 2011 league final defeat to Dublin. Hardly on the scale of what Galway have faced but words that rankled nonetheless.

How do Galway respond to what has been thrown at them? This is their manager being made fun of. If there is respect for him it will manifest on the field tomorrow. He's their figurehead. If there is respect for Joe as a good colleague and a friend who they would sit down and have a drink with, it will simply have to surface.

Losing to Kilkenny in a similar manner in back-to-back high-profile games has raised questions about the backbone of the team in a most public manner but I believe it was hurling mistakes that cost them most that day.

For me, this is it now for this particular group of players, the point of no return. Lose and we can expect major changes in personnel, just as happened with Tipperary last year and Waterford the year before with withering criticism about character ringing in their ears. I still feel they have the hurlers but now they must summon something more than just hurling.

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Anthony Cunningham's Glaway play Westmeath in tomorrow's Leinster SHC Quarter Finals. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Former Galway boss Anthony Cunningham

They stood firm when Anthony Cunningham was shown the door but that resilience hasn't carried into their season.

The spotlight has fallen on Joe but I feel he worked hard the last day. What he needs to do is take matters into his own hands and go to where the ball is if it's not coming to him at full-forward. But the response is more important from those around him this time. He needs to know who his friends are. And they need to show him. It should be about friendship as much as anything, after all.

If Galway require an emotional reaction, Clare, for me, need a more tactical overhaul to really fire their season again.

They were safe against Limerick but Galway have obvious weaknesses in defence and they need to push up and seek to exploit these. Kilkenny and Tipperary have both been able to do that over the last 12 months.

Obviously I'd extend wishes for a speedy recovery to Davy Fitzgerald and, like everyone else, hope to see him back where he belongs on the sideline tomorrow. His passion and energy for the game are now an integral part of the hurling summer.

They've only lost one game all season but can't contemplate another defeat. In that respect it's a big game for Clare's management team too. The alliance between Davy and Dónal óg Cusack appears to have worked well but this is where they really need to start making a difference. This is where Clare need to see something from Dónal óg.

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Austin Gleeson is ‘a leader without trying to be a leader’, according to Waterford selector Fintan O’Connor Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Austin Gleeson takes a sideline cut for Waterford

What I said last week about fixing Austin Gleeson to a central position applies to Tony Kelly too. Every team likes to see its marquee player hurling well in a central channel.

They probably won't have Conor McGrath and, if not, he's a massive loss because he's a player that can go to those levels that Kelly regularly reaches.

They're quite sound defensively but like Waterford they need to be giving more of themselves in attack, stretching the harness attaching them to that structure a little bit more.

That said, I see Galway's forwards maybe having that bit more, driven by a desire to stand up and be counted in the wake of so many public maulings.

Since redrawing the battleground for Waterford at the end of 2014, his first season in charge, Derek McGrath has hit his first stumbling block. A steadily rising graph has taken a dramatic dip. That dip may be temporary but for me they have to prepare with Kilkenny in a subsequent All-Ireland semi-final in mind.

For progress from last year they must reach an All-Ireland final. To achieve that they will have to go through Kilkenny again in a semi-final and can't bring the same game that they brought last August or what they brought to Tipperary in the Munster final earlier this month. It's a risk but they need to take a longer-term view.

Waterford need greater shape to their attack. They need more forwards coming out to meet the ball, not running on to it. They need to bring more balance to how they attack.

Ironically, Liam Dunne is most comfortable of all four managers this weekend, having started the month in the most precarious position.

No team, relative to its strength, has had to deal with such a toll of injuries as they've had this year. This is bonus territory for Wexford, they'll believe they can win, especially against Waterford, but giving a much better account of themselves than they did two years ago against Limerick is a necessity. They can't take another step back.

But it's for Waterford to make the adjustments that give them a chance of beating the big two, not just competing with them.

Irish Independent

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