Fired up to find missing spark
Having lost their way last year, Galway have job on their hands to revisit highs of 2012
GALWAY hurlers reappear at Tullamore today with their exasperation account overdrawn and their morale indeterminately bruised. There is a conspicuous lack of the fanfare and buoyancy of this time a year ago. Two selectors who Anthony Cunningham soldiered with over the last two years, and previously while managing the county under-21s, have been let go. Short of the manager himself stepping down, the changes could not have been more radical.
Those cuts were delivered in piecemeal manner; instead of one messy day at the dentist you had intermittent extractions. Last October, Mattie Kenny departed and, in a surprise move, Tom Helebert followed in November. Eugene Cloonan and Damian Curley have come in as replacements, a clear-out that is being interpreted as Cunningham assuming a more assertive role.
"Too many chiefs, not enough indians," as one local observer put it of the previous arrangement. "As one fella says, if Anthony talks for five minutes, Tom will talk for ten and Mattie for 20."
Kenny and Helebert, while working in the best interests of Galway hurling, are not demure personalities. Cloonan has a long playing career as a leading forward with club and county but in coaching terms he is relatively inexperienced. By nature he is reserved. Curley won an All-Ireland club medal with Kiltormer in 1992 and represented Galway at different levels. He is a GAA officer at GMIT. If the lines of demarcation within the management structure became blurred over the last two years, that is less likely to be a factor now.
Cunningham may quite reasonably justify reform because familiarity can have a dulling effect on the senses and a team needs fresh impetus. The previous trio had worked together over two separate regimes and introduced a fleet of hurlers from their under 21 teams into the senior squad. Hurlers had been listening to the same soundtracks for long enough, Cunningham may have reasoned, and the flatness of Galway's hurling in 2013 demanded that something needed to be done to relocate that spark.
Joe Canning (pictured) has been given the captaincy and some might worry that it is an added burden. Does he really need the badge as well? It is a measure of Galway's regression that after Joe it would be hard to find captain material with few offering convincing tenders for the role after 2013. It would certainly be a challenge to find one Galway player whose performance improved last year on 2012. Or even stayed the same. And why was that? It is arguable if Cunningham even knows the answer. It is doubtful there was a single answer.
There is the view that they were overworked or that they relaxed. There is the view that there was a confusion of roles and Cunningham over-delegated. But the impression being given from within is that there were no outward signs of slackness in preparation and no sign of burnout. What they saw was indisputable however: a lack of evenness in performance within each game. They developed a demoralising habit of starting slowly, recovering for a spell and quickly 'correcting' that lapse by finishing poorly. Even the opening National League win over Kilkenny had those fitful patterns. They looked breathtakingly good in bursts and then casually switched off. They won the match living dangerously but then went to Clare and lost a game they felt they should have won.
There is a new strength and conditioning man in place this season who it is said has got a positive response from the players. That is the third change of strength and conditioning coach since Cunningham took charge. And there is a team psychologist which is a new development. One can think of few more needy causes. During the last two years every effort was made to harden the team mentally, to ensure they did not crack when the heat increased. But the intensity which was a feature of their performances in 2012 just simply wasn't there.
They will launch their league campaign in a month at home to Dublin, a repeat of the Leinster final which revealed how much the pendulum can swing. Dublin will seek to demonstrate that they are now the genuine article. The frustration articulated by Danny Sutcliffe is sweet music for Anthony Daly's ear. Last year, Sutcliffe has said repeatedly, was a disappointment. What, pray tell, does that make Galway's?
Not forgetting 1961, you could argue that 2012 was Dublin's most satisfying championship since they won the All-Ireland in 1938. Unlike way back then this was mostly home-grown. They have moved from a time when, in 2009, it was about keeping it respectable against Kilkenny and hoping to win, to now where they believe they will win. They may not always win but they believe they will, or at least they believe they should.
And what of Galway? Dublin have not been carrying the same psychosis for 20-odd years. Ten years ago, when Galway won the league and were then destroyed in the championship in a classic reversal of fortune, Dublin were easy pickings -- Kilkenny demolished them in the qualifiers. They have been inconsistent since Daly took charge, year on year, but don't shoulder the long streak of baggage which has become almost a condition of Galway's hurling existence.
At some level, it seems the increased expectation induced by 2012 became a negative. Last year the league ended with a semi-final defeat to Kilkenny and when they played Laois in the Leinster semi-final, after a break for club activity, their hurling hadn't come back. By then there were confidence issues and doubts creeping in. Teams they played, too, were more up for it, given Galway's raised profile. That also counts for something.
Canning became a focus of attention for being played in withdrawn positions rather than closer to goal. With a player of his gifts it is hard to restrain him to a position where he might not see enough of the ball to exert the level of influence of which he is capable. But ask any defence where they would like to see Joe Canning and none will say full-forward. The further from goal the less of a threat he is, and the less of a game-changer. Galway's management team may feel that it was those around him who failed to make the best of his creative presence at centre-forward.
But hurling, as is often said, is a simple game in essence. Canning needs to be played near goal. Half-forwards don't have a complicated task; they shift the ball on and curtail the half-back line. Canning's job is to be curtailed, not to curtail.
And yet that can't explain their ineptitude in 2013, though -- granted -- the over-reliance on Canning remains. They worked just as hard. There were no flare-ups of any consequences in training or schisms that might offer a pointer.
"It is to do with where fellas for the last 20-odd years don't always understand what is necessary to be successful," says one source within the fold. "You don't rest on your laurels; you approach next Sunday as if it is the most important day of your life. We have a great historical record underage, but too easy a record; it is not giving us the core values needed to win."
Galway, having opted for a deeper defensive system in 2012, decided to be more adventurous and brave in 2013. That left more gaps but that approach could hardly be criticised. It was a natural progression. But slow starts condemned them. It happened in Thurles against Clare. It was there against Dublin in the Leinster final. They left themselves a mountain to climb. They lunged about in games with an air of desperation.
The more their form eluded them the more their confidence drained and their anxiety increased. All counties have had this. Galway have it more than most. It would make perfect sense if they were to bounce back this year and leave a mark on what is one of the most open hurling championships in memory.
The laissez-faire attitude Galway brought to the field in 2012, thundering into matches and not giving a damn about reputation or natural order, was missing in 2013 to such an extent that even for Galway, you had to shake your head in wonder. By the time they got to Thurles to play Clare in the quarter-finals, they had started to make sweeping changes, and weren't sure what to expect. They wanted hard work as a fundamental but even that wasn't guaranteed.
By then the team had no real structure or stability where you could say a solid core of players knew their roles and were playing consistently well. They were hurling from memory and not terribly well. The St Thomas campaign may have had some say in the form of those players involved, inflicting a long seasons on them. Ultimately, there was a serious absence of leadership on the field. Where were the men?
One view, which may have some value, is that they were trying too hard last year and the obsessiveness proved a detriment. They certainly looked that way on the field, the lightness and spontaneity was missing. The loss of Niall Donohue is also a consideration, though for this year rather than last, having been a valued member of the set-up over the last two years. How will the players respond?
But there are a lot of good hurlers to choose from and a lot of good hurlers who have not been playing anything like good hurlers. They didn't become that good without a semblance of pride and drive. That can be retrieved. There could be a sting in the Galway tail come summer even if the league does its best to conceal it.