Sticking together through it all
Expectations are low in Galway these days but that might be a good thing, writes Damian Lawlor
FOLLOWING last year's humiliating defeat to Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a number of leading Galway hurling figures called for a total clear-out.
The nature of that ten-point loss, yet another collapse for the side, made those calls look justified, but there was only one problem -- the average age of last year's squad was just 23 and most of those players had won All-Ireland minor finals. They should have been looking forward to forming the nucleus of Galway's future, not facing calls for their heads.
It's a reflection of their problems over the past 15 years -- youngsters win All-Ireland championships at minor and under 21 and many of them are parachuted onto the senior team before they are ready. Against Waterford, for example, they lost ten puck-outs on the trot, six of their own.
The perplexing thing is Galway usually have the raw materials at hand, boasting some of the most skilful hurlers on the landscape. Throughout the past decade they have found themselves capable of exhilarating displays -- against Tipperary and Kilkenny in 2005 and then Cork last year. Yet, just when a decent level of performance is expected of them, they fall flat.
"Inconsistency and more inconsistency," sighs Cyril Donnellan, now in his fourth year with the team. "The key for Galway hurling is to become more consistent. We know that. On our day we can be as good as any other team but we have to be able to produce those displays every time we go out. We have to ignore outside factors and just look at ourselves."
The current season is a case in point. It's been the usual pick-and-mix -- a great early win over Dublin before being overpowered by Kilkenny, ultimately avoiding relegation with a sweet second-half display against the Dubs again. In the Leinster championship opener, they beat Westmeath but conceded 4-12. Next, they accounted for Offaly in the semi-final, but again shipped an unhealthy 3-15. Such lapses hardly boost confidence ahead of today's Leinster final.
The puzzling thing is that the roots of the game in the county are good. Galway have won three under 21 titles in the last eight years and five minor titles since 2000. At the start of the season, 50 players from the minor and under 21 ranks were plucked and placed on a strength and conditioning programme. Not every county would have 50 players good enough for those levels.
A few weeks beforehand, the Galway Hurling Review Group was set up with marquee names like Conor Hayes and Joe McDonagh and massive progress was made with a new club championship structure -- teams get more games and every one of them is meaningful.
Their new manager Anthony Cunningham did have a cull of last year's team in the end. Most of the new guys are also in the 22-25-year-old bracket but they'll hope for better progress than their predecessors.
That won't happen until they start stacking performances together.
Last year Conor Hayes pointed to a culture of excuses within the set-up. Former manager Noel Lane accused the players of lacking mental toughness and physical ruthlessness. Brendan Lynskey said some players were afraid to put a hand up for a ball in case they'd break a nail.
Since their dramatic defeat of Kilkenny in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final, they haven't progressed beyond the quarter-final stage and their record of wins in meaningful championship fixtures during that period is not good -- they've played 21 significant competitive games and won just seven. Yet, they are one of the few teams that Kilkenny actually look out for. On their day, Galway are capable of cutting loose.
To finally mount a sustained challenge, though, they must leave Cunningham and his backroom team in place for another three years. Cunningham is a proven winner and not afraid to make big calls -- his first major call was to jettison big names like John Lee, Damien Joyce and Ger Farragher.
In their place he injected the raw energy of his 2011 under 21-winning squad. While he probably has too many young lads in at the same time, the experience of David Collins, Fergal Moore, Damien Hayes and Tony óg Regan should prove beneficial.
"I'm looking over my own shoulder," Donnellan admits. "I know I have to be more consistent myself. Anthony showed at the start of the year what he's prepared to do and, personally, I know I have to perform every time I go out on the field. Anthony is giving the young lads a bit of a chance and he's sticking with the guys he has worked with before and putting a programme in place for the next three years. It's going to be a building process.
"But we want to win along the way. A Leinster title would be massive. Nobody from Galway has a Leinster medal and it is a massive medal to chase. The lads feel the importance of it and it was a great move by Galway to come into Leinster. A medal would be as important to anybody in the dressing-room as anything else they have won."
Donnellan pinpoints the relegation play-off win over Dublin as a potential turning point. After an up-and-down league run, their second-half dismissal of the Dubs was ruthlessly efficient.
"You can't overestimate how important that win over Dublin was in the league. It was the first real test with the new management and especially with all the young players in the team. We had suffered a bad defeat to Kilkenny a few weeks back and there was a need to prove ourselves. But we knew it was coming. Anthony has freshened things up and adapted things; every training session is different -- the players would have confidence in him because he has managed a team on All-Ireland
final day. Okay, so it was a club final but it still shows his pedigree and everyone has responded to him.
"I know a lot of things have been said and written about us but we have to blot all that out. When it comes to Galway hurling there will always be expectation because of the underage set-up but the fact is that we have not reached an All-Ireland senior semi-final in seven years. Last year, two teams from Leinster got there but Galway were not one of them. We're under no illusions as to where we are.
"It hasn't been pretty since coming into Leinster -- it's as tough as the Munster championship now but it's the straightest route, and that's what you'd be aiming for. When it comes to championship, it is all on the day. We can peak one day and don't seem to get it the next day. That's what you are really concentrating on."
They've had so many false dawns that they must be afraid to draw the curtains at this stage. Today might not bring them much relief either but providing they can tighten their defence, you'd expect them to put up a show against the All-Ireland champions.
All their lives these Galway hurlers have had to deal with expectation but for once that anticipation is not there. That might be a good thing.
Sunday Indo Sport