IT WAS November 2006 when the Galway hurlers first bunched up at Tubber racecourse, fearful of the hell that lay in store. But this was a new beginning and what Ger Loughnane wanted, he would get.
After three months of plodding on sandy trails, they boasted calves like Olympic sprinters. Two or three lost up to 21lbs in weight, but mostly they just looked gaunt. Still, this was what the new man wanted. Loughnane wasn't there to win friends; he just wanted an All-Ireland title and they believed in him. He stood from a distance that winter and watched them suffer, warning that if they cracked then, they would crack in the championship.
At times the players wondered whether to bring blinkers or hurls to training. One night a squad member swore that he overheard a group of horses, nice and warm in the stables, thanking the heavens they weren't Galway hurlers. Tubber was a testy scrimmage of mirthless intensity. By spring they were glad to be shot of it.
When they hit the playing fields, though, it seemed the torture had been worthwhile. They made minced meat of Antrim and conquered both Limerick and Tipperary in the league, hitting a phenomenal 3-68 in three matches. Prodigal sons like Mark Kerins, Gregory Kennedy, Iarla Tannion and Rory Gantley were back and life was good; the gospel according to Loughnane may not have been everyone's choice, but the team was winning and the players accepted his testament.
Their style changed almost subliminally. After the Tipperary game Babs Keating accused them of thuggery. People were still only getting used to the metric system the last time Galway were accused of that. But, while most of this team were deft ball players, they went along with the new mantra. As we say, they were winning.
Out the door went the old skip-and-hop game-plan; Loughnane cut hand-passing and running up cul-de-sacs, replacing them with first-time hurling. Running with the ball, their trademark, was minimised but some players never quite got to grips with it.
Suddenly their season degenerated, they lost three league games on the trot, to Dublin, Kilkenny and Wexford, conceding 4-42. Loughnane labelled the Dublin defeat a 'massacre' and subsequently dropped a host of players, including experienced goalkeeper Liam Donoghue.
Around then concerns grew over how the team was changing from game to game, while the likes of Rory Gantley, attended every training session and never got a sniff of action, likewise Ger Farragher, an All Star just the year before. Even regulars like team skipper David Collins lost continuity from being tossed around the defence, fire-fighting where needed. Still, it was only the league. Life would surely be less chaotic come the championship.
They walloped Laois (3-20 to 1-14) but then came the defining moment of their season when they lost to Clare, just days after Loughnane had slated the Banner board for their treatment of Tony Considine. Just one minute before the throw-in, he named his team -- until then players hadn't a clue of the first 15.
Several subs walked off the pitch totally disgruntled but for those starting, the gamble backfired. They were totally unsettled. Not surprisingly, ferocious criticism was flung at the management afterwards. The chinks in the armour were obvious and Clare had pierced them.
Loughnane worked on applying balm to the sores; they trounced Antrim and had they beaten Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final, everything else would've been forgotten. But just days before that game, he expressed concerns about Kilkenny's over-zealous defenders. After the game Brian Cody described the comments as "stupidity" and accused him of "talking rubbish". There and then it seemed Loughnane and Galway were doomed.
The only positives from the year were the free-scoring of Alan Kerins and the form of John Lee at centre-back. The fall to Kilkenny was typical of their season; constant modification of team selection, confusion over what team would actually start and a scathing attack on the opposition beforehand.
But it was only Loughnane's first year; to deliver then would have been a fairytale. The heat from the boardroom was stifling, with chairman Mike Ryan branding the campaign as "disastrous" and slating the practice of announcing dummy teams.
Loughnane could have walked away but he took it on the chin. "It's very hard to disagree," he said at the time. "The year was a disappointment for everyone." Maybe then he decided to embrace a transformation. Loughnane decided it was time to tear up the script.
Brendan Lynskey and Michael Murray left the set-up, leaving Loughnane with just Seán Treacy and Louis Mulqueen. Then there was the arrival of 15 U21 players instead of senior players like Cloonan, Gantley, Dave Tierney and Mark Kerins.
Training changed too with far more focus on weights. They are only recently back running, but this time there is no trial by Tubber. "I enjoyed the running at Tubber, but I hadn't too many backers," says last year's captain David Collins.
"This year we're doing a lot more ball-work with the running. Look, it takes time to settle. We heard all this talk of an All-Ireland last year but we realise now that we need to put more work in too. Things have settled down and everyone is that bit calmer. We have to do more work and Ger probably has a better feel for it too; he was away from inter-county hurling for a long time and probably needed to get to know us. The camp is very quiet and the players have responded to that."
Loughnane has disappeared from the media. While his forthright views and personality have always livened up the GAA, he realises that a low-profile can only help Galway.
At the 2007 Allianz league launch, with his charismatic and entertaining personality, he was the centre of attention, but at the 2008 equivalent he wasn't even present. His relationship with his players is now said to be more cordial; some hurlers found him aloof last year but this time around they find him more encouraging.
Ger Farragher's resurgence is an obvious example of the new-found serenity. He couldn't buy game time last year, but this season he's on fire. His return shows Loughnane hasn't fully closed the door on anyone. "If you are in form he will play you," Collins stresses. "The door is never fully closed but if you're not on form you may get one chance and if you don't take it, you'll have to wait a while for another."
With the environment more tranquil, the time looks right for the return of Ollie Canning and the much-heralded arrival of younger brother Joe. They probably won't win an All-Ireland without them. There is some history but Galway hurling is navigating smoother waters these days. Once the club final is played, a welcome will be extended to both brothers who could be enticed by the reports of an unbalanced first season being left behind for a more settled regime.
"I have 100pc confidence in Ger," Collins says, "he's the most genuine man I ever met. If you ask him a question he'll give you an honest answer. There's no bullshit."
There's a new affiliation between the manager and players and Farragher's return is the epitome of that dynamic. "I'm delighted to see Ger Farragher back," Loughnane said after beating Clare. "I told the dressing room that he's an example to them all. He spent all of last year on the sideline and was up in the stand for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny and never came on. He could have walked away or sulked. We spoke to him last October. We told him the talent he had and what he had to work on. He worked so hard over the winter and you see the results."
Naturally, Loughnane must still win the All-Ireland to brand his time out west a success. There is no long term plan; the aim is to win this season. Does he have the material to do it? There are still question marks about Galway's defence, but there's no doubting the quality of player available. Much will depend on the Cannings.
As for the manager, it seems he is heeding his own advice. In one of his old newspaper columns, he wrote: "Managers can talk all they like, write all they like, but players win matches. It is important people remember that." Loughnane can't go back and start a new beginning, but he can still deliver a new ending.