Galway’s head-to-head ‘blues’ belies their status as perennial contenders
David Collins stepped off the inter-county carousel at the end of 2016, but he hasn’t allowed the passage of time to sugar-coat the memory. “I always hated playing Dublin!” the former Galway captain admits.
Collins cites various reasons – marking Conal Keaney and Liam Rushe was a big enough task, even without Galway’s pathological fear of Parnell Park – all of which help to explain the fascinating dynamic of this very modern hurling rivalry.
Here’s the thing: if you were asked to pick between sky blue and maroon as an All-Ireland contender at the start of every year, most times you’d name Galway. Yet this flies in the face of their head-to-head history.
They have met just 11 times in SHC combat, and ahead of Saturday’s latest encounter in Pearse Stadium, Dublin lead the way with seven victories and one draw measuring up favourably against three defeats.
Even if you discount Dublin’s first three triumphs (in 1920, ’24 and ’41) on the basis of sepia-tinted irrelevance, the so-called underdogs have won more than they’ve lost.
This long-dormant championship rivalry was revived in 2011, when Anthony Daly’s Dublin were emphatic Leinster semi-final winners in Tullamore, as they were when making Leinster final history in 2013.
There followed a fraught 2015 stalemate before Galway finally enjoyed their first ever summer success against Dublin, blitzing them in a Tullamore replay; they repeated the dose at the same venue two years later, then edged a Leinster round-robin dead-rubber in 2018.
But the arrival of a Galway man in the Dublin hot seat has coincided with another direction twist. In a Donnycarney cauldron, Mattie Kenny famously evicted his own county from the 2019 All-Ireland race with a dramatic last-day coup in the round-robin series. Last summer it was a different venue, Croke Park, but the same script, Dublin winning their Leinster semi-final by four points.
Unlike 2019, Galway can at least approach Saturday’s final group outing safe in the knowledge that their place in the All-Ireland series is assured. Dublin have no such guarantees heading for Salthill: they need at least a draw, or a favour from Kilkenny, to finish in the top three.
Henry Shefflin’s men are warm 2/9 favourites, perhaps no surprise in the context of Dublin’s calamitous fadeout against Kilkenny last weekend. But Collins is wary of any such perceptions, partly because of his own painful memories, both in league and championship.
“Prior to 2011, Dublin would have never been on Galway’s radar in terms of competition level. But you always feared them,” he recounts.
“Going to play Dublin in Parnell Park was our biggest fear … they always seemed to be able to turn it up a level at home, whereas it seemed like we just kind of switched off for long periods of those games.”
All of which meant that when they finally met in Leinster battle, 11 years ago, “we were wary of them 100pc, because their work-rate was exceptional. They might not have been the fantastic, gifted hurlers that we would have come up against with the likes of Cork and Kilkenny, but we always knew the work-rate was in Dublin. They were phenomenal athletes, and Daly had them drilled to an inch of their lives.”
That same year – 2011 – Ryan O’Dwyer became an adopted Dub, having transferred from his native Tipperary.
“Now I don’t know what it was like before, I can’t compare, but with Dalo on board there was a belief. And I suppose a big part of that – probably the main part of that – was a man called Declan Coyle. He was our ‘head’ doctor, you could call him,” O’Dwyer said.
Dublin had been humbled by Antrim the previous summer; now the combination of a dramatically altered mindset and the confidence that stemmed from a stunning league campaign saw Dublin overwhelm Galway and eventually go all the way to an All-Ireland semi-final.
Two years later, having survived replays against Wexford and Kilkenny, they overwhelmed Galway down the home straight to win a famous Leinster final by 12 points.
Anthony Cunningham’s losing management team that day included one Mattie Kenny, who is now hoping to ambush his native Tribe for the third time running.
“I thought Galway were absolutely shocking last year,” says O’Dwyer, who also reminds you that Dublin routed an admittedly experimental Galway by 3-29 to 0-19 in the Walsh Cup back in January.
But he’s less sanguine about Saturday’s outcome. Whereas the Dublin defence were “absolutely awesome” against Kilkenny, O’Dwyer felt they were let down by their forwards “because there was no fight there, there was no lad willing to throw his body on the line up there.
“Look, I hope I’m wrong and I hope Dublin win on Saturday, but I just think it’s going to be a Galway win. And then straight away they’ll be into their phones to check the results from the other game. They’ll be in to check their phones rather than taking selfies!”
On a more serious note, Collins believes the pressure is on Galway even if they can’t be eliminated from the Liam MacCarthy race by Dublin.
“Galway have to win this game in my opinion, just to get them on the right foot and keep them in that winning frame of mind, because if you’re losing games that you shouldn’t be losing, it won’t bode well for the rest of the season.”
And will they?
As a player he always feared the Dubs but now, as a fan, Collins allows himself the luxury of predicting: “I think they will win it. I think they’re good enough.”