Every team has a certain lifespan. Or every ordinary team anyway. Jim Gavin’s greatest trick with Dublin has been to take away the ups and downs that come with having to retire lads and bring in new blood all in one go. He has made the Dubs immune to all that, constantly changing things as he goes, keeping everybody fighting to improve each year.
But that’s not the norm. In real life, you rise and fall over a period of years and the trick, if you can manage it, is to make the absolute most of those few years when you have the players and when the road is kind to you.
Take Monaghan last year. They had a group of players coming together at their peak. They had a nice run through the qualifiers. They had Kerry on the rack in Clones and went to Salthill the following week to put in probably the best performance of their time under Malachy O’Rourke. But then they faltered in the semi-final against Tyrone.
Look at them this year and they give the impression of a team that knows their chance of making an All-Ireland final has been and gone. They had a bad league after the first game against Dublin, they lost to Cavan in Ulster and made heavy weather of beating Fermanagh. And now they have another Ulster team to face in Armagh.
One way or another, this is a team with a crucial summer ahead of them
You'd wonder if it's still in their heads somewhere that last year was the year. Mayo and Kerry were in the doldrums, they avoided Dublin in the semi-final – maybe that was their shot at it. And when it's gone, it's usually gone for a while. These things go in cycles.
Now take Galway. A team at a different point in their cycle, maybe one heading to the stage where Monaghan were last year. One way or another, this is a team with a crucial summer ahead of them. It’s not that they’re an ageing side – they’re not. It’s more that they’ve come to the point where they need to kick on to be serious contenders. They don’t have to win the All-Ireland but they do have to end the year feeling they’ve done themsleves justice.
This is Kevin Walsh’s fifth year in charge. He has turned them from a flaky group who were way too far down the pecking order into a strong, tough proposition for anyone to have to play. Under him, Galway have turned around the train out west and put a stop to Mayo’s dominance and they’ve moved up into Division One of the league where they belong.
The obvious next step is to challenge for an All-Ireland. But does anybody really and truly see them in those terms? If they do, they’re keeping it to themselves! You have the Dubs out on their own, maybe Kerry and Mayo next, possibly Donegal after last weekend and at a push Tyrone if they can regather themselves. I don’t hear too many people shouting about Galway.
That shouldn’t be the case. At this point in their lifespan, with all they’ve done in their province and in the league, Galway should be a team that everyone sees as being in the mix. With the players they have, with the tradition they have, plenty of support and all the rest of it. But even so, nobody is convinced about them.
The big let-down with Galway is that they don't make the best of the talent they have. A team with Shane Walsh, Damien Comer, Ian Burke and Michael Daly available to it should be built to serve that sort of creative and scoring power. But Galway are too stuck in systems, too rigid and too defensive.
When’s the last time you saw a Galway game that made you sit up and go, ‘Wow, that’s something new?’ Beating Kerry in Croke Park last year in the Super-8s was a brilliant result but it was a dog of a game. The win over Kildare in Newbridge was much better – high-paced, high-scoring and maybe hinting at a more expansive way of playing that could do something for them later on. But then they just retreated into their shell against Monaghan and lay down very easily against Dublin.
Galway’s problem now is that they’re running out of time. You don’t have to get old to get stale. All you need to do is stand still while the teams around you are pushing on. That’s what makes this summer such a make or break time for this Galway team.
Let’s say Galway beat Roscommon on Sunday, which they’re more than capable of – what then? If they go into the Super-8s with the same style of football as they had last year, we already know it will only bring them so far. The northern teams have come to that conclusion already so the onus is on Galway to realise it as well.
If they don’t evolve, chances are they’ll end up going out at the same stage as last year or possibly earlier. And if they do that, all they’re really doing is biding their time before they fall back again.
Will they change? All we have to go on is the way they set up in the league and a couple of routine games against London and Sligo. From anything I saw of them, they’re still intent on packing their defence, getting numbers back and relying on a bit of unpredictability from Walsh to drive their attack. If that’s their strategy for the big tests coming over the horizon, well, lots of luck fellas.
Like everybody, I love Shane Walsh as a player. He can do anything with a football. He carries on that Galway pedigree of going out and playing with flair and pace whenever he can get on the ball.
Go back to Michael Donnell and Ja Fallon and Val Daly and even all the way back to Purcell and Stockwell. You watch Shane Walsh playing and at times you think he's right up there in that company.
But then, at times, it’s as if he has too many skills. What I mean by it is that because he can do so many things, Galway are nearly happy to leave him off and let him try as many as he likes. Because they’re so predictable in the way they set up, it’s as though they’re half-going, ‘Right Shane, we’ve stopped the other crowd – now you go and do your thing, whatever it is this time’.
And so he has a licence to play whatever he sees in front of him. Sometimes it comes off and it’s great. But there’s such a small percentage in that and it gets smaller and smaller as you come up against the better teams. So what you end up with is Walsh trying things he shouldn’t, having a go with his left leg when a right-legged shot is on, nearly confusing himself at times.
When that happens, you can’t really blame Shane Walsh. Not completely anyway. It’s a bit negligent on his part and you’d expect better from the leader of your attack. But eventually you have to ask yourself why he’s doing it. It’s either being coached or it’s being allowed. Either way, it isn’t going to survive in Croke Park in August.
I would say that more of the blame has to go to the system he’s playing in. Galway look to be to be a team that do an awful lot of work on the defensive side of things and then leave it to the individual skills of their forwards to sort out the scoring side of it – when they’re finished with their defensive duties.
When you start to lose your public, the lifespan of your team gets shorter every day
They have plenty of defensive structure but what’s their attacking structure? I don’t see a lot of strategy with them when they go forward with the ball. To me, they look to be winging it a lot of the time, hoping the likes of Walsh or Burke or Comer will come up with something. That’s not going to get it done.
Go back and watch Donegal the other night against Tyrone. They had plenty of men back, very solid in defence. But when they attacked, it was strategic. There were men running everywhere, options left and right. And they changed it around from time to time.
That point near the end of the first half where Michael Murphy went in on the edge of the square and just played as a full-forward for a few minutes – that was a lovely bit of variation and Tyrone couldn't handle it. Do Galway have any of that in them for Sunday? We'll have to wait and see.
There’s a key point here to consider as well and that’s the Galway football crowd. I get the sense that they’ve had their fill of Galway playing so defensively, especially since it always seems to fizzle out for them in the end. If they were going down in flames of glory every year, that would be one thing. But that’s not how it has been.
When you start to lose your public, the lifespan of your team gets shorter every day. Galway need to start evolving and pushing on this summer or they’ll find themselves wondering where all the time went.