Corofin look to repeat recent history at Croke Park
North Galway side come full circle as they face Nemo Rangers in All-Ireland club final
Corofin line out for their semi-final win against Moorefield in the All-Ireland Senior Football Club Championship semi-final at Bord na Mona O’Connor Park in Tullamore, Co Offaly, in February. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Everything is circular. When Corofin popped up and won the All-Ireland club final 20 years ago, their presence caused a ripple of excitement across the football strongholds of Galway. It had been a while since maroon football had had anything to shout about. That win, over Erin’s Isle, was just the beginning. Before the year closed, Corofin captain Ray Silke had also lifted the Sam Maguire in a revolutionary All-Ireland season. John O’Mahony fashioned a team out of dauntless senior players such as Kevin Walsh and a crew of young guns fronted by Michael Donnellan and Pádraic Joyce.
“What I remember then, at the age of 21, was that I thought that 40 years of age was ancient,” Joyce says drily. “That’s changed.”
But some things haven’t. The national sound and vision may be concentrated on events in Twickenham this afternoon but, in Croke Park at 2pm, Corofin will contest the club All-Ireland against Nemo Rangers. The north Galway side have shaped the local game over the last decade, winning six Galway titles since 2010 when they lost to Joyce’s Killererin. For rivals, their consistent excellence is frustrating, but Joyce reckons that simply waiting for it to end is fruitless.
“Look, it is not going to end anytime soon. You have to look at the catchment area. Most clubs pick from two national schools; maybe three maximum. Corofin have five or six. So they have a huge big area to pick from. But at the same time you have to admire the way that John Raftery and these lads run the club. They are always knocking around. Kevin O’Brien is manager now and he played with them for years. They maintain the club ethos. When Gary Sice and these guys go along to the gym they bring a young lad with them just to show them what is going on and what is expected. They won Galway at a canter for the past few years and they may lose the odd one, but they are going to be strong.”
The Corofin win 20 years ago came from nowhere and emboldened other Galway clubs. Caltra and Knockncarra took their chance out of the county and Corofin won a second title in 2015. “When they won it in 1998 it gave the whole of Galway football a massive lift. Whereas this weekend a lot of people are probably expecting Corofin to win it,” Joyce points out.
Irrespective of the result, it has been a rich spring for Galway. On April 13th, the Tribesmen supporters’ club are hosting an anniversary lunch to get the 1998 All-Ireland champions back in the same room again.
“I work with John Divilly and you’d see the odd fella every now and again, but not that often,” says Joyce. The idea is to reminisce and hopefully raise some money for the current squad. Galway’s championship meeting with Mayo – on May 13th in Castlebar – is bound to come up in conversation that day. By then, Corofin’s county contingent will have returned to the panel; reintegrating those players into a side that has been exceptionally tight and focused all spring is the next challenge for Kevin Walsh.
“There are pros and cons,” Joyce says of Corofin’s run. “It means Kevin doesn’t really get access to the players until the club is over. It can be difficult but I am sure that Kevin realised they will have whatever number coming back and I presume the Corofin lads have been doing the gym programme. There was a time there when Galway wasn’t going well and Corofin only had one or two on the county squad.
We had Mayo then and it got physical and a bit nasty, and the lads stood up to it
“But quite a few players have come through recently. Ian Burke is a special player – very small but such quick hands and great speed of thought. What I like about him as a forward is that he can’t just see the next pass; he can see two passes ahead of where the ball can be.”
The Corofin dimension is for the summer. On Sunday in Salthill, Kevin Walsh’s team host Dublin in what is an advance screening of the league final: neither side has been beaten in the competition this year. In a strange way, it’s an intriguing game. On the league table, the result will mean nothing. But for the hosts, it feels like a big moment. Galway returned to Division One with muted expectations. Now, an increasingly anxious public will look to see if the form-team of the league can do anything to halt Dublin’s all-conquering machine. For Joyce, watching his county team this spring has been a pleasant surprise.
“The five games they have won have all been different types of games. Obviously, the first day against Tuam it was one of those heavy days, and it is a hard place to win a ball and turn on a sixpence and get away from your man. But we dug it out and that was great to see. I felt they did really well against Donegal and probably could have won an open game by more.
“We had Mayo then and it got physical and a bit nasty, and the lads stood up to it. Winning away to Kerry was just a great result. It’s not often Galway win games down there so it was real confidence boost for the team. And they still missed three or four goal chances that day – they weren’t as clinical as they might have been. Then against Monaghan, the sending-off had a big bearing. But every game they won has been different. And they are working very hard.”
Galway have been a breath of fresh air amid the prevailing mood of awe and fear generated by Dublin. There is no secret as to how Dublin will approach this game: they will field a strong side and will impose their way of playing and their athleticism on the occasion. It will be up to the other team to respond.
The dilemma for Galway is whether to rest some players – particularly those involved in the Sigerson Cup over the spring – now that they are already through to the league final. If they push as hard as they can in Salthill, it will be in the knowledge that Dublin will accumulate a mountain of information ahead of that league showpiece. But as newbies in division one, they can hardly afford to be cavalier in preparing for the three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions and a team that has just cruised past all-comers this spring.
“Do you try and actually play them this weekend and give fellas a feel of what they are about or do you throw them in cold in two weeks’ time and get a real feel? I would look at it as an opportunity, not a problem. It is a step up – they are the best team in the country for a mile.”
It’s a shot to nothing against a team that has ripped up the guide ball. An All-Ireland club final and a league final warm-up: there have been colder St Patrick’s weekends for Galway football.