Ciarán Murphy: Day of reckoning arrives for Galway
Tribesmen aiming to show great rivals Mayo they are a genuine top-tier football force
Galway’s Shane Walsh celebrating the Connacht semi-final win over Mayo last year. Photograph: Loraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
If Galway’s win in Castlebar last year was a smash and grab raid, their subsequent promotion in the league means that this Sunday has become a day of reckoning – a day for them to announce themselves as a Division One side in more than name.
For Mayo, they are armed and aware of the dangers of their opponents in a way they patently weren’t last year – and as a result, the prospect of defeat becomes all the more damaging.
The last two visits of Mayo to the seaside have been suitably idyllic. The 2013 disembowelling, on a scoreline of 4-16 to 0-11, was a picture-postcard moment. But in 2015, Mayo brutalised an improved Galway at key moments.
Before the game began, Lee Keegan marched over towards Micheal Lundy, star of Corofin’s march to the All-Ireland club title earlier that year, and threw him around like a rag-doll. Both players were booked, but it was a chilling statement of intent from Keegan.
And once the game began, it quickly became clear Galway had no-one who could handle Aidan O’Shea. The home side battled gamely, but when O’Shea took it upon himself to run at Galway, he ran amok. Anyone leaving the ground that day to be told that an injury-free Aidan O’Shea would be a doubtful starter for Mayo on their next journey to Salthill would have needed smelling salts.
Those two different but linked examples of physicality and menace have been key tenets of the game for Mayo in the last six years. There was a cold-bloodedness to the approach that day that was decidedly un-Mayo, and Galway simply had no answer. The long road back to relevancy for Galway football would have to begin with bulking up, becoming more physical, and shoring up defensively.
That long road has had quite a few ups and downs, marked by the calamity of last year’s quarter-final defeat to Tipperary. And the bitter aftertaste of that game has been difficult to shake for Galway fans, even if the only option available to the players was to knuckle down, and get out of Division Two – which they duly did, with the added bonus of a final win in Croke Park to boot.
But the scar tissue of those two defeats to Mayo in 2013 and 2015 remains. There remains a caution about Galway’s play, regardless of the county’s reputation – perhaps well-earned over the course of 130 years, but now seemingly impossible to shed – as extravagant, Gauloises-smoking purveyors of the beautiful game.
Throughout the league Galway were a counter-attacking team, one set up to defend on their own 45 metre line and strike on the break. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective. The key now is for them to take the next step, to believe in the ability that’s in the group, to expect to win on Sunday. . . to – as one Galway supporter of my acquaintance put it – “stop trying to be Cavan”.
Because if last year’s win over Mayo was a shock, and the loss to Tipperary was a body-blow, maybe a truer reflection of the quality of this team was in the Connacht football final replay against Roscommon, when they played with impressive directness, looked assured on the ball, scored a trio of brilliant goals, and beat Roscommon 3-16 to 0-14.
That game wasn’t shown on live television so didn’t have much of an impact nationally, and locally the lustre didn’t last long, because the dominant memory still in the Galway psyche is Conor Sweeney wheeling away, arms in the air, after his second goal for Tipperary in the quarter-final. But there was enough good football on display in that replay in Castlebar to suggest that Galway are going places.
It is that performance against Roscommon, after the deathly dullness of the drawn game, that suggests maybe Galway are ready to marry defensive organisation with an unshackling of the attacking ability that they have their disposal . . . an attacking ability that other counter-attacking teams, like the previously-impugned Cavan, just don’t have.
Doubts remain about Galway’s best full-back and centre-back. For all of Galway’s forward ability, Mayo could start with five All-Stars and the brilliant Paddy Durcan in their defence, and therefore reasonably conclude they can handle whatever the neighbours can throw at them.
Around the field there is no doubt Mayo have the upper hand in terms of big-game experience. But Galway GAA folk have watched their hurlers stick their chest out and go toe-to-toe with their biggest rivals in the last two years. The hurlers have lost plenty of big games, but they’ve shown a willingness to give it a crack. All they ask now is that their footballers show a similar level of self-belief.