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Vincent Hogan: Air of mystery surrounds champions as they begin title defence


Micheál Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Micheál Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Micheál Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

For Galway hurlers, whatever happens next, it will not be a study in hubris or carelessness.

The ribbons were still on the Cup last September when Micheál Donoghue began talking about abstract stuff like culture and legacy and an obligation to stay humble, self-aware. If you park the modern Kilkenny story for a second, only Cork in 2005 have managed to retain Liam MacCarthy since Galway last had the opportunity.

Donoghue's winter has been spent working that message into minds. That any welcome for new champions quickly turns resentful. Galway go to Tullamore this evening for an exercise some would have you believe will be the equivalent of AK47s shooting tin cans and, psychologically, that sets all manner of potential snares for defending champions.

Offaly may be no superpower, but - under Kevin Martin - it's become clear as day that they'll be nobody's coconut shy either.

That said, seldom have champions arrived into May with a greater sense of mystery. Galway's last meaningful win was against Waterford on September 3 last year and anything seen of them since has had the air of a group purposefully recharging batteries. Limerick pipped them to promotion from Division 1B in the league and Wexford then arm-wrestled them out of a tough quarter-final. Neither defeat registered as an earth tremor.

The team holiday to Cancun and New York meant that Galway returned later to the smithy of collective training than Donoghue (right) would have liked and so a diminution of the league in any table of priorities was unavoidable. It wasn't that they actively chose not to chase another title, rather they came to the table with a compromised hand.

And now?

It's simply impossible to know. The challenge circuit is nowhere near as transparent as it used to be for obvious reasons and, in any event, the provincial championship is now a league and, accordingly, set to demand maybe a more calculated use of resources than ever before. After Offaly, Donoghue's men get a two-week break before facing Kilkenny at home then Wexford away inside seven days.

Then and only then will we have a read on how attentively the champions have been listening to his counsel. But it's less than 15 months since they had a sour and bellicose soundtrack in their ears after losing a 1B league game to Wexford in Salthill, so Galway need no educating on how melodramatic the world around big teams can become. Donoghue himself has had to deal with some blunderbuss punditry too. He knows this to be a domain prone to sweeping judgements.

Yet, the momentum his team found within gave them an, at times, unstoppable aura last year. They had the size, athleticism and hurling to over-ride any opposition tactic or system.

In Offaly's case, that amounted to the deployment of two sweepers, an act not so much of extreme caution as naked resignation. Galway just shot for fun over the sweepers' heads, accumulating 0-33 in a Portlaoise stroll. Tonight, it's fair to assume, Martin will not countenance such defeatism.

Word is that he might withdraw one forward to operate as a third midfielder, yet Offaly will otherwise go after the champions' scalp with everything they can summon. And that may be a good deal more than surface assessment suggests, given how close they ran Kilkenny in the league quarter-final.

But the real intrigue surrounds Galway now.

Donoghue believes he has a kindred spirit in Kevin Walsh who guides the footballers into Castlebar tomorrow and there's little doubt that, if properly nurtured, the possibilities for Galway in both codes seem thrilling.

Asked by this newspaper last month if he is happy that everything is in place to maximise that potential now, his response was: "I think it's different. When I'm in the position that I'm in and wanting what I want or Kevin is wanting what Kevin wants, you know sometimes it's probably more than what you can have. So it's having that compromise.

"We can't stand still. We have to keep moving forward, making sure the players know that we have to keep raising the standards. So it's a whole collective. But, if we all have the same mindsets, we'll get there."

The round-robin structure will demand a sharing of the load for a squad in which new faces like Shane Cooney, Shane Bannon, Brian Concannon, Sean Linnane and Jack Coyne got game-time in the league.

But the big, athletic spine upon which last year's title charge was anchored remains vital to Galway, the obvious worry being an injury to the likes of Dáithí Burke, Gearóid McInerney or Joe Canning. That said, a sharper, fitter Johnny Glynn could solve a few problems too and there is the unmistakable sense here of a serious bunch determined not to be unseated by complacency.

As Canning alluded to this week, Galway are coming to this summer with targets on their foreheads. They understand that.

But they're coming too with a determination not to make old mistakes or fall prey to any idealised notions about their self-worth. As Donoghue put it last month: "If we don't maximise this what good is last year? We just have to ensure that it's not 29 years again."

Take it that the time-scale in his head is a good deal more immediate.

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