Up to Galway’s footballers now to rediscover their pride in the qualifiers
Players must decide how much they want redemption after the thrashing by Mayo
Galway football manager Alan Mulholland: One of the problems of an early championship exit is the length of time that stretches out before the qualifiers start. Photograph: Inpho
There’s few scenes quite as unforgiving as that facing a team manager after a championship disaster. In the concrete corridors of Pearse Stadium on Sunday, Alan Mulholland found himself simultaneously having to process his dismay at the outcome as well as answer questions, none of them framed by a spirit of positivity.
Courteous as ever, the Galway manager was however beginning to exhibit signs of concern at the drift of the press conference as if he was beginning to realise that the task now was to handle the fall-out rather than try to rationalise the result.
It was pointed out that the team had suffered a beating unprecedented since 1907: 106 years in the waiting and all for you! Mulholland ironically thanked the questioner for bringing that statistic to his attention.
It was reminiscent of another Galway defeat by Mayo, back in the 2001 league final when then Galway manager John O’Mahony was informed no team had gone on from such a setback to win an All-Ireland. O’Mahony always steered a narrow track in such circumstances but you could feel the wheels scraping the wall, as he mono-toned: “Is that so?”
(In fact that’s exactly what Galway did five months later.)
Players are, although rarely present, at the centre of these situations. One of the clichés so beloved of reporters that it has acquired iconic status as an exercise in dark humour haunts the occasion, whether spoken or not: “will it be hard to lift the lads for the qualifiers?”
Was he worried about how it would impact on the team? “It depends what the papers say in the morning. But I’m sure it won’t be good,” he replied with epic understatement.
One of the problems of an early championship exit is the length of time that stretches out before the qualifiers start. Mulholland was asked about the prospect of younger players departing these shores, either to find work or to escape the soul destruction of a county smarting at a championship humiliation.
He acknowledged that it was an issue but more for the members of the under-21 All-Ireland winning team, who aren’t on the panel than for those who are but you could sense apprehension at the possibility of that distinction being lost.
Managing defeat in the championship is a big challenge but at least when you’re not counting your winnings you’ve a generally clearer idea of what exactly you do have. If Mulholland loses any players he wants for the summer, that’s a quick aptitude test completed.
Rewind 23 years and in those days, when post-match facilities for media were “access all areas”, I was in a Páirc Uí Chaoimh dressingroom (having hopped up on a bench as then county chair, the late Denis Conroy, spread his arms wide and, bellowing, herded some kids out the door) just after Cork had demolished Kerry by 15 points – the day that gave Gaelic games the yarn about “lock the gates and make the hoors watch”.
Kerry manager Mickey Ned O’Sullivan came in and said his piece. He looked so downcast you wondered how he could recover all of the enthusiasm he had brought into his first year as Mick O’Dwyer’s successor.
Like Galway, Kerry were tossing the dice on a group of under-21 All-Ireland winners. Five started that day for Kerry and Galway on Sunday had nine, spread between the 2011 winners and this year’s.
Underage success is however untrustworthy. It tends to go to the best players and being restricted to a particular cohort, reduces the variations that are a vital element of senior football.
These are better years for teams in this situation. Mulholland referred to the county’s poor record in the qualifiers but that parallel competition gives teams an ideal opportunity to rewrite their championship ending. Previously Galway would have spent a year smarting from what happened on Sunday. Now they have six weeks to start the process of making that nightmare recede into the past.
What went wrong?
The ever hardening connection between league and championship led this year to the best eight teams being in Division One and but for two of them meeting in the qualifiers, they would almost certainly have been last year’s All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Those counties get to play quick-tempo, high-intensity matches into August and then are able to test everything they do in the followings season’s league against the best teams in the country. Mayo have been part of this emerging elite for a few years whereas Galway have completed a second season in Division Two and have played at Croke Park in August just three times in the past 10 years.
Galway may have conceded a total of 2-3 to turnover ball but this didn’t come simply from unforced errors; they were hustled out of it by a team both used to and playing with a higher level of intensity.
Mulholland managed many of these players at underage when they won minor and under-21 All-Irelands. He knows what’s in them but ultimately it’s for the players to decide how much they want senior success and how badly they want redemption after the weekend.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Galway are at the moment only half-dead; the rest is up to them.