Galway come out from the shadows to face Roscommon

Having ended Mayo’s recent dominance in the province, the Tribesmen still have something to prove

Thomas Flynn celebrates with Damien Comer after scoring Galway’s winning goal against Mayo in the Connacht championship semi-final at McHale Park last month. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho.

Thomas Flynn celebrates with Damien Comer after scoring Galway’s winning goal against Mayo in the Connacht championship semi-final at McHale Park last month. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho.

 

No matter what happens in Pearse Stadium on Sunday, Galway football is beginning to move from the shadows. The county has had gaps before: it failed to house the Nestor Cup between 1945 and ’54 and also went from 1987 to ’95 without a provincial championship. But in the seven years since their 2008 title, Galway football people have watched on as Mayo, their perpetual rivals, seemed to move into a different realm of ambition and organisation.

Galway have effectively been observers at Mayo’s parade. That was why the sacking of Mayo in Castlebar in June was so important. It vindicated whatever Kevin Walsh and his squad told themselves in the run-up to the match.

One of the most significant observations to arise from that match was made by Aidan O’Shea, Mayo’s figurehead. A few days afterwards, he noted that it was his first loss against Galway in a competitive match at minor, under-21 or senior level.

O’Shea is 25 years old and has been a ubiquitous presence – a key man – on Mayo teams since he was 15. He wasn’t trying to be inflammatory in his comments. He was just pointing out a fact. And it’s a fact which utterly exposes any delusion Galway football people may have had about the recent health of the famous border rivalry between the two counties.

Mayo’s grip on the Connacht championship has been ironclad since 2011. In winning six (they relieved Galway of the title in 2009 before embarking on their five in a row in 2011) since Galway’s most recent title, Mayo have moved two ahead on the all-time honour role, with 46.

Relative scarcity

They were heavy favourites to extend that total this year. If it’s true that the counties have shared too many Connacht titles to make them the be-all for supporters, it is also true that the relative scarcity of All-Ireland titles claimed by both keeps this regional contest meaningful. Mayo have their fabled All-Ireland pedigree while there is still a sense that Galway is trying to create for itself a new era, distinct from the comet quality of their 1998 and 2001 All-Ireland winning teams.

The words of Kevin Walsh minutes after Mayo had been beaten were significant in revealing the mindset within the dressingroom and the localised pressures on this Galway squad to succeed.

“It was all about the work rate of the lads,” he told Galway Bay FM. “I suppose, look it: in a way for the last number of months, including some local lads, there was a great drive on for us . . . either awful lazy journalism or some people who haven’t got a clue. We are trying to keep up with the times. We are trying to move on. We are still trying to keep our own Galway system in place.

“At the same time we can’t be sitting back in the ’50s and ’40s and expect things to change . . . we have to make a change. Same applies in all walks of life: I would say underage structures, academies, everything like that . . . absolutely has to move on. Galway is a proud county and look, it is a great day for Galway. But it’s important we all move on and do our best for Galway.”

Burst of emotion

There is a lot contained within that burst of emotion and you can almost see the thoughts swirling around Walsh’s mind as he spoke. Walsh was, of course, midfielder and union leader on those All-Ireland teams. It wasn’t just that they claimed the first maroon All-Ireland since ’66 which made that bunch celebrated. It was the fact that they played the game like gods. All subsequent Galway teams, perhaps unfairly, have been held up against the best of Galway ’98 to ’02 for scrutiny.

When Galway won its last Connacht championship, Padraic Joyce was playing and scored 1-3 as Galway beat Mayo by 2-14 to 1-14 (they dispatched Roscommon, their opponents tomorrow, by 2-16 to 0-6). Liam Sammon was the coach that year but his time in charge ended after Galway bowed out in what was an out-an-out brilliant All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry in the rain. In 2011, John Divilly, Galway’s All-Ireland winning centre-back described Sammon as “the best football coach in Galway” and identified the failure to keep him on the sideline as one of the many mistakes made within the county.

Sammon managed to straddle both tradition and radical thinking. He believed in the archetypal Galway game: expressive, attacking football. After Joe Kernan and Tomás Ó Flatharta had periods in charge, Alan Mulholland reintroduced that style. In 2014, he brought Galway to the All-Ireland quarter-final, where they again lost to Kerry. It was his final game in charge.

Since then, Walsh has been doggedly, quietly and stubbornly assembling a squad, brick-by-brick. During the five years when Mayo obscured Galway, there has been plenty of time for Galway football people to ask where they are going. The hurling team has been to two All-Ireland finals in that period.

They threatened to immortalise themselves on both occasions and the 2015 final, in particular, offered keen evidence that for all the fondness for Galway’s All-Ireland winning football teams, the small ball comes first in the county.

Scan through the list of Galway football championships and the honours list has a slightly cobwebbed look. The last of Dunmore McHale’s county senior titles was won in 1983. Tuam Stars, still the most successful club in the county’s GAA history, has not won a championship since 1994. Corofin’s extraordinary haul of 11 county titles since 1997, including the last three, has forced all other clubs to respond.

“Sheer hard work,” says Michael Ryder of Corofin on the reason for their success. “And great commitment by underage coaches. We do have a good underage structure. Funny, we might not be as strong now at underage as we were in the past but that doesn’t mean we aren’t working as hard. In the 1990s, we were going for nine minor titles in a row. Frank Morris is a fantastic coach at underage and it was under his guidance that things happened. In Galway, the club scene is divided into two divisions. But you are looking at 20 senior clubs including NUIG. It is hard to win a county title in Galway.”

The spread of players on the current senior panel is indicative of that. At Galway’s media evening last week, Walsh spoke about the need for the county to lay a lasting framework for systems and structures through which to create future teams.

That has started: Liam Sammon was among those recruited in recent seasons to contribute to the underage coaching structure. Over 200 players from Galway’s underage football academy will be brought to Pearse Stadium tomorrow to see what it is all about: the youngest may not even remember Galway’s last title win.

In a simpler time, Galway football didn’t seem to need an academy because it had its nursery: St Jarlath’s in Tuam. And the amalgamation of the famous school with St Patrick’s and, more crucially, the phasing out of boarding there has been the other significant change since Galway last won Connacht.

Classroom talent

The 1994 Hogan Cup winning team from the school included future senior All-Ireland winners Tomás Meehan, Divilly, Declan Meehan, Tommie Joyce, Padraic Joyce and Michael Donnellan as well as John Concannon. Eight starters and five substitutes were ex-Jarlath’s.

The 1994 bunch were a once-in-a-lifetime concentration of classroom talent in the right environment: a boarding school in which Gaelic football was king and had dedicated coaches in Joe Long and Fr Oliver Hughes. Jarlath’s reached a Hogan Cup final as recently as 2011. But the idea of Jarlath’s as the beating heart of Galway football is no longer sustainable.

These last five summers, when they watched Mayo fill the sky, has maybe confirmed the need for change. Galway won four under-21 titles since 2001 but their successful days at senior grade have been flickering at best.

Roscommon prepare for tomorrow’s final as the Division One team and one of the counties fancied to make noise this summer. That may happen in Salthill. Still, Galway’s sudden ending of Mayo’s half-decade domination has made everyone remember that there is another big football county in the west. A beast is stirring.

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