Monday 23 July 2018

Humility holds key as Galway chase reprise

Donoghue driving home message that champions  cannot afford to let standards slip after capturing league, Leinster and All-Ireland  titles last season

Michaeál Donoghue will be expecting his players to maintain the highest standards in every match they play. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Michaeál Donoghue will be expecting his players to maintain the highest standards in every match they play. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He knows that the biggest trap for Galway now is to come to this season thinking slow and complacent thoughts.

And, on Micheál Donoghue's watch, that simply will not happen. The hurling world might regard them differently today, but that won't stop each and every opponent trying to land a hay-maker on the new champions' celebrated nose.

So an early winter of back-slaps and birdsong was formally declared over on touch-down from the team holiday.

They handed the cup to their county board and got back to the business of self-discovery.

And what Galway do next may, ultimately, define them more than how they managed to mine a perfect season from 2017.

That has been Donoghue's message to them as the great carousel groans back into life again, the hurling world bracing itself for a calendar set to ask uniquely different questions.

And Galway, once seen as the masters of whimsy, may be forgiven many things this year, but their manager will not countenance carelessness.

Although some work had been done before the holiday, they resumed collective training on January 10 and, accordingly, Donoghue believes them to be "behind the pack" in fitness terms as this league gets under way.

The trick will, thus, be in playing catch-up whilst still having the sharpness to win games.

To that end, another year in Division 1B will scarcely draw any great lament in the county, given Galway will be expected to win their opening three games - against Antrim, Laois and Offaly - without having to dig beneath the floorboards of their resolve.

Given the peculiar structure of the competition, that would be sufficient to have a quarter-final berth secured before the potentially more quarrelsome games against Dublin and Limerick arrive.

Humility

Donoghue does not say as much, of course, given his understanding that humility is the quality that will stand to Galway best now.

But he has been encouraged by what he's seen so far, reflecting this week: "It's been evident that the players have really knuckled down well again since we came back.

"It's clear they have a realisation of where we are as distinct from where we need to be.

"Yes, it was great winning the All-Ireland, but there's a total understanding and humility now too that we're a bit back (physically) on last year.

"We're behind the pack and our focus for the next six or seven weeks is to play catch-up."

Having possession of the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time in 29 years has undoubtedly changed the mood music around Galway hurling and the hope now is that the standards set in 2017 neither compromise nor soften.

A small batch of new players has been added to last year's group and Donoghue is in full agreement with Tipperary's Michael Ryan that the compressed calendar will explore the depth of county squads like never before.

Ryan's view is that to cope with the new provincial championship schedule particularly (Tipp will play four Munster championship games in four weeks), he expects to involve anything up to 26 players in match-day activity.

Galway's four round-robin games in Leinster will be played between May 12 and June 9, a schedule Donoghue believes will demand intense focus on recovery and squad depth.

"I agree thoroughly with Michael Ryan on that," he explains.

"And it's probably important even that supporters are educated in an understanding of why recovery is so crucial.

"Having games in that quick succession will take a massive toll on bodies. We're going into uncharted waters and, therefore, strength of panel is going to be hugely significant."

As to a league due for completion on March 24, by which time the finalists will have played eight games in nine weeks, Donoghue believes most counties will aim simply to make the quarter-final phase and take their chances from there. For Galway, such a target should be well within their scope.

Indeed, given the last three National league champions have all emerged from 1B, any stigma attached to life in the supposed second tier has, now, disappeared.

In fact, some argue it might even facilitate a gentler pacing of your season.

"I think from the outside you're going to have a lot of people suggesting that," acknowledges Donoghue.

"But I think from every manager's perspective, whatever division you're in, it's just about getting to the latter stages of the league as close as you can to championship.

"It worked well for us last year, even though we had the disappointment of staying in 1B again. Look, we still expect the games to be mightily competitive for us."

From a multiple of memorable snapshots taken during Galway's All-Ireland homecoming, the most iconic was probably Donoghue's embrace with his own father, Miko, in Ballinalsoe.

Miko Donoghue would have driven the winning Galway teams of '80, '87 and '88 across the Shannon and, though in poor health now, his obvious emotion communicated the essence of what sport can do for the human spirit.

Micheál has spoken too of a visit to Galway Hospice with Joe Canning on the Thursday after their final defeat of Waterford that brought home to both just how deeply the achievement had registered with their people.

Yet, the memory of Salthill on February 19 and a wounding league defeat to Wexford remains every bit as vivid too. Donoghue was the recipient of some pretty toxic abuse in phone calls and letters afterwards, admitting in a Galway Bay FM interview recently that people would "be very surprised from who".

Silverware

As it happens, the Wexford defeat would be Galway's only loss of a season that brought them league, Leinster and All-Ireland silverware.

So perspective is easily accessed now from their new perch at the top of the mountain.

As Donoghue puts it, "Look, I think you have to ask yourself why are you doing this or who are you doing it for?

"And the reality is the people you are doing it for are the people that are going to be there with you on the good days and the bad days.

"That's what makes those good days so special, getting to share them with those people."

He has consistently spoken of a need for this Galway story to be player-driven, a requirement that becomes even more compelling now that they, essentially, have a target on their foreheads.

"We're no different to any other team in terms of having our standards and what's expected," Donoghue explains.

"And the players have to drive it because, once we're all on the same page, we have a chance. We put huge emphasis and focus on that, the fact that once they cross the white line it is their team.

"They've shown huge leadership and taken great ownership of it. The way they drove it for us was a massive factor last year.

"So, this year, we're going to try to be the same. We're not going to go away from what got us here. The standards that we set... that's the big challenge for us now. How can we improve?

"How can we get a bit more out of every single one?"

What is abundantly clear from Donoghue's tone is a desire for this group to seek even more from within themselves in 2018. And for that desire to be replicated in the supporting structures around them.

"People have to ask themselves are they just content with that?" he told Galway Bay FM. "Because we're not!"

Galway finally get to play two Leinster championship matches at home this year (Kilkenny on May 26; Dublin on June 9), and are considered a rather penal 8/11 by the bookies to retain their provincial crown, not to mention finding themselves lumbered with a 9/4 favourites' tag to win the All-Ireland again.

And, if the natural hope is for last year's glory to have liberated the group psychologically, Donoghue remains wary of looking beyond anything but the immediate challenge.

"Not at any stage in any conversation are we going to be talking about defending an All-Ireland," he stresses.

"Honestly, we're not looking beyond the league and our first few games. Winning the league was a big thing for us last year because it was a first national title for some of the lads.

"And at that stage it was just clicking for us. We got to the stage where we had momentum, winning was becoming a habit.

"What I do know is that this team answered an awful lot of questions last year and even the year before.

"Just in terms of their progression as a team and where they wanted to go.

"And even though they've gone on and won the All-Ireland now, they're still a hungry group, they've still huge desire.

"They're not getting carried away. But I suppose the biggest advantage is knowing you can win tight games, like the semi-final against Tipp or the final against Waterford, which went to the death as well.

Solace

"They have to draw huge solace from the fact they've won big games like those in tight situations. And I suppose that was always the question-mark against them.

""I'm sure even at half-time in the All-Ireland final, you'd still have had pundits and journalists and supporters alike thinking, 'Galway were here before, what's going to be different this time?' I think it came down in the end to the character that the boys themselves had built up.

"And now that they've won it, our big hope is that they can build on that again."

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