Friday 20 April 2018

Tribes' silent assassins must prove their toughness on big stage

Galway players during the national anthem. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Galway players during the national anthem. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The singing from Galway hurlers' hymn sheet could not be more in tune if they stayed back every night after training for practice.

"What happened happened. We've moved on. It's all about the future."

That has been the standard response from any player who deigned to be interviewed since the turbulent weeks after last year's All-Ireland final when a majority of the panel forced Anthony Cunningham to resign as manager.

It was a harsh, brutal process, carrying a clear message that, if Cunningham stayed on, he would be on his own in the dressing-room while the players unfurled their 'Strike on here' banners.

The vilification of a man who had steered Galway to three All-Ireland finals (one replay) in four seasons was conducted ruthlessly, combining silence in public with a skilfully managed leaks to those members of the media who were prepared to present a one-sided version of events as fact.

It certainly wasn't subtle but even with all its transparent clumsiness the players couldn't lose, certainly in terms of getting their own way.

A group always has the power to isolate an individual, especially in the GAA where players are not contracted and can stop playing at any time without repercussions.

The failure by the players to publicly explain - even in the broadest outline - why they wanted Cunningham out left a vacuum which was filled by hearsay and gossip.

Read more: Too often Tribesmen fall short when it comes to the crunch

Underlining it all was an unambiguous ultimatum: either he goes or we go. There would be no clarification and no compromise.

Cunningham went, Micheál Donoghue replaced him and the show moved on.

Rather haphazardly, it must be said, during an Allianz League season which ended with a negative as Galway were relegated for the first time in many years after winning only one of six games.

The victory came against a Cork team that everyone else in 1A beat too. And when it came to the relegation play-off, Cork whooshed Galway down the chute into 1B.

Still, that was never going to be anything like a defining event for Galway. They had failed the 'mock' exams but who cares, if they take honours in the real tests, the first of which they sit tomorrow?

The silent phase is over. Having said nothing publicly last autumn and filled the last few months with the 'moving on' refrain, the time has come when their actions become their words.

A revolt against the team manager after losing an All-Ireland final strongly suggests that the players blamed him personally for the defeat.

Ten months on, Galway play Kilkenny again, this time under new management, so whatever happens tomorrow, they can't blame Donoghue. He is, after all, only six months in the job.

No, this one is all about the players and the question of whether they can in any way justify their hardline stance last autumn.

They can contend that's an unfair portrayal of the situation and, in a way, it is.

Losing to Kilkenny isn't exactly a rare occurrence for any other county either so irrespective of how well Galway play tomorrow, they could still lose.

Read more: History, form and logic all point to more Galway woe

However, the big difference between now and last September is that if they lose they can't blame the manager. Well certainly not if they are to retain any credibility.

No, defeat tomorrow will leave them with no option but to accept total responsibility themselves.

It's a new, different kind of pressure, which adds to the intrigue surrounding this game.

It may drive Galway to unprecedented heights but there's also a risk that yet another burden may further weigh them down.

They will have tried to ignore the experience in Mayo, their fellow Western rebels, whose first big Championship test since forcing out their management proved well beyond them.

One key element that will come under careful scrutiny tomorrow is whether Galway have corrected a bleeding problem,which has drained the life out of them so often.

Their tendency to concede heavily during down periods repeatedly undermined them during the Cunningham years and before.

The ability to avoid serious damage while not playing well in a particular period of a game is hugely important in any sport but, unfortunately for Galway, they have never been able to sort out that problem.

It happened in last year's All-Ireland final when, after leading by three points at half-time, they lost the second-half to 0-14 to 1-4, with their goal coming from a Joe Canning free in stoppage-time.

Read more: Former Kilkenny ace Rice has 'no regrets' as he adapts to new life without the Cats

So how did a team that hit 0-14 in the first half score a mere four points (one from a free) in normal time in the second half?

It wasn't a one-off fade-out either. Earlier in 2015, Galway lost the second half of a League game to Dublin by 0-13 to 0-5. And then there was the 2014 qualifier against Tipperary when a six-point lead after 50 minutes had turned into a nine-point defeat by the end.

There are at least eight other examples of Galway collapses from promising positions in various games in 2012-14.

That's more than enough to point to a serious fault-line, probably the one that has prevented them from making the All-Ireland breakthrough.

Has it been corrected? The answer will emerge at some stage tomorrow when Kilkenny get into a rhythm. Being out-played for a period is quite normal but that's when real resilience becomes so important as a team digs in and doesn't allow the storm to inflict too much damage before it passes.

Another issue to look out for tomorrow is the level to which Galway take their game when they are going well.

Based on previous seasons after losing All-Ireland finals, the omens are not good.

Runners-up should be obsessively driven for the following year but that has not been the case with Galway, who turned in flat campaigns in 2013', '06, '02, '94 and '91, all seasons after they had been beaten in All-Ireland finals.

Ultimately though, the major test facing Galway is how they cope with the new circumstances brought about by their successful campaign against Cunningham.

Their mantra insists they have 'moved on' but others will be the judge of that.

Besides, only better results can really move them on.

Irish Independent

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