Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tribesmen on double mission to land of hope

Galway hurlers and footballers facing crucial assignments

Galway football manager Kevin Walsh and Gareth Bradshaw celebrate last year’s Connacht SFC final success – the pair will hope to be celebrating promotion to Division 1 after Sunday’s game against Kildarenone. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway football manager Kevin Walsh and Gareth Bradshaw celebrate last year’s Connacht SFC final success – the pair will hope to be celebrating promotion to Division 1 after Sunday’s game against Kildarenone. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It may be relatively early in the season but next weekend could be hugely significant in shaping Galway's year in both football and hurling.

The county is buzzing with anticipation ahead of the double-header in Pearse Stadium on Sunday, when the footballers bid to win promotion to Division 1 and the hurlers chase a place in the Allianz League semi-final.

Donoghue: “If you took Colm Callanan out of that team, the average age is only 23.” Picture credit: Ray Ryan / Sportsfile
Donoghue: “If you took Colm Callanan out of that team, the average age is only 23.” Picture credit: Ray Ryan / Sportsfile

The hurlers have missed their first target for 2017, losing out to Wexford for the promotion slot from Division 1B, but are moving on with the even bigger ambition of winning the title outright for the first time since 2010.

Having spent six seasons in Division 2, the footballers will be promoted if they win or draw against Kildare. If they lose and Meath beat Clare, the Royals will be promoted on the head-to-head rule, having beaten Galway by a point in Round 4.

That would be a major setback for Galway at a time when hopes are growing in the county that Kevin Walsh's squad are advancing at a pace that will sustain them at the highest level.

Beating Mayo in last year's Connacht semi-final gave Galway a taste of a world they had not experienced for a long time but whether it was a one-off nibble or the start of a new era out west remains to be seen.

The defeat by Wexford in Round 2 wrecked Galway hurlers' chances of returning to 1A at the first attempt, which makes it all the more important for them to advance in the knock-out stages.

Walsh's way forward

"In two months' time there will be one team standing and everyone else will have had setbacks. We'll assess the year as it was, rather than on one match," said Kevin Walsh after Galway's defeat by Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

It was an admirably philosophical attitude after watching his side squander much of the confidence capital they had acquired by winning the Connacht title for the first time in eight years.

The nine-point defeat by Tipp left most Galway supporters on a different wavelength to Walsh, fearing that the wins over Mayo and Roscommon could no longer be taken at face value.

Mixed messages from Galway's campaign made it imperative that they started 2017 in a progressive manner.

Promotion from Division 2 became very important, a process which they can complete on Sunday. The fates appear to be on their side too as Kildare are guaranteed promotion, leaving them with much less incentive than would normally be the case.

"We're looking upwards, but we're not there yet," said Walsh after Galway's win over Down last Sunday.

He has to play the cautious card but the reality is that if his side loses to a Kildare team which, effectively, has nothing to play for, it could do irreparable damage to Galway's Championship prospects.

The chances are that it won't happen and that Galway will secure promotion, prior to re-engaging with Kildare in the final in Croke Park on Sunday week. That game may well be a whole lot more instructive for both sides about the summer ahead.

The most worrying issue for Galway after last year's defeat by Tipp was the looseness of the defence, both individually and collectively. They were hit for 3-13 and could well have conceded even more on a day when their opponents made progress on all approach routes.

There are defensive concerns for Galway this year too. Derry returned 2-15 while Meath and Down scored 1-13 each in Galway's last three games.

Galway lost to Meath by a point but scored a total of 8-30 against Derry and Down, which more than compensated for the leaky defence. It's a problem that probably won't stop them getting out of Division 2 but it will need to be addressed if they are to build a serious Championship campaign.

Donoghue's determined drive

"If you took Colm Callanan out of that team, the average age is only 23," said manager Micheál Donoghue (pictured) after Galway's one-point defeat by Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

The message was clear: the best is yet to come from this group. It's a view that has emerged from Galway over many years with different panels but none have ended the ever-increasing wait for an All-Ireland title.

This Sunday's encounter with Waterford won't define Galway's year but it will be instructive.

Waterford and Clare won the League title from 1B over the last two years so it has been established that playing in the second six in the group stages is not a drawback for good teams.

With the possible exception of Cork, Galway's need to win the League is the greatest of all. For, while it won't guarantee anything in the Championship, a bit of silverware in the trophy cabinet would certainly be important in building confidence levels.

The draw has been good to them, bringing Waterford to Pearse Stadium, with Limerick or Cork awaiting the winners in the semi-final.

It's an opportunity that Donoghue's charges really cannot afford to pass up, even if they do have a poor record against Waterford.

Galway have won one, drawn one and lost five of their last seven League clashes with Waterford, who, remarkably, they have never beaten in the Championship.

They need to make a statement on Sunday, not just for Déise consumption but for the broader hurling community too, where doubts still abound about their capacity to put a string of winning performances together.

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