If you were a player in the Galway camp this week, the biggest job you’d have ahead of Saturday would be shaking the doubts that have come into your head all of a sudden.
There you were, going along through your summer happy as Larry. You were building momentum game on game, everybody heading in the right direction. Mayo, Kerry, Kildare – all beaten. No doubt about it, you were a contender for Sam Maguire.
One of two things happened against Monaghan last Saturday and neither of them is any good to Galway heading to Croke Park to face Dublin. Either they were consciously not trying a leg and saving themselves for the semi-final or they were trying and that’s as good as they are.
They’re a bit like the manager fella Robert De Niro fires in the movie Casino. “Listen,” he says, “if you didn’t know you were being scammed, you’re too f***in’ dumb to keep this job. And if you did know, you were in on it. Either way, you’re out.”
As the Galway players come together now and try to put a game plan in place for the Dubs, that’s got to be in their heads. Which is it? Do they know? Can they say for sure? If it was the case that they were taking it handy, how do they know they’re going to be able to turn it back on again? If it was just that Monaghan are a better team than them, how are they going to live with Dublin?
I don't buy this idea that they took a dive. I don't even know how that would work. They put out their strongest team, for a start. The easiest way to take a dive – if that's what you wanted to do – would have been make half a dozen changes, rest a few lads here and there, maybe throws a few big guns on at the end to keep them ticking over. But Kevin Walsh didn't do that – you'd imagine that 13, maybe 14 of the starters the last day will play against Dublin.
There is basically no good time to get Dublin. They are the same band of killers no matter when you meet them.
To me, that blows any conspiracy theory out of the water straight away. Because if you think you can organise a team of 15 fellas and six subs to lose a game on purpose, and to keep them all quiet about it, you’re kidding yourself.
How many times have you heard stories coming out a year later about this tactic or that tactic or whatever else? How in the name of God could you expect to keep a deliberate defeat under wraps? It would be easier to organise them to win the All-Ireland!
So we can discount that idea. A more likely scenario is that they just weren’t at it. They went out with the sort of attitude that you have in the last Sunday of the league. ‘No need to kill ourselves here, lads, we’ll hold what we have and we’ll keep our powder dry.’ When you saw them being so tentative in the tackle, standing off, not pressing tight on the Monaghan runners, that’s what it looked like.
But even that is totally confusing to me. What’s going through your head if you’re going out with that attitude? Why would you actually think like that? This is a week before an All-Ireland semi-final, you’ve three games in a month to win an All-Ireland. The only direction you should be going in right now is up.
Your body and your mind are like a coiled spring when it comes to the All-Ireland series. Every day, you’re asking yourself questions over and over again to reassure yourself that you’re in the right state for the game that’s coming round the corner.
Am I right? Am I ready? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Am I eating stuff that’s safe and won’t give me a bug two days before the game? Do I know who I’m up against? Have I found enough out about him? questions, questions, questions. The whole idea is to wind that spring tighter and tighter so that you explode into the game when the ball is thrown in.
Galway didn’t explode into anything on Saturday night. Somewhere along the way, it looks like they convinced themselves that this game didn’t matter. How they could do that when the price of losing is a game against the Dubs is beyond me. I don’t think there’s any chance that they can turn that mindset around in a the space of a week.
As for this lunatic idea that the place to catch Dublin is an All-Ireland semi-final, that’s pure phone-in stuff. Tyrone caught them alright last year – they caught them full in the face. There is basically no good time to get Dublin. They are the same band of killers no matter when you meet them. You either bring your best stuff or you’re gone inside the first 10 minutes.
The question that must be in Galway’s head now is what is their best stuff actually worth? Maybe they’re just not at the level people thought they were. Go back and look at their performances – it’s not the strongest formline you’ve ever seen. They beat Mayo – okay, fine. But Galway have always been able to beat Mayo and vice-versa, no matter how well one or other of them are going at the time. They beat Roscommon in the Connacht final – but Roscommon were the better team in the first half.
They beat Kerry – that doesn’t exactly stand up as a major boast now that all’s said and done. I was optimistic for Kerry’s chances this time last week but as the dust has settled, we can all see that they weren’t anything to write home about. And finally, Galway beat Kildare, who gave them plenty of it in Newbridge a couple of weeks ago.
So add it all up and maybe the cold, harsh truth of it is that Galway are a decent team but not All-Ireland contenders. They’re obviously tough and physical and formidable, which is enough to carry you past a lot of teams but when it gets to the business end of things, you need more.
For one thing, I don't think they've solved the Damien Comer problem. Since he rampaged around Croke Park against Dublin in the league final, he hasn't had too many stand-out games. Roscommon held him out of the Connacht final until the closing few minutes, he had a bit of joy against Kildare alright but Kerry and Monaghan both kept him to a point.
A few times on Saturday, you could see him back in the Galway defence, trying to stand-up Karl O'Connell or Ryan McAnespie and get a tackle in. That's not what Galway should be trying to do. It's one thing if you're Paul Mannion, chasing back to get a turnover. It's a different story if you're just another drone standing in a line with fellas running past you. Every team has an army of lads who can do that. Not every team has Damien Comer. They surely can't have him doing that against Dublin. Not when he gave them such a roasting in the league final.
But beyond the nuts and bolts, I still come back to mindset. Galway are about to be the first team ever to play in an All-Ireland semi-final after losing their previous game. The other three teams are coming in here on a high.
The Dubs are the Dubs, 26 championship games unbeaten and no end in sight. Monaghan are the coming team, proving themselves at a stage of the championship where they’ve never done it before. Tyrone are growing all the time, pouring in huge scores off the bench and buzzing with confidence.
None of those teams have to spend even a minute this week trying to shake off negativity from last weekend. Whereas Galway, even now in midweek, must still have some part of them that’s looking over their shoulder and thinking, ‘What in the name of God was that?’ They’re like a fella driving along the road and going, ‘Was that a dig or a cat I drove over? Will I go back and check? Do I have time? Does it matter?’
It matters alright. Galway have somehow got themselves into a position where they’re heading up to play the best team in the country without knowing for sure what shape they’re in. They won’t know until it’s too late on Saturday night. That’s criminal in an All-Ireland semi-final.
As for Monaghan, I definitely underestimated them to some extent last week. I was probably one of those pundits they were giving out about afterwards, who felt that they were overreliant on Conor McManus. Fair play to them, they showed they had more strings to their bow. They had eight different scorers and they didn’t lean too heavily on getting frees to build a score.
The test for them now is whether that supporting cast can come again against Tyrone. They’ve done it once already this championship but then they went out the next day and lost to Fermanagh. That defeat, as much as anything, probably coloured my idea of them. that just felt like same old Monaghan, capable of a big performance against anyone on a given day but then flatter to deceive when it looks like they have a chance to do something.
But here they are, 70 minutes away from a final and well worth their place. You have to be very impressed with how they reacted to the Kerry game. Whereas most of the country was thinking they’d blown their chance, they came away from that game even more convinced of their credentials than before.
When the dust settled, the facts of that game were that they had given Kerry a good trimming everywhere except the scoreboard. They bought into that completely and went to Salthill boosted by it.
They're getting massive totals from their subs whereas Monaghan have gone the last four games without a single score off the bench
Now they have an All-Ireland semi-final against a team they’re so familiar with; they’ve no reason whatsoever to travel in fear. This is a 50-50 game, there’s no other way to see it. Everyone in Monaghan would have taken that at the start of the summer.
As far as I can see, the only major advantage Tyrone have coming into it is a much deeper bench. They’re getting massive totals from their subs whereas Monaghan have gone the last four games without a single score off the bench. Monaghan have the better team but Tyrone have more options to call on when the game is in the balance.
In a game with almost nothing to choose between the sides, I think maybe that makes it 51-49 in favour of Tyrone.