Watching Galway throw away their Division One status on Sunday was hard enough for me as a neutral observer so I can only imagine how horrific it is going to be for Pádraic Joyce and his players when they go through the video. Monaghan deserve all the credit in the world for sticking to their task but they shouldn't have had a hope. Their destiny should have been kept out of their hands.
Galway couldn’t close it out even though they were five points up in the 68th minute. That’s shocking at any level but it’s really unforgivable for a Division One team. You don’t always get what you deserve in sport but Galway couldn’t argue with what happened to them on Sunday. They played more than enough football to get a result but playing well and winning are two separate skills. You need to be able to play good football to get to Division One. You need to be able to win to stay there.
Monaghan are in Division One longer than every team in Ireland apart from Dublin and Kerry. You look around the country and you find plenty of teams that can play better football than them but all of them have been relegated at one stage or another over the past few years. Monaghan have gone into the last game of the league needing a result three or four times and they’ve always managed to find it. Why are they able to do it and teams like Galway aren’t?
I know you can say the league is the league or whatever but Galway are one of the teams that will only develop properly in Division One. The way they shot themselves in the foot in the closing minutes of that game gave me the impression they didn’t really understand what was at stake. They didn’t protect the ball, they didn’t protect their goal, they didn’t protect their lead. It must be killing Joyce that they gave up a Division One spot so cheaply.
It has been such a miserable 16 months for them. I think it’s fair to say that no team has had their momentum interrupted by the pandemic more than Galway have. Compare their before and after results and it makes for lousy reading. In the first five games of the 2020 league they beat Monaghan, only lost to Kerry in injury time, walloped Tyrone and beat both Donegal and Meath on their home patches. They were top of Division One, they had the most goals of anyone in the country. They were flying.
Look at what they’ve offered since. Hammered by Mayo on their first day back in October. Beaten by Dublin the following week. Lost by a point to Mayo in the Connacht final. On to this year’s league and they’ve been trounced by Kerry, lost to the Dubs, beaten Roscommon and now caught at the death by Monaghan. They’ve gone from a run of four wins from five games to one where they have just one win from their last seven.
The thing is, they could have washed an awful lot of that away on Sunday. If you end your league by going to Clones to beat Monaghan and stay in Division One, you can look at everything that went before in a different light.
The hiding in Tralee? Sure look, every team gets a trimming from time to time. And also, it was their first game in six months. There was no line of form, everyone was flying blind. And didn’t they come back the following week and beat Roscommon by six points? And weren’t they within a kick of a ball against Dublin until the Dubs got a goal in injury time?
You can convince anyone of anything when you win the game that matters – including yourselves! Imagine Galway at training this week if they had closed that game out. There’d be a huge buzz around the place. They’d be mad for road, knowing they have three weeks to get ready for Roscommon, who have just been relegated. The summer would be full of possibilities.
Instead, they’re having tough conversations about where they’re going wrong. They’re going back to the drawing board and having to talk about the fundamental things you need to do to close a game out. Basic stuff like making the opposition have to take potshots, forcing them away from posts, giving them no sniff of a goal under any circumstances.
This is the learning you are supposed to do in Division One. But after four years in the top division, look at the three key scores that relegated Galway. Each one of them was fairly preventable at any time in any game – but to give them up with so much at stake makes you wonder what good the four years has done them.
The most important score was Darren Hughes’s goal. Without it, Monaghan didn’t have enough time to draw level in normal time. Above all else, that had to be Galway’s mantra. They can’t survive without a goal, lads. We don’t concede.
When Niall Kearns got possession, he was basically in the corner-forward position, top of the right. That's the first place it should have ended. Two Galway defenders went out to Kearns – even the smallest bit of communication between them would have cut off the endline and made him turn back away from goal.
Instead, all it took was a quick shimmy and he was around the first man and suddenly the second one – their full-back Seán Mulkerrin – was in no man’s land. He wasn’t doubling up to turn Kearns back, he wasn’t cutting off the cross and he wasn’t protecting the square. Again, the goal was all that mattered at that point. All Mulkerrin had to do was one of those three things and the goal wouldn’t have happened.
And that's before we get to Johnny Duane's defending once Hughes collected the ball. You could maybe have a small bit of sympathy for him on the basis that he had only just gone on to Hughes after Paul Conroy was black-carded.
But again, isn't that a perfect summing up of how little Galway have learned about closing out a game? Conroy was having a great game, he was driving Galway on from midfield, really standing out. And then he got involved in a stupid tussle with Hughes over a sideline ball and pulled his ankle from under him for the easiest black card David Gough will ever give. That's one of your leaders taking himself out of the game with relegation on the line. No wonder Joyce didn't want to talk to the media after the game.
As for Duane, he probably didn’t feel overly comfortable being the last man back on the edge of the square. But even so, you can’t get turned like that so close to goal. At least make Hughes shoot with his bad foot. Duane made such a bad decision that it would actually have been better for Galway if he hadn’t moved at all. If he had literally stood still, there was a better chance of Hughes hitting him with the ball. Instead, he opened up the only route to goal.
That was the killer score. But even after it, Galway didn’t need to lose the game. They got themselves a point ahead and tackled like demons through the last play of the game to try and turn Monaghan over. And they very nearly got there. But in the end, they allowed Conor McManus to score an equaliser from the middle of the pitch on the edge of the D.
Great players make great plays. All you can do is try to make them have to do something special to beat you. Monaghan have called on McManus countless times over the years to get them out of a hole – would this one even be in his top 20? Once he had possession, all he had to do was cut inside onto his good foot and score from straight in front of the posts.
Galway had that game won and they found several ways not to win it
I know the game was in the melting pot. There were bodies everywhere and it can’t have been easy to keep a clear head. But if you’re Galway, you have to know that the one thing Monaghan want more than anything is to get McManus on the ball in the middle of the pitch. Whatever else happens, you can’t let that be the last shot of the match. Somebody has to make that his mission throughout that last Monaghan attack. Nobody did.
Maybe the worst of all was Jack McCarron's point at the end of extra time. At least for the other two scores, Monaghan had the ball. For this one, Galway got a block on a shot from McManus and it dropped short, meaning the Galway goalkeeper Connor Gleeson had the ball in his hands with 10 seconds left on the clock.
Galway couldn’t win the game from there. They could only draw it and send it to penalties or they could lose it. They showed no sense that they knew this.
Gleeson got rid of the ball as quickly as possible, dishing it off to his corner-back, even though Monaghan had far more men down the stand side of the pitch than Galway had. All it took was for the next handpass to be overhit and Monaghan had the ball back.
These are just bad decisions. Gleeson needed to know not to go down that side of the pitch. He needed to know how long was left and that they had to run down the clock. The corner-back needed to play a better pass out of defence. Even when McCarron got the ball, he still had a Galway man between him and the goal. You can’t bite on a dummy in that situation. Basic defending is turning a left-footed shooter back onto his right. If you’re going to beat us, Jack, let’s see you do it with your right foot.
Galway did none of this. That has to be the most frustrating thing for Joyce. If one mistake costs you a game, you can write it off. It’s tough on the guy who makes it but sport is sport. That’s just how it goes sometimes. But for those three key scores, Galway made close to a dozen mistakes – in positioning, in decision-making, in technique – when doing the right thing even once would have changed the result.
There is no shame in losing to Monaghan in Clones and being relegated. They are vastly experienced, they are hardy, they have some of the best ever players still going strong. But Galway had that game won and they found several ways not to win it.
Going into another knockout championship, that doesn’t bode well for them.