Tuesday 20 February 2018

Cunningham – is he playing a nerveless game of poker or are Galway about to repeat old sins?

The only absolute certainty for the Tribesmen is that Joe Canning remains the focal point in their quest for All-Ireland deliverance, writes Vincent Hogan

Galway manager Anthony Cunningham
Galway manager Anthony Cunningham
Joe Canning
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Four days after last year's All-Ireland hurling final replay, Galway were handed the terms and conditions of redemption. The draw for the 2013 championship cleared all mines from their pathway into another Leinster final, providing instant clarity for Anthony Cunningham towards managing that notoriously difficult condition of 'second season syndrome'.

Galway needed to be right for July 7 and it would be entirely up to Cunningham how they ratcheted their energies while getting there.

The bookies now consider them a 1/50 banker against Laois, which is another way of saying that unless the sun falls out of the sky over Portlaoise tomorrow, Galway will reach the provincial final.

So, the thermostat is, presumably, set to have the reigning Leinster champions at peak temperature for an assignment against Kilkenny, Dublin or Wexford three weeks from now. Galway caught fire on the corresponding day last summer and Cunningham will, clearly, be hoping for a reprise.

Ostensibly, any structural work to be done since autumn should have been minimal. For, while Galway lost that replay by 11 points in the end, they were undone by a ruinous compendium of incidents between the 44th and 48th minutes that gave Kilkenny clear momentum they had been unable to wrestle for themselves.

First, Cyril Donnellan had a goal disallowed, the referee having already blown for a foul on Damien Hayes. Second, Joe Canning's shot rebounded off the butt of an upright when a Galway goal would have drawn them level. Third, Cillian Buckley availed of the subsequent clearance to put Kilkenny four points clear only for, fourth, Donnellan to be then sent off for swinging back at JJ Delaney.

In precisely four minutes and 18 seconds, the personality of a riveting contest changed utterly.

Cunningham remarked afterwards that the All-Ireland final was "something we want to get back to" and, with just two serious championship games standing between them and the fulfilment of that wish, there ought to be a high level of confidence in the county today, right?

Wrong.

If anything, faith has been usurped by apprehension in Galway. A nondescript league campaign petered out with insipid defeat to Kilkenny in the semi-final and little certainty is ever garnered from the circuit of 'friendlies' that prefaces summer action.

So, the pessimistic view is that Galway may now have far more questions hanging over them than they did on the evening King Henry won his ninth Celtic Cross.

The optimistic view, however, is that Cunningham is simply following the template of Donegal's Jim McGuinness in disregarding all bar championship business this year.

Galway are notorious chameleons on this stage and they will certainly have cause to be wary of the cliche decreeing them routinely flaky the year after an All-Ireland final appearance becoming some kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

The sins of '02 and '06 (beaten quarter-finalists to Clare and Kilkenny respectively) shouldn't logically bear any relevance to a side that went toe-to-toe with Brian Cody's side three times in last year's championship without ever looking out of their depth.

In fact, of all Kilkenny's modern-day opponents, Galway have come to represent the most notoriously unpredictable (and accordingly uncomfortable) foes.

It was as late as the Friday night before last year's replay that Cody decided they were finished with being spooked by Cunningham and his men. Kilkenny's entire build-up to the drawn game had been shaped by their meltdown in the Leinster final, a remarkable spectacle in which Galway dominated the opening half-hour to lead by a scarcely credible 2-11 to 0-1.

For the All-Ireland final replay, Cody decreed that Kilkenny's backs should hold their positions rather than re-engage in the kind of specific man-marking ploy that corrupted their structure in the drawn game.

That he found himself, albeit temporarily, pre-occupied with containing Galway tells us much of how wary Kilkenny have become of the maroon shirt.

LITTLE

Yet, the nine months since have brought another league title to Kilkenny (even without the assistance of Cody, Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and TJ Reid) as well as the addition of two newcomers – Eoin Murphy and Lester Ryan – to their starting 15. Galway, by comparison, appear to have discovered little if anything new about themselves.

They did beat Kilkenny in their opening league tie at Pearse Stadium, after which Cunningham declared the competition to be "about finding players". But who have they found?

Davy Glennon started all six league games and looks to have earned the right to be a championship starter in attack. But of nine players who were ever-present in the league, only three (Fergal Moore, Kevin Hynes and Iarla Tannian) always played in the same position.

Of these, Hynes suffered badly at full-back against Richie Hogan in last year's replay and did so again in April's league semi-final. This has prompted obvious questions as to why Shane Kavanagh, omitted from last year's squad, was not granted a single minute of action in the league.

Kavanagh has been full-back in Galway's more recent challenge games while Joe Cooney has featured at six, having played there for the opening three league outings before being switched to midfield and attack.

Last year's centre-back, Tony Og Regan, featured only as a blood sub against Clare, Galway's selectors seemingly convinced that he would not be the man for 2013.

Hence the intriguing puzzle confronting Cunningham now. Having known Galway had an accommodating run to this year's Leinster final, one would have thought he would have used the league to tie down the central spine of his team. This hasn't happened.

Indeed, within the county this week, few could confidently predict who would wear the numbers 3, 6, 8, 9 and 11 tomorrow.

The notion that Galway 'passed' on the league scarcely seems credible. They were competitive in all their games (bar a Salthill hiding by Tipperary) up to the semi-final and, indeed, Cunningham was seen remonstrating furiously with referee Diarmuid Kirwan approaching half-time of that defeat by Kilkenny.

It is possible that the sight of their captain, Moore, being stretchered off early in that game had an unsettling effect on the team, but it should be noted that the closing seven-point margin greatly flattered Galway. After all, two of Colm Callanan's stops are sure to survive to September as live contenders for save of the season.

Canning did not register a score from play in that game and a suspicion remains that if he is not firing on all cylinders, Galway become profoundly diminished as a team.

Canning did look sharp in a rather feisty challenge against Tipp in Cloughjordan recently, Galway rallying from an eight-point half-time deficit to earn a draw. Indeed, it would have been a victory, but for a breathtaking Brendan Cummins double-save in the dying seconds from Conor Cooney (who scored four first-half points) and Hayes.

They also beat a depleted Cork team in Mallow without Canning's assistance and recent club matches have hinted at a timely return to form for men like Tannian and David Burke.

But a raft of questions remain. Did Galway waste the league? Can they rediscover last year's intensity despite not showing even a glimpse of it in nine months? Will they reprise the structure of 2012 with Hayes operating as a supplementary midfielder? If they do, can they chase a game should the opposition build a lead? Do they have the mental ruthlessness that is such a constant with Kilkenny?

Hayes spoke candidly this week of the "big regret" Galway took from forsaking what looked a dominant position in last year's drawn All-Ireland final. It is an emotion that Cunningham cannot but have wrestled with himself through winter, given the narrative of the replay. For Galway patently erred in gambling on the fitness of goalkeeper James Skehill, who dislocated a shoulder in training the previous Friday. And they seemed disarmed then by Cody's positioning of big Walter Walsh on a hitherto rampant Johnny Coen.

That said, they were essentially undone by just over four minutes of relentlessly concussive blows on September 30.

Galway produced some extraordinary hurling last year (not least that half hour of Leinster final mastery), but it did take a replayed league relegation play-off against Dublin in late April to uncork it. Perhaps Cunningham has simply altered the co-ordinates of their preparation to allow them peak even later this season.

If so, he is playing a nerveless game of poker here. If not, Galway are about to repeat old sins.

For them, the thrill and the worry will forever be entwined.

Irish Independent

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