Ciarán Murphy: Galway among a number of counties that can dare to dream just now

With no giant bestriding this championship there’s no harm in a flight of fancy

One of the things that the Dublin team of the last decade stole from us all was the foolhardy notion that maybe, just maybe, this could be your year. As long as they were around there was no amount of magical thinking, no method of eye-squinting, and no number of pints that could convince anyone other than Mayo and Kerry (and even at that, maybe not even those two) that the Dubs were there to be beaten.

Galway under Kevin Walsh took some notable scalps, including beating Mayo in three consecutive Connacht championships, but when push came to shove Dublin were just too good, as they were in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final.

I have rarely had a more dispiriting day supporting Galway than that game in Croke Park four years ago. Watching the highlights back this week, what strikes you is the sense of inevitability pouring down from the stands.

Galway went three points down early on, but Damien Comer’s goal in the eighth minute to level the game should have lit the blue touchpaper. Instead Ger Canning was saying on commentary that it was “exactly what this match required”, as if to keep the game competitive was as much as could be hoped for . . . in the eighth minute!

After 27 minutes, the game was still level, but Con O’Callaghan’s goal to put Dublin three points up was greeted with the sort of cheer you hear when the home team has pulled 10 clear with five minutes to go. There was still only two in it at half-time, but Dublin won the third quarter 10 points to two, and that was that.

It was a sobering reality-check for Galway, but it was also a low-point for the championship as a whole. There were only 54,000 people there for an All-Ireland semi-final, the lowest crowd at that stage since 2011 (there would be an even smaller crowd for Tyrone/Monaghan the following day, as it happened), and Dublin’s dominance seemed to stretch out so far into the distance that resistance seemed futile.

That was then, and this is now. While Dublin floundered in the early going in Division One, Galway strolled through Division Two, and while promotion was certainly something which could be reasonably expected, not many people expected a four-goal hammering of Rory Gallagher’s Derry last Sunday.

Galway have done all that they could so far this year, and they’ve done it scoring considerably more than any other team in any of the four divisions.

But the nature of Galway's collapse in the second half of last year's Connacht final in Croker still gives supporters pause. Losing Seán Kelly and Rob Finnerty to first-half injuries, and then having Shane Walsh inhibited by the shoulder injury he picked up in that scuffle with Pádraig O'Hora, were blows, but that doesn't entirely absolve them either.

The suspicion remains that in this league Galway might have gotten even better at what they were already good at, while still not being entirely sure they’ve found long-term solutions for the problems that presented themselves in Croke Park last year.

There has been another goalkeeping change, and Conor O’Flaherty has started confidently. He may not quite have the long- and short-kicking range of some of his contemporaries yet, but – and this is the limitation of playing in Division Two – quite simply we won’t know until after the Mayo game if he has all the tools.

But he’s played in plenty of big games already, in hurling and football, for one so young, and temperament shouldn’t be a problem.

Two names haunt the Galway consciousness. One is a clear and present danger that will have to be faced every year for the next 10 years, the other is more existential. Both are thorny questions this Galway squad will have to try and answer.

Galway have Paul Conroy, Matthew Tierney and Paul Kelly all playing great stuff around the middle so far this year, but none of them match up all that well to Mayo's midfielder Matthew Ruane. And Galway fans find themselves asking the same question fans of every other county are asking themselves – "have we anyone to stop David Clifford?"

Ruane is the question that needs immediate attention. The switch of the Connacht final to Croke Park last year certainly suited him, and he has a range of athletic abilities that Galway’s midfielders just don’t have.

The choice of Seán Kelly as team captain has been popular, and successful, but a man-marking job on the opposition’s best forward, like Clifford, might rob Galway of a key offensive weapon. That might be a worry for another day, but it’s still a worry.

In the meantime, notwithstanding the last game of the league this Sunday, and the league final on April 2nd, Galway/Mayo on April 24th remains the key date in the diary.

And whatever about loose talk of winning the All-Ireland, there isn’t one team bestriding this championship like a colossus. That in itself is enough to allow some people – in Galway, or Donegal, or Armagh, or elsewhere – a flight of fancy, before the championship and reality intrudes.

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