The quality was never in doubt during quiet years
Even if they don't win today, Galway have regained the spark they need to compete, writes Dermot Crowe
IN January 2001, soon after retirement, Joe Cooney surveyed the deteriorating landscape of his career. For a while in the 1980s Galway enjoyed the run of the field but Cooney hurled through much of the next decade when they were a more peripheral influence.
"You wouldn't even have to look," he remarked of the better days. "You'd know where a player was going to be and put the ball there without thinking."
From that comfort and security of tenure, Galway encountered increasing alienation. Cooney would later find himself delivering balls to places "where the players you have lost would have been". After the 1993 win over Tipperary, a triumph of brazen will, Galway didn't post a meaningful championship win over first-rank opposition for seven years until defeating Tipp again in 2000. By which time the Brian Cody era was already under way.
Having ripped it up and started again more times than they care to remember, Galway now appear to have found a clear sense of who they are and what they want to be. When interviewed 11 years ago, Cooney was in the company of four young children. One of those, Joseph, is hoping to emulate his father and win an All-Ireland medal today. In the drawn match, he replaced Niall Burke in the 62nd minute and he's one of those tipped for a bright future by Mattie Murphy, who had him at minor level.
"He is one fella I would expect to make a big contribution in the next few years," says Murphy. "He is one of these late developers. Joe did not make the county under 14 or under 16 teams, he suffered a serious leg injury growing up that probably put him back. But look at his pedigree on both sides; sooner rather than later he will come to the fore."
When Joe junior was scurrying around the house in Bullaun 11 years ago, a new management team was in place in Galway. Murphy had been given short shrift despite ending Galway's seven-year wait for a serious championship win the previous season, losing out in a vote to Noel Lane, who included Mike McNamara, as trainer, and John Connolly in his line-up. Galway were already impatient for success. By then they had gone a dozen years without adding to the 1988 All-Ireland. If they don't win today, they'll have added another dozen years to that drought. But even if they don't win today, they look to have rediscovered some of the essential elements that used to make Galway a serious and lasting force.
Whereas previous All-Ireland final appearances in 1993, 2001 and 2005 were achieved on the back of one outstanding day in the semi-final, this year's progress has been steadier and characterised by more sustained levels of high performance.
Murphy served two stints as senior manager and is well placed to offer the view that constantly rotating managers did not help his case or that of others like him. Lane himself felt hard done by when discarded after losing to Clare by one point in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2002. The previous season, in his first year, Galway reached an All-Ireland final. So when Anthony Cunningham was offered three years, Murphy immediately saw the benefits.
"The real truth is we didn't produce 15 fellas capable of winning an All-Ireland at that particular time," says Murphy, who has led Galway to six of their nine All-Ireland minor titles. "Maybe half the problem was that there was such a quick turnaround of managers and there were so many different agendas in Galway hurling at the time. I suppose Conor Hayes was the first who got an extended term at the job.
"These lads came in and more or less were told they were looking at a four-year development. And that removed the fear factor out of the management. And when that fear is removed you have that cushion you wouldn't have otherwise. Very often then you will reap the benefits quickly. In the 1990s managers were under pressure to deliver success whereas now expectations are more realistic."
They are also mounting. "You would have to be optimistic," says Murphy of today's replay. "They have played Kilkenny twice and everybody said the Kilkenny forward line didn't fire but look at Galway's forward line; just two scored. And some had games as bad as they ever had in the county jersey. There's still a big game in two or three of our forwards outside of Joe (Canning) and Niall Burke. Both defences got on top. It was easier for the Kilkenny defence to be on top with the luxury of so many of our fellas going out the field, and they not only double-marking Joe but triple-marking Joe."
The failure of successful Galway minor and under 21 teams to blossom into a winning senior team has been a regular teaser for hurling followers. Murphy rates his last minor team, the 2011 champions, as his most talented bunch. Four of those players are part of the senior squad. One, Jonathan Glynn, came on in the drawn game. Murphy sees a more coherent hurling strategy in place now. He cites the close working relationship of the under 21, senior and intermediate teams.
"A lot of these young lads would know there's nothing to fear, they have been playing from under 14 to under 21 and they know that on any given day they are capable of matching any team," states Murphy. "When Galway's team broke up in 1990-'91 there was a vacuum left and I think when the present Kilkenny team breaks up there will be a big vacuum. The reality is that it will not go on forever."
Brian Hanley, the Westmeath manager and Athenry native, served alongside Cunningham on Galway under 21 managements in 2009 and 2010. In the second year they suffered a savage beating in the final by Tipperary, a week after the Premier won the senior, but many of those Galway players are now an integral part of Cunningham's plans.
"They have shown a maturity I don't think a Galway team has shown for a long, long time," says Hanley. "They have shown a passion that hasn't been seen in the Galway jersey for many years. I think we have a great chance. I thought we would win it the last day. I think we have the run of Kilkenny in a way; there is a freshness about the team.
"The thing I noticed about them when they played Westmeath was, one, their physical condition and, two, the speed of their play when attacking. They were conceding goals but they seem to have stopped that. I would say they seem to have really bought into it now. Like, since the drawn relegation game against Dublin, Galway have hurled very well in every game."
Of the players he has seen progressing under Cunningham, the one that stands out is Niall Donoghue. "Two years ago I could not see his level of performance. The score he got in the final, that comes down to the coaching and work that has been done. He waited and waited and then took his chance.
"One thing Anthony would have gone on about an awful lot was looking to get a goal at every opportunity that presents itself. To be ruthless in front of goal and go for it. You see when Niall Burke picked up that ball, and when James Regan picked up the ball to give it to Joe Canning, he had goal in his mind. But you can only do that with top-quality hurlers."
The quality was never in doubt.
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