Sport Hurling

Monday 22 January 2018

Losing culture is taking root

Parallel famines in hurling and football have reached crisis levels in Galway, writes John O'Brien

Pete Finnerty wasn't in much of a mood for the races last week. Maybe he'd head down towards the end of the week but the prospect of a day lost in hurling talk warned against it.

Fellas shouldering him at every turn. "What about last Sunday Pete?" "So how do we get ourselves out of this fix, Pete?" The shock and anger of the GAA public undiluted after a week's betting and drinking. This had become the annual Ballybrit ritual: almost as insufferable as the hurling itself.

The head-scratching would have you bald in a week. Wondering why Eanna Ryan, a goalscorer against Tipperary a year ago, was left on the bench. And why the captain Damien Joyce remained idle too while Kevin Hynes and John Lee came on before him. Watching the Brick Walsh late on soloing 50 yards upfield with no Galway player in sight, dropping the ball then picking it up and continuing merrily on his way. He's laughing as he recounts it. But there's no humour there. Merely the blackest comedy he imagines they've ever seen.

He supposes he's another veteran from the past having a cut now, but they're beyond that surely? Beyond a joke. "If I was laying blame right now," Finnerty says, "it'd be at the players' door. You can talk all you like about management or the county board but when they went out in the heat of battle last week there was nothing. No fire. They were a beaten docket with 30 minutes to go. They gave up and that's scandalous."

Yet he would readily concede that Galway's horrific surrender to Waterford last Sunday was symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Galway people spoke about the shock their 10-point defeat had administered, yet the pattern it followed was instantly recognisable. A bad day against Dublin followed by restorative victories against Clare and Cork and, suddenly, they felt like contenders again. How easily they were willing to paper over the cracks.

The truth is Galway's problems are no deep-rooted mystery, requiring Poirot-like powers to unravel. They have been dissected clinically and forensically in both codes for some time now. Notably this summer by the trinity of former hurling greats: Conor Hayes, Noel Lane and Brendan Lynskey. Cyril Farrell occasionally in his newspaper columns. Ray Silke and John Divilly have been persistent critics of Galway's football structures. Yet, if they are being listened to, no urgent response has been apparent.

Over the years Galway hurling and football have both spent time in the doldrums but to be plumbing the depths at precisely the same time seems unprecedented. Old timers will remind you that hurling was at a lower ebb in the 1960s when Galway were repeatedly mauled in Munster and that the early 70s, when the footballers lost three All-Ireland finals, was no joke either. They were at least winning provincial titles and being competitive, though. No one should confuse heartbreak with disillusionment.

Within Galway there has been no kneejerk reaction to link both plights. "They're two different families," reasons Finnerty. "They don't really collide at any stage." But while that division is finely drawn between the hurling south and football north and dual players almost as rare as All-Irelands, it is that division, perhaps, that blinds them to the obvious parallels between the two codes.

Finnerty can readily diagnose the hurling disease. This year he is coach of his home club, Mullagh, but can't see himself involved in 12 months time. "Not a feckin' hope," he says. It isn't because he lacks personal ambition or has fallen out of love with his club, but because of a club structure that, in his eyes, has effectively brought Galway hurling into disrepute.

Mullagh began senior training back in February. The county final, if they don't perish through inactivity in the meantime, will likely take place in November. It is 12 weeks since they played their last championship game. They hope to play their next round on August 27 but there are no guarantees. If the Gal

way minors or under 21s or -- get this -- their intermediates manage to stay alive in their respective championships, then the games will likely be put back to September. Such is the prevailing lunacy.

"How can you keep fellas going for 11 months if you can't get them games?" Finnerty asks. "We have a system where three teams qualify from groups of five. Win one game and you qualify for the quarter-final. A while back it was four out of five but they changed it to three. The championship doesn't start until September or October. So we're really doing our pre-season training now. In July! That's a joke."

A few years ago Finnerty remembers standing in a room listening to Brian Cody explain how there were no conflicts within the various strands of Kilkenny hurling. "No us and them," Cody said. "No us and the club. No us and the county board." Everybody was pulling together for the good of hurling as a whole. How they could manage it while chaos prevailed in Galway was a lesson no one seemed willing to absorb.

Galway have a fine history of producing great club teams, but recent trends suggest caution. Last November, Clarinbridge beat Loughrea in the county final and, intriguingly, neither side had numbered a county player between them at the time. And that, perhaps, was an advantage they exploited. "I'm not knocking them," says Finnerty, "but it probably helped that they didn't have that distraction. They were able to prepare better than other teams."

This isn't just a hurling issue. Finnerty bumped into a Corofin player on the golf course a while back and heard him complain bitterly that they had played one championship game in nine months. They spoke too about Craughwell winning the under 14 Féile football title this year with Clarinbridge a close second. What was the story here? Hurling clubs making admirable progress in an unfamiliar code or traditional football powers taking a step backwards. Hard to be certain either way.

What seems clear is that Galway is beset by a losing culture that is endemic and too easily accepted. "People will be down my throat now," Conor Hayes anticipated when he voiced some strident opinions in the Irish Independent last month but, strangely, that's not exactly how it transpired. "A lot of the time people didn't really react at all," Hayes reflects now. "Maybe they figured we were pretty much correct or they were just hoping things would improve and we'd be proved wrong. I don't know."

That silence is revealing. Because deep down they know that Hayes -- no less than Lynskey or Lane -- cares deeply about Galway hurling and that what they said had a watertight basis in truth. After Dublin, Galway fell too willingly into the trap of writing the day off as a blip and into believing they had turned a corner with success over Clare and Cork. Even a victory last weekend, Hayes believes, would merely have masked the chronic problems they seem reluctant or unable to address.

"Like, you'd want to see them really knuckle down this week. Players, managers, officials. Asking themselves where did we go wrong this year. But will it happen? We've a good minor team this year, decent under 21s, so we'll look at them and gloss over it again. Will the players look at themselves and ask the hard questions? Am I doing enough for the team? Am I good enough to keep my place? I don't see much of it yet anyway."

The culture for deep introspection simply doesn't exist in Galway. The old stagers will take you back to 1986. Galway had lost the Centenary semi-final to Offaly by 14 points and then fallen short in the next two All-Ireland finals to Offaly again and Cork. After the latter defeat Farrell had gathered his troops around him and warned them that the losing culture had to end. With the present set-up, they see no similar sense of urgency.

And while the players must accept their share of the blame, the lack of leadership shown at the top is a major contributing factor. On Friday, we learned that Tomás ó Flatharta will meet county board officials to discuss his future "over the next week or so", nearly a month after a dismal summer ended with defeat against Meath. John McIntyre was treated with a clemency by the hurling board -- "there is nothing planned at this stage" -- that was even denied him by the newspaper he edits.

The "softness" Hayes has long identified in Galway hurling is a by-product of a malfunctioning county structure. This year's minors, for example, have already routed poor Antrim and need just to negotiate an admittedly strong-looking Clare to reach an All-Ireland final. Not half enough of a test. There has been renewed talk about entering the Leinster underage championships but why they aren't beating on the door of the Leinster Council offices in Portlaoise, pleading for inclusion from next summer remains a mystery.

While success at underage level is always welcome, in Galway it comes attached with an asterisk that applies in few other places. We know the drill now. Galway produce a fine set of minors or under 21s and there is an instant drive to promote half of them into the senior set-up where they will be bubble-wrapped and told to focus exclusively on the first week of September, the pressure ratcheting up to obscene proportions year by year.

Galway urgently need radical and imaginative solutions, but the structures aren't in place to find them. With a county board supposedly overseeing two subsidiary boards administering football and hurling, they are beset by an unwieldy process where too little gets done. They don't see an inspired figure at the top -- like, say, a Ned Quinn in Kilkenny -- willing to accept responsibility and make the necessary tough decisions that can get everyone pulling in the same direction.

"It's hard to do anything with three boards," says one Galway official. "We need a good strong CEO. It's dysfunctional. We're being told in Galway for several years that they'll appoint our first ever full-time official. We're the second biggest county in Ireland, a dual county, and we don't have a full-time secretary yet. It's always happening soon. We have decent people involved but the task is too great for them."

It is what most alarms those who speak out. They know what Galway needs: someone with strength and vision to start steering them in the right direction. Instead they suspect the quick-fix option will prevail again next year. The forlorn hope that this will be their year. Another good crop of minors and under 21s filtering through. A dash of genius from Joe Canning or Michael Meehan to set them on their way. The painful lessons of last summer unabsorbed and already forgotten.

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