Tuesday 12 December 2017

Galway need to trust their gut instincts

Anthony Cunningham's men have been too flat to be true this year but maybe the worst is behind them, says Dermot Crowe

Anthony Cunningham's darkest hour may already have passed
Anthony Cunningham's darkest hour may already have passed

Dermot Crowe

LATE on Friday evening came word of Galway's hurling team to play Clare, showing six changes, surpassing forecasts of a price to be paid for the selection outplayed and outfought in the Leinster final. The expectation in the county is that they will produce the performance they failed to deliver so spectacularly against Dublin. The consequences otherwise are too dreadful to contemplate.

There is a lurking fear that maybe the team is irredeemably flat and that all the will in the world and the changes won't alter their line of form. Mostly, though, they are optimistic that they can find it within themselves to atone for surrendering their Leinster title so feebly.

The surprise inclusion, at least to the outside world, is Jason Grealish, the Gort player and product of Anthony Cunningham's successful under 21 side that won the All-Ireland two years ago. A Galway follower, a devoted apostle who would include the interprovincials on his annual pilgrimage, admitted only having seen Grealish sparingly, but stated: "He won't be pulling back from anything".

It is no surprise that a player displaying those bullpen instincts would appeal to a management surely dumbstruck by the poverty of the performance against Dublin. Sure, they were not let hurl and they were nowhere near Dublin in terms of match fitness or technique – even Joe Canning, heroic as he was, collected a fair bag of wides. But the complete annihilation of their midfield and half-forward line and the absence of support for Canning's efforts were enough to make one wonder is it going to happen at all for Galway this year. Are they simply not going to find that lift?

They have the hurlers but have they the men? Back to last September and a small but instructive passage. At one point Galway puck-outs were being devoured by Brian Hogan and Kieran Joyce which, lest you are a conspiracist on the scale of Jim Corr, was not the intention of the exercise. But the pattern continued, undaunted by a nil return on the investment, bringing to mind for one agitated Galway observer – not the aforementioned – the essence of insanity being where you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

This puck-out strategy was no doubt worked out carefully in advance and in principle it made sense to avoid JJ Delaney on the other wing. Even with Canning planted there, avoidance was a wise and pragmatic nod to JJ's talent in the air. But still. Was it not worth one or two tries when the other avenues were impassable?

The point being that it is all very well having a game plan so long as you understand that no match goes entirely according to plan. Players have to think on the hoof. There must be licence to do what's instinctive even if it goes counter to the script. Players need to be trusted to make decisions and they need to be big enough to make those calls themselves. Which brings us to leadership and personal growth and an area where Galway again find themselves wondering if they have enough of those kinds of characters wearing maroon at the moment.

They have Canning, of course, but it was depressing to see the Leinster final reaffirm an unhealthy reliance on him that brought Galway back a few years rather than driving them the yards forward that they need to bound if they are to end that All-Ireland drought going back to 1988.

Galway observer number two, above, also declared himself less distraught when he watched the Leinster final back afterwards than he had been in Croke Park while it was unfolding. He looked for positives and found more than he dared to hope for. The fact that in spite of everything, and helped by some substitutions, they could have come to within a goal of Dublin but for the save from Canning's late goal effort. And how could so many of them be so bad again.

The team that will play today will also see a new-look defence and it is likely Kevin Hynes is going to be relieved of full-back, with Niall Donoghue not making it as anticipated by many, and Shane Kavanagh the main fancy. There are changes throughout the team, starting in goal, and a sense that these are for the better.

There is also a feeling out there that the team has over-trained and that they needed more of a break from hurling after the local championships had ended last year. A meeting among the players after the Dublin defeat, held the next day, and immediately followed by an engagement with the management, was as frank as was to be expected, with some quibbles about preparation expressed, one allegedly being in relation to excessive stoppages spoiling fluency in training.

But the players themselves must have understood that a great deal of the room for improvement was in their own hands. In the background the management tried unsuccessfully, before and after Dublin, to have club championship games postponed. This would, the board appeared to have argued, create consternation among clubs at large and they held their ground. There was also a suggestion that the management had some input to the formation of a schedule of club matches at the start of the year. It had given its consent and had no right to start meddling now. There was some brouhaha over St Thomas players ignoring a request not to play a seven-a-side and it being the club of the manager creating a potential for poor optics when they were not punished as all had been warned were they to partake.

But all of this is overridden by other factors that may have weighed on mind and limb. The 'handy' draw in Leinster. The expectation, until a week before their Leinster final with Dublin, that they would be playing Kilkenny. A comfortable win sometime before that in a challenge against Dublin in Tullamore and the big win over Dublin in the replayed relegation game the previous year being still in the memory.

The fact that it is Clare at this juncture is welcome, a side they will not beat by 17 points like they did two years ago when coming off another poor showing against Dublin in the championship, though not as poor as this year's. But it is a Clare team in development. The team they face is not notably physical or greatly schooled in terms of experience of days like this. They have enormous potential but Galway know only too well about potential and how far it takes you.

And for all that a win here and they are a game away from where they left off last year, with Limerick awaiting. The darkest hour, unbeknownst to them, may have already passed.

Sunday Independent

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