Gaelic GamesThe Weekend that Was

It is hard to see Henry Shefflin staying for Galway’s rebuilding job

Tribesmen have failed to bring through successful minor teams and have been found wanting

In his post-match interview on The Sunday Game, Henry Shefflin said that Galway “weren’t the youngest team and needed everybody on the pitch”. In his comments to reporters shortly after the game he referred to Dublin’s “bit of youth and speed”. Both answers were converging on the same point: to play with 14 men for the guts of an hour Galway needed legs, among other things.

The companion point was that the age profile of the Galway team has been an unresolved issue for far too long.

At the end of 2021 Shefflin inherited the oldest team in the championship. In that season Galway had seven thirtysomethings actively pushing for a starting place; five of them were in the first 15 for their qualifier loss to Waterford that year and another came off the bench.

Three years later, the Galway team eliminated from the championship by Dublin on Sunday had six thirtysomethings in their starting 15 (David Burke, Daithí Burke, Adrian Tuohey, Padraic Mannion, Joseph Cooney, Conor Cooney) and another (Johnny Glynn) coming off the bench.


What Shefflin has failed to manage in his three years as Galway manager is generational transition. Was that a commentary on the young talent available to him? Or a reflection of Galway’s misguided desire to squeeze one more All-Ireland from the core group who had delivered the title in 2017?

Galway are caught in no man’s land. They don’t have a layer of players in their early 20s who are established on the team, and the pillars of the group are in their early 30s with long service behind them.

“There needs to be a big clean out from ‘17, that’s what needs to happen,” said one former Galway player in conversation a couple of months ago. “It looks like Shefflin is not going to do that. If we had all these young players coming through he’d have done it, but I’d say he’s realising, like the rest of us, that these players are not up to it.”

Of all counties, Galway are never short of decorated young players. Since their first minor All-Ireland in 1983 they have won 14 All-Irelands in that grade, more than any other county in that period.

Between 2017 and 2020, however, they won four minor All-Irelands in a row, a feat that no county had ever achieved before. In terms of winning sequences two was the previous record.

Since the revolution in strength and conditioning the graduation of young players to fully fledged seniors has turned into a much slower process. But the successful Galway minors of 2017 (when that competition was still under-18) are in their mid-20s now. From that team only Darach Fahy started on Sunday; Ronan Glennon came off the bench.

The only other starters against Dublin from the four-in-a-row minor teams were Gavin Lee and Cianan Fahy. Declan McLoughlin was introduced as a sub. Does that represent some kind of systems failure or were the players just not good enough?

“The minor piece will always be a stick to beat us,” the Galway chair Paul Bellew said recently. “We’ve identified some things internally whereby, physically, we could have been doing more earlier to get people through. There was a bit of feedback from previous managements that people weren’t coming through ready and it was taking that bit longer in the system. We think we’ve rectified that from about under-19 up.”

But now, they’re caught in no man’s land. They don’t have a layer of players in their early 20s who are established on the team, and the pillars of the group are in their early 30s with long service behind them.

“It could be the end of the road for a few of us,” said Shefflin on Sunday. “But what we said in the dressingroom was that we’d take a few days and don’t make a rash decision, and that’s the only logical thing.”

One of the players who will be considering his future is David Burke. Shefflin spoke kindly of him on Sunday, not just as a hurler but as a person. In Burke’s long and distinguished career, those kinds of testimonials have been commonplace.

When Shefflin arrived as manager Burke had lost the captaincy and his starting place; he was 32 and his intercounty career seemed to be in a palliative phase. But what the new manager quickly realised was that the Galway dressingroom was light on leaders and that Burke was still the most influential person in the group.

Since then Burke has made a remarkable recovery from a serious knee injury and led St Thomas’ to their second All-Ireland club title, (he was also a member of the team that won their first in 2013). He played no part in Galway’s consequential defeat against Wexford at the beginning of the month, but he started against Kilkenny and in Galway’s last two games. In his occasional absences, nobody else had assumed the role of on-field general. On Sunday, he was the oldest man on the field.

The merit of his red card was debated all day, in a wide variety of places. One of the arguments used in his defence was that there was no “intent” on his part to injure Fergal Whitely – who was able to continue in the match.

But that argument completely misses the point. The duty of care for every player is not to expose their opponent to unacceptable risk. Burke’s shoulder was clearly not aimed at Whitley’s head, but by making a frontal charge against a player who had no opportunity to evade the contact, he was introducing a degree of danger.

In the event their head guards collided. Burke’s actions created that contact. Intent is not the issue; the issue is unacceptable risk. The player who generates that must expect a hard sanction.

It probably cost Galway their chance of winning. Did it cost them a realistic tilt at the All-Ireland? Not on all known form. Their performances this year have been incoherent and regressive.

So, what happens next? Shefflin came to Galway to win All-Irelands. It would be astonishing if that happened next year, or the year after, regardless of who is in charge. It wasn’t Shefflin’s brief, necessarily, to rebuild the team but that is the massive task facing Galway now. These things never happen quickly.

It feels like a job for someone else.