Wednesday 22 November 2017

Lost generation

In 2007, Galway's U-21s beat Dublin by 14 points to win the All-Ireland hurling title. Four years later, six of the defeated Dubs are available to Anthony Daly but only Joe Canning and goalkeeper James Skehill have survived to seniors in yet another of Galway's...

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When the dust had settled on O'Connor Park in Tullamore after Galway's dismal Leinster championship exit to Dublin two weeks ago, two team sheets were drawn down from the recent archives and held up as evidence of Galway's fundamental failures as a hurling power.

The 2007 All-Ireland U-21 final was a 5-11 to 0-12 rout over Dublin in Croke Park, an expression of the promise Galway would undoubtedly carry into the next decade.

Many of those involved had won All-Ireland minor medals in 2004 and 2005 and their progress seemed altogether natural.

It was one of Joe Canning's quieter days on the scoreboard, but his influence was profound nonetheless.

Dublin were ruthlessly put to the sword by a combination of forwards, any of whom you could have made a strong case for going on to be an established Galway senior.

Kerill Wade was winning a second All-Ireland U-21 medal in two years, having plundered eight points, including the winner, against a star-studded Kilkenny team two years earlier.

Conor Kavanagh, brother of Shane, struck for two goals against Dublin, Finian Coone chipped in with two points and Kevin Hynes was an instrument of force at centre-forward.

Dublin were obedient in their role as bystanders to the procession, winning acknowledgment for their progress and work at underage level, but, ultimately, the conclusion drawn was that the gap to be bridged would be too great for them in the years ahead.

Less than four years on, the team-sheets from Croke Park that day provide some of the forensics into the great mystery that continues to be Galway hurling.

In O'Connor Park the last day, only Canning and goalkeeper James Skehill survived for Galway. By comparison, Tomas Brady, John McCaffrey, Shane Durkin, Peadar Carton and Alan McCrabbe were all on duty for Dublin.

Joey Boland would have been but for a shoulder injury that put him out of the match. From that team, Rory O'Carroll and Diarmuid Connolly have since committed to the footballers.

The drop-off is perhaps symptomatic of the way it has always been for Galway. Two weeks ago, Conor Hayes found himself questioning the standard of minor hurling and that ultimately inflates the expectation at senior level.

Hayes identified what he saw as a culture of "making gods" out of young players in Galway.

And sure enough, Galway hurling is strewn with flourishing underage careers that simply never take off for one reason or another. Injury, apathy, size, emigration or just a realisation that what Hayes maintains about standards of minor hurling may, in fact, be true.

Since Galway's last All-Ireland senior title in 1988 they have matched the number of All-Ireland minor titles (seven in all) won by Kilkenny and have also been beaten in a further seven finals, three more than the Cats.

At U-21 level they have also kept step impressively, winning five to Kilkenny's seven. But the respective rates of translation at senior level speak for themselves.

Underage success can often be a misleading guide. Limerick won the 2000-2002 All-Ireland U-21 finals but that generation has now effectively missed its chance at senior level. The fear in Galway is that it is happening to them again, just as it did in the 1990s.

Those successful Galway teams of the 1990s had a consistent charge laid against them as they chalked up title after title -- they were skillful but, ultimately, too small and in many cases not physically equipped for the direction the game was heading.

The '90s threw up its own generation of lost talent. Daragh Coen was the star of the 1992 All-Ireland minor-winning team with a huge percentage return from placed balls, but he struggled to make an impact at senior level and by his mid-20s it had passed him by.

Conor O'Donovan captained that team and looked a potential anchor for the Galway defence well into the next decade, but he too drifted without ever making the expected impact at senior level.

Peter Huban, full-back and captain on the '96 All-Ireland-winning U-21 team, had impeccable physical qualities and up to 2003 he was still a target for Conor Hayes in his first year in charge.

But he too got swallowed up in that hole where so many others have disappeared.

Of the more recent vintage, Wade is perhaps the pin-up boy of this particular genre.

Earlier this year he was recalled to the senior squad, but, after sustaining injury once again, he was gone again.

It is accepted that Wade still has time on his side to establish himself. He is only 25 this year but his experiences during Ger Loughnane's two years in charge, 2007 and 2008, weren't fruitful.

Not far behind him has to be John Culkin from Abbeyknockmoy, captain of the All-Ireland-winning 1999 minor team.

Culkin, it seemed, had all the natural resources required: size, power, striking ability.

He played in three All-Ireland U-21 finals from 1999 to 2002 and was a member of the extended squad for the 2001 All-Ireland final defeat against Tipperary.

But by the 2002 All-Ireland U-21 final against Limerick, Culkin was no longer a central figure in his last year in the grade, being pushed to corner-back by the emerging Shane Kavanagh. His Galway career was over before it had ever taken flight and these days he is more renowned as a rugby player with the local Monivea club.

Kenneth Burke, brother of current midfielder David, shot the lights out in the 2002 minor semi-final against Kilkenny, which Galway lost, but he was U-21 captain three years later as Wade delivered the coup de grace in the final against the same opponents.

However, he came on the watch of both Hayes and Loughnane in the years after that without making the cut.

There are other more peripheral figures who might have made it, but didn't. Brian O'Mahony looked just about the best corner-back around when Galway landed the 1999 and 2000 All-Ireland minor titles, but his exposure to senior hurling was fleeting, though he continues to play consistently well for Loughrea.

Mullagh's Conor Dervan was another solid underage defender that left the scene without ever leaving a calling card.

DIFFERED

It was felt that the teams that were built around Canning in the middle of the last decade by Mattie Murphy differed from those in the 1990s because they were bigger and more physically suited to where Kilkenny were taking the game.

In that sense, Ger Mahon, John Lee, Ciaran O'Donovan, Andrew Keary, Keith Kilkenny, Conor Kavanagh and Kevin Hynes have all been earmarked from a young age as potential Galway seniors.

O'Donovan, Hynes and Mahon have succumbed to persistent injury but could yet emerge again over the next 12 months.

Lee -- another great white defensive hope on whom Loughnane was determined to build a team around -- is currently on the periphery, but whether he can live up to those grand expectations or not is under some doubt.

For Keary (the 2005 minor captain), Kilkenny (son of former Galway star Ollie) and Kavanagh, the ship may have sailed.

Every county has players who didn't make it for one reason or another. For Galway hurling, they are starting to count such players in generations now.

Irish Independent

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