Corofin: A club founded on the right stuff
The prolonged success of the defending All-Ireland club champions is based on youth
Corofin’s Ciaran McGrath and Micheal Lundy after defeating Nemo Rangers of Cork in the 2018 club final in Croke Park. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
On New Year’s Day 1997, the Corofin senior squad gathered to listen to Paul McGettigan, the new manager, lay out the season ahead. The Donegal man was brisk and confident in his delivery, and told the room that winning the All-Ireland club championship was the main objective.
“We laughed,” Michael Donnellan recalls of how he and his team-mates instinctively responded.
The team had been bundled out in the first round of the county championship the year before. They had lost All-Ireland semi-finals in 1992 and 1996. They seemed to be regressing.
Yet McGettigan’s words were prophetic. Corofin duly became All-Ireland champions in March 1998, fire-starting a revolutionary year for maroon football. It marked a transformation of internal Galway football prowess.
Corofin would win 14 of the next 22 senior titles. The club was on the way to becoming a furnace of high achievement through all grades, and are still seeking to exceed themselves. On Sunday they will pack Croke Park, seeking to defend their All-Ireland title in a mouthwatering showdown against Dr Crokes.
“If you’re asking me what their secret is: I don’t know. While it is true that other clubs try to emulate them I don’t think they have any real understanding of the level of preparation they actually go to,” says Donnellan.
The Corofin man now manages the Mountbellew senior team, one of the clubs working furiously to compete against Corofin’s unassailable domination of the local scene. They have featured in the last two finals, losing 2-14 to 0-10 in 2017 before almost springing a spectacular ambush late last October, equalling the champions on a surreal scoreline of 0-7 to 0-7. It took a nerveless build-up from the defending champions to work a fisted point by Michael Lundy with seconds to go to avoid a huge upset.
For Donnellan it was a week of private conflict: he is steeped in Corofin but immersed in the task of delivering what would have been Mountbellew’s first championship in 32 years. The east Galway club are roughly where Corofin were 20 years ago: on the verge of a significant step forward.
The difference is that back then there was no gargantuan obstacle standing in their way. Nobody says it aloud but there is a residual sense within Galway football that Corofin are almost unbeatable.
That partly informed Donnellan’s decision to spring an all-out defensive plan in the final. It almost worked, and in the replay Mountbellew held Corofin to 1-8. But the element of surprise was gone.
“We were 9 to 1 going into the final, and a lot of people would have said it was damage limitation. And, yeah, we had probably caught Corofin a little bit. They had beaten us by 10 points the year before. We came within 10 seconds of pulling off an incredible shock.
“But that’s the thing about Corofin – they can play it however you want. We took a huge amount of encouragement from being able to go toe to toe with them for 60 minutes. Because at the back of your mind was a bit of fear and trepidation that it could be another hammering. After all, they went out the week after playing us and ran up 4-22 against Clann na Gael.”
Tom McHugh knows the club felt the scythe brushing past them that afternoon in Pearse Stadium, Galway. This golden era cannot be infinite.
“If Mountbellew had perhaps been more cynical and fouled us out by the sideline, then I think they would probably be county champions. And I think they would have come close at All-Ireland level too because they have done everything right.”
The observation mirrors a general pattern within Galway football where other teams and managers imagine alternative scenarios and outcomes if only Corofin were not such an immovable force.
The McHughs are one of those perpetual Corofin football families. In researching the history of the club, Tom McHugh can identify a number of years when the club could have gone in any direction, and the transformation over the past two decades.
“If I could condense it to just one thing it is a commitment for a long, long time to underage coaching and football.”
Frank Morris is generally credited with drawing up the blueprint for a concentrated focus on fundamental skills.
“Frank was club secretary at the time, and he took over and placed an awful lot of emphasis on skill. He was a former player with St Jarlath’s, and had been with St Enda’s but was a real thinker about the game.
“Outside commentators talk about how good Corofin are on the ball. But it is incredibly hard work to keep that going. Everything that is in place now is his legacy. And if you watch some of the training sessions it can be breathtaking because there is so much freedom to try these things.”
To a pattern
There are now 340 registered club players from under-6 to under-17. The club has 48 registered coaches. “They aren’t all experts by any means but they do things to a pattern,” says McHugh.
Cultivating youngsters within their club catchment and finessing their coaching has enabled the club to produce enviably strong teams year after year.
In 1992, Corofin won their first minor title since 1975, and then went on to own that grade for the following eight years. McHugh believes that perhaps the most skilful underage footballer to come out of the club was Derek Reilly, who played on a celebrated St Jarlath’s school team with Pádraig Joyce and Dunmore’s Michael Donnellan.
Newspaper reports from the 1994 Galway minor final, to which Reilly contributed 3-6, speak of the youngster in superlatives. He was still eligible for minor a year later. One of his goals that afternoon was branded with an unforgettable touch.
He was a starring player on the team that Ray Silke would captain to Corofin’s maiden All-Ireland four years later, even if his adult career did not result in the kind of profile in Galway colours that his talent presaged.
In September 1998, Galway won an emotive Sam Maguire with Silke as captain: it had been a perfect year. And the sense of abundant health within the club helped to convince the 1998 team that they could become more ambitious.
Yet Silke admits that none of them then foresaw what Corofin would become.
“There was a feeling that we could win an All-Ireland club. But three more since then? You couldn’t predict that. Like, Liam Silke is six years playing senior club football and has yet to lose a match in county championship football.”
McHugh details Sunday’s team into two distinct minor groups. The 2008 minor side featured Lundy and Michael Farragher, and had been one of those serial-winning juvenile outfits that steamrollered all-comers. Their 2004 Féile winning team included Dáithí Burke, then aged 11.
The 2012 minor team had had the opposite life experience, suffering heavy defeats at under-14 and under-16 grade before suddenly clicking at minor. Liam Silke, Martin Farragher, Jason Leonard, Dylan Wall, Conor Cunningham and Colm Brady all emerged from that side, and all play prominent roles at senior grade.
When Stephen Rochford was scouted and identified as the ideal candidate to take Corofin one step further in 2015, it coincided with a sweeping change in approach. Traditionally Corofin had a reputation for defensive excellence but Rochford and David Morris saw the potential in developing a side capable of obliterating teams through pure attacking football.
When Silke recalls 1998, he acknowledges that directness was there.
“You were trying to get the ball up as fast as you could, but it wouldn’t be as streamlined as it is now. Right now Corofin want all of their teams to play the same style of football through the ranks: a brand, if you like. One hop pass into space and try and feed the full-forward line.”
The conscience of the present team is located within senior figures like Kieran Fitzgerald, who won a senior All-Ireland with Galway back in 2001, the phenomenally consistent Gary Sice, former captain Ciarán McGrath, and Cathal Silke.
Culture of excellence
“They remind me of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny in that there is such a culture of excellence in the group driven by management and that senior group,” says Donnellan. “They just keep going.”
He will be in Croke Park on Sunday as an unabashed Corofin supporter until the local championship starts again in a few months. Then the issue of how to unseat them will occupy the other football strongholds of the county. It won’t be easy.
“The reality for clubs all over the county is that that they are struggling for funds and people are volunteering. But Corofin have set professional standards in their structures and how they plan things. Even before Corofin became as dominant, when I was still playing with them, you would have heard a mixed feeling towards the club.
“On one hand there was a feeling that they were dominating too much. But on the other side there is a huge admiration in Galway for what they have achieved.
“And this brand of attacking football, and their phenomenal kick-passers of the ball is something to behold. They play the game the right way.”