There was a fella back in west Kerry years ago who was known as The Cricket. He was always talking about the crickets – by which he meant critics, although I’m not sure he knew one way or the other whether there was any difference.
“Don’t mind the crickets, Sé,” he’d say to you after you might have had a bad game and people were giving out about you. “The crickets will always have something to be going on about.”
I came up against Kevin Walsh a good few times when we were back in our playing days. He was big and awkward to get around and didn't stand for any messing. The very last thing he will ever have on his mind is the crickets, even though there are plenty of them around these days.
Does he hear people giving out about Galway’s defensive style of play? Probably. Does he care? Not for a second. Let the crickets have their say, it means nothing to him.
People will always complain, regardless of what you do. I remember walking out of Croke Park after the 2014 All-Ireland final with Kerry just after lifting Sam Maguire. It was a poor game but sure what about it? The year was over, the All-Ireland was won and we’d lost enough epics to last a lifetime. And yet who did I meet on my way out of Croke Park? A Kerry fella who said: “We’re going nowhere with that Kerry team.”
Galway are a coming team, that's obvious to everyone. They're fast, they're physical, they're very difficult to play against. Even just those three things put together should be enough to carry you past most teams in the country and should definitely be enough to see you into the Super 8s. Whether or not Galway go any further than that depends on what use they can make of their most skilful players.
The team Walsh was a part of made the most out of their flair players. That Galway team was all about getting the ball to Pádraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Ja Fallon, with Declan Meehan and Seán Óg de Paor bombing on from the wings. They had bags of talent and serious pace and were beautiful to watch in full flow. The rest of the team played to serve those lads with the ball and no better man than Kevin Walsh to lead that effort.
Football has changed in the 20 years since they won their first All-Ireland but I think it still holds true that if you're going to win an All-Ireland, you need to set up your team so that the hod-carriers are working in service of your best players. For Galway, those guys are the likes of Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Eamon Brannigan and Seán Armstrong. I'd worry in the long run that their defensive system calls on these guys to do too much donkey work. Against the better teams, that's going to leave them short at the other end.
There’s no question but that Galway needed to develop a better way of defending than they had previously. They were beaten far too easily when they got to Croke Park in recent years and there’s no future in that for any decent team. If a team is poor defensively, you can’t be giving out about them addressing the problem. What’s the alternative?
I was at Kerry’s game against Clare there a couple of weeks ago and I saw Clare line up man-for-man with no sweepers, no blanket defence, no nothing really. And it was a lovely game to watch altogether, with a fast, young Kerry team happily running up a score of 0-32. But was it the right thing for Clare to do? Not from where I was sitting. They looked totally naïve to me, in that they didn’t do anything to address the problems that would be caused by Kerry’s forwards having lots of space.
So I don’t really have any major issue with Galway going more defensive. They’re getting a bit of grief for it but they had to do something. They couldn’t arrive back to Croke Park with the same defensive set-up they had last year and the year before. Kieran Donaghy had them beaten after 15 minutes in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. If that doesn’t make you sit down over the winter and come up with something different, you have no business being in charge.
The reason they get a bit of grief over it is the quality of the players they have going forward. Shane Walsh can be infuriating at times. He has so much ability, class and craft that you see him sometimes and you wonder why he isn’t an automatic All Star every year.
He kicked a free against Kerry in the league match this year that had to be seen to be believed. He kicked it off the ground with his left leg with a style that I haven’t seen in anyone since Maurice Fitzgerald.
But Galway’s return from Shane Walsh’s ability is just too low. They don’t get enough bang for his buck. He is electric when he’s running the ball but what use is that to Galway if he is collecting possession in his own half-back line? The knock-on effect of it is that he sometimes overcomplicates things when he does find himself in position within reach of the goal. He sometimes looks like he is trying to show what he can do – maybe because he has spent too much time doing the mundane stuff back in defence.
When I marked Seán Cavanagh in the 2005 All-Ireland final, it took me a while to work out that he had been given special licence by Mickey Harte, excusing him from chasing back into the defence
There were a couple of games in the league where even Damien Comer found himself back in the Galway defence putting in tackles and breaking up the play. You didn’t see him do that against Dublin or against Mayo so they’ve obviously told him it’s not on his to-do list. You can see him growing by the game as a result.
Comer is a prime example of what is possible for Galway. He is loving being the leader of their attack. You can see it in him – he wants the responsibility, he wants the opposition to come up with plans especially for him. One marker, two markers, a sweeper in front – bring it on, lads. Whatever ye have, bring it on.
You’d pay a lot in any transfer market for someone with that attitude added to that physical strength. Galway have a unique asset in Comer so it’s vital they use him properly. He scored a point against Mayo and then chased back after the kick-out, hunting down fellas for 70 yards all the way back into the defence.
I would hope that someone took him aside afterwards and said: “Fair play Damien, great effort, great honesty – now never do that again.”
He has to be excused all the tracking back and getting in defensive formation. The system has to be designed to let him do damage where it matters. If he finds himself 70 yards from goal marking a zone, then the system hasn’t worked.
Defensive systems come in two forms – one designed to contain the opposition and one designed to give you a platform to attack. When people were giving out about Tyrone’s blanket defence away back in the 2000s, they were totally missing the point. I played against those teams and there was far more to them than just getting men behind the ball.
When I marked Seán Cavanagh in the 2005 All-Ireland final, it took me a while to work out that he had been given special licence by Mickey Harte, excusing him from chasing back into the defence. Any time he went forward, I would be doing my duty and going with him stride for stride. But when the boot was on the other foot, he stayed put in midfield and waited for the ball to come to him.
Trying to play against that was a bit unsettling. You had an advantage going forward with the ball because you’d lost your man. But you also knew you had to make it count. Half the idea from their point of view was for me to think I was away in a hack. They wanted me bombing on so that when they got a turn over, Cavanagh was on his own in the middle of the pitch and the counter-attack was on straight away.
For Galway to survive against the better teams in Croke Park, they need to give the likes of Comer and Walsh that sort of licence. That defensive style they’ve developed has to be a springboard for their forwards, who have more pace to burn than most teams.
I noticed when they were talking about the big job they've done on Dr Hyde Park that they've made it exactly the same size as Croke Park
Dublin have shown time and time against Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal that there is no point coming to Croke Park looking to frustrate them and get men behind the ball. Galway have too many good players for that.
The Connacht final against Roscommon on Sunday will give them a really good idea of where they stand. I’m told the Rossies gave Cork a good trimming in a challenge game recently and Kevin McStay is too clever a coach to just send his players running down blind alleys.
I noticed when they were talking about the big job they’ve done on Dr Hyde Park that they’ve made it exactly the same size as Croke Park. You’d expect Roscommon to use every bit of it to try and drag the Galway players out of position. If they can do that and if they can be patient and take their scores, I would give the Rossies a good chance on Sunday.
The crickets would be fairly out for Kevin Walsh then!