Galway's radical reconstruction
On the evening of their nine-point defeat to Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup final in February, a host of irate Galway callers caused a strop on Galway Bay FM about the nature of another poor performance.
It seemed almost immaterial that Kilkenny featured 14 players who played in last year's All-Ireland final, while Galway used nine players who didn't see any championship action last season, seven of whom are U-21 again this year.
The reaction was another vivid illustration of how the Galway hurling public continue to drive themselves mad. In their minds, and that of the general public, Galway are considered All-Ireland contenders every year, purely on the basis that they've been gobbling up All-Ireland underage titles for the last two decades.
They won minor and U-21 All-Irelands last season, but why should that get them excited? They bagged All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles too in 2005 -- the same year they reached an All-Ireland senior final -- and they haven't made it past an All-Ireland quarter-final since.
In any case, the penny finally seems to have dropped. After Kilkenny torpedoed Galway by 25 points in the league in April, there wasn't anything like the same outcry which a defeat like that in the past would have sparked.
Gradually, expectation levels have changed within the county. Anthony Cunningham also realised as much when he took over last November. Ever since, Cunningham and his management team have been seeking to address Galway hurling on a macro level.
He is of the same mind as those which set up the Galway Development Plan two years ago, which comprises roughly 160 players from U-16, minor and U-21 level, plus a senior Development squad. The priority is to maintain a strong coaching link between minor, U-21 and senior teams and develop Galway's own unique brand of hurling.
Over the years, Galway were the one county that desperately needed a Development squad, especially with their rich conveyor belt of underage talent. It's a point Cunningham readily identified in his annual report to the hurling board last year, with the focus on players between the 22-25 age bracket. In effect, this year's Intermediate squad will now largely be formed from a Development squad of players in that age-group.
The inclusiveness of the Development Plan will also help stem the flow of talented players which Galway have haemorrhaged over the last two decades.
Remaining on as U-21 manager will also enable Cunningham to establish the template of having players playing to the same style and system, which would naturally facilitate the transition to senior. That was even more paramount, given the oscillation of the senior team's hurling style and the absence of a clearly defined game plan throughout last year. Already this season, there has been greater emphasis on moving the ball far more quickly in the middle third and feeding the full-forward line as early as possible.
When that system is fitted with pace and intelligent creation of space in the full-forward line, it's akin to the style which drove Portumna and Clarinbridge to recent All-Ireland club titles. They have also adopted the Kilkenny attitude of going for the jugular early with goals.
This is also a different team from last year in terms of personnel. Galway's meltdown against Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final once more asked serious questions of the squad's emotional state and former manager Mattie Murphy called for a "total clear-out" in the aftermath.
The average age of the team was just above 23, but the accumulation of negative experiences was a significant factor in management's subsequent culling. One third of the side which started against Waterford -- Shane Kavanagh, Donal Barry, Adrian Cullinane, Ger Farragher and Joe Gantley -- were dropped. John Lee, Colm Callanan and last year's captain, Damien Joyce were also discarded.
Despite the influx of so many of last year's successful U-21 squad, the main concern was that the big names on that team -- David Burke, James Regan, Barry Daly and Johnny Coen -- all played senior championship last summer, while Ger O'Halloran got a sustained run in the league.
Although Galway beat Dublin in the All-Ireland U-21 final by 10 points, that team wasn't rated nearly as highly in Galway as some of sides which had gone before them.
Still, there were quality players on that team and Cunningham and his management have shown their trust in them. Niall Burke exploded in this year's league, registering a tally of 1-46 (1-16 from play). Conor Cooney is another player who flourished. He has been the top scorer to date in this year's Galway club championship with a tally of 2-34 from four games.
Overall, the reconstruction has been radical. Galway used 33 players during the league. Fifteen of last year's U-21 squad got game time during the spring, while 12 have now played senior championship, along with two of last year's minors.
Yet management haven't just transplanted young players into the team en masse, as happened so often in the past. They have also been intelligent in how they have gone about introducing them.
Niall Donoghue is an ideal case study. He was outstanding for the U-21s at full-back last year, but he lined out at wing-back during most of the league, while he played corner-back against Westmeath and Offaly.
At face value, Donoghue appears to be their best option now in a troublesome position, but management obviously don't feel he is ready yet for full-back at this level.
They are also protecting Donoghue by not over-exposing him too early. In Galway, there has been a history of good young players suffering long-term damage from a bad experience, or poor performance, in a big game. Negative perceptions, which have subsequently taken hold of a player on the back of a poor performance, have consigned too many of them to the scrap heap.
Management have worked hard on developing a mental toughness, while they have also focussed on winning aerial possession and breaking ball, which has been a key issue in recent years. Against Offaly, it was obvious that Galway were intentionally knocking a lot of ball down and looking to win it on the deck. That is sure to frame a significant part of their game plan on Sunday.
The restructuring of the local club championship, with early knockout games, has made players more battle-hardened and mentally tuned coming into this year's championship.
Cunningham has also prioritised fitness and conditioning, because last year proved that Galway were light years behind Kilkenny, Tipperary, Dublin and Waterford in those categories. The physical shape of certain players this season highlights the improvement.
This Galway team is still highly ambitious, but they head into Sunday's Leinster final with limited expectation from their public. Talk of winning an All-Ireland has also been shelved.
Their short-term goals are to reach the level set by the chasing pack in recent years before they can begin planning to take on Tipperary and Kilkenny. "It is going to take time," said Cunningham back in February. "So we have to be patient."
After a 24-year wait, those words were not what the Galway hurling public wanted to hear at that time. But it seems now that they have finally accepted them.