'Stay chasing. Stay being honest'
The most pleasing thing for the Galway management was their young team had the composure to compete and play, writes KEITH DUGGAN
THE BROAD message from Kilkenny is they didn’t do themselves justice in the All-Ireland final but for Galway, that drawn match was a lesson of immense importance.
Kilkenny are seasoned practitioners in the rhythms and ceremonies of hurling’s special Sunday but for Galway, it was all blazingly new. And the most pleasing thing for Anthony Cunningham and the selectors was their young team proved they had the composure to compete and play through the occasion.
“The message I would pass on is that whoever takes the initiative and shows the most nerve will win,” Cunningham remarked as the build-up for tomorrow’s replay resumed in earnest.
“There are areas we can improve. Our forwards didn’t score as much in the second half as we would like.
“Our defence will have to be as good the next day – and we let them in for two chances in the last 10 minutes. We can ask questions about coping. Henry Shefflin orchestrated at centre forward and really pulled strings. If he produces a performance again like that, he will cause us problems.
“We had two or three glorious chances after half-time. And we kept saying: we have to show composure when those chances come up. Because we will have a run and Kilkenny will have a run and it is down to containing Kilkenny a bit more and being a bit more ruthless in front of goal.
“They have so much class – they can fire in a few goals and rattle over three or four points in a short period of time. There is never a bad Kilkenny player. We had a tremendous performance that last day from Paul Murphy, a young player coming through. Brian Hogan took the game by the scuff of the neck when he was maybe outplayed in the first half.”
It is fair to say that as meticulous as the Galway backroom team is, they had not planned in great detail for a draw. But it didn’t take them long to realise that they wanted to get back west as quickly as possible.
“I’d say as we were leaving the field, as you are walking off the pitch, you are thinking about 10 different things,” coach Mattie Kenny says, “ but that was something we decided very quickly.”
That plunged Cunningham into unexpected and slightly comical territory. As a member of Galway’s 1987 All-Ireland winning team, he was invited to Dublin for a Saturday evening banquet. The team were due to be honoured before Sunday’s game. Instead, his wife and children went to Dublin on Saturday and he stayed at home alone with the family dog for company.
“And to make matters worse, they were all staying on the Sunday night and we headed off home with the team. The dog was delighted to see me. He wasn’t planning on seeing me until Monday evening.”
And so Cunningham did what a lot of Galway hurling people did on the Sunday night: he watched the game.
“Well, part of it anyway. The following night we would have worked on it and the following few nights with Mattie when the players were resting, we went through it. So we figured out analysis and one-to-ones. It was no different than any other match. We did it after the Leinster final and after the Cork match.”
Much like James Horan and Mayo, the Galway hurling management have spent the season emphasising the areas in which their players can improve. One of the least mentioned aspects of the drawn final was the September experience was new to the Galway sideline as well. One of their bravest – and toughest — decisions was to call Conor Cooney ashore after sending him on as a substitute.
“It was a very harsh decision to have to make because we are conscious of the impact on the player,” Tom Helebert says.
“But we just felt that Conor hadn’t got to the pace of the game quickly enough as an impact substitution. In the context of the game for 75 minutes, we had to make it and were prepared to make it. It can be hard sometimes because there is so much going on. The tendency is to watch the ball but you can’t do that. You have to watch the guys – what they are doing, how they are shaping up and how they are coping.
“If you see warning signs of a guy starting to leak or run out of juice, then you have to respond to that. But all those scenarios are considered long in advance. But we spoke about it and Conor is a very important part of our panel and has been good for us and is very much in our thinking for the next day.”
They have heard the various interpretations of the drawn final, including the theory that Galway will never have as good a chance to beat Kilkenny, and just don’t see it that way.
“Before the final, we were going to Croke Park and 82,000 people except those in Galway thought we were on a hiding to nothing trying to beat the reigning champions,” Helebert says. “That it was mission impossible to try and beat the reigning champions. But there were points that reinforced that what we are doing is right.
“Players look for stability, trust and reinforcement and that’s what we bring to the table. We have a game process that is broadly working and they understand it and are playing for it. So we are starting to tick boxes that are no longer things to worry about. You know: I am fit. I am hurling well within myself, I am comfortable within my environment. And then you move on to the next level: how do we compete?
“But critically for us – we saw in the relegation play-off against Dublin – we don’t quit. That has been a big, big thing for this group to get their heads around. Stay working; stay chasing; stay being honest.”
All of which the Galway team will have to do again tomorrow. The sense emanating from Kilkenny is of a team set upon righting what they feel was a collectively flat performance saved by the heroics of Shefflin.
“You should always expect anything from Kilkenny,” Cunningham says, “they can burn you from any corner with scores and with defending. For instance, Michael Fennelly, may have been disappointed with his performance and will thunder into the game tomorrow.
“So you can expect fireworks from Kilkenny and we will have to meet that.”
And he smiles when asked what he hopes Galway can bring to Kilkenny.
“Fireworks as well.”
It might just be a decent game.