Galway looking to light the fuse early after disjointed 2020

Pádraic Joyce’s team get their campaign underway with a tough test against Kerry

Galway were beaten by Mayo in the Connacht final last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Galway were beaten by Mayo in the Connacht final last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

On Galway’s journey south for this evening’s assignment against Kerry, one significant absence on the team bus will be Gareth Bradshaw. The sight of Bradshaw emerging with the football from the thickets of half-back skirmishes to initiate counter-attacks was, for 14 years, a reassuring sight for the Galway football cognoscenti. He was easily one of the most consistent players to ever wear the maroon. Irrespective of the team’s trajectory, or form he rarely seemed to have a bad game.

Bradshaw retired last month; one of eight players gone from the squad for various reasons. His final lap, the patchwork pandemic season of 2020, was a mixed bag. There was joy unconfined after his club Moycullen broke the voodoo spell of Corofin in the club championship last summer. But his very last game with Galway proved to be that strange Connacht final, when he was introduced after 27 minutes for a match in an empty Salthill on a dismal November afternoon.

Mayo and Galway engaged in cagey warfare and Galway were edged out by a point. So a year that had started with a series of sensational league performances ended on a vexing note. Yes, there were mitigating circumstances and key injuries and the cancellation of their championship semi-final with Sligo, for Covid reasons, meant they went into a knockout provincial final with no proper preparation. But even though there was a sense of unreality about the 2020 winter championship, Galway missed out on a terrific chance to get to an All-Ireland final.

“There are no two ways about it,” Bradshaw says now.

“And that would have been in the back of minds. You would like to think we could have gotten past Sligo, had we played them. And then you have Mayo in a Connacht final and Tipperary in a semi-final. Compared to, say, 2018 when we had Kerry, Kildare and Monaghan in the Super 8s and then got hit with Dublin in a semi-final. So the opportunity to progress was glaringly obvious. Mayo improved in Croke Park after playing us. Teams improved the longer they stayed in the championship last year and we probably would have too. But we didn’t take that opportunity. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

Brave target

Bradshaw bows out with three Connacht titles. Galway made it to one just one All-Ireland semi-final in his time: the 2018 version against Dublin, which lapsed into a comfortable win for the champions in cruising mode. When he took over in the autumn of 2019, Pádraic Joyce was straightforward in his stated ambition to win an All-Ireland with Galway. It was a brave target for a manager in his first year. But Galway played such scintillating football over the spring in 2020 that it seemed prophetic.

Gareth Bradshaw was one of the players to call time on his career over the off season. Photo: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho
Gareth Bradshaw was one of the players to call time on his career over the off season. Photo: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho

“There was such a feel-good factor about it all that people were nearly booking into the Citywest for the All-Ireland,” says Barry Cullinane, the former Galway footballer and hurler who was a team-mate of Joyce.

“You have to realise the status that Pádraic is held in Galway. He is a godlike figure in Galway. And he came in after fantastic work by Kevin Walsh to bring the team back to where he did. When Pádraic came, they were playing such good football. So the break came at absolutely the wrong time. There is this perception that the rest of the year was a disaster. It wasn’t really, like. They got beaten by a point in the Connacht final by a team that went on to the All-Ireland final. Against a manager who knows the majority of his players inside out and has huge experience. And even in the league game against Dublin, Galway were competitive. Our judgement has been clouded a bit by that Mayo game in the league.”

That was on October 18th last year, when intercounty football resumed after a five month suspension. Mayo hit 3-23 on their way to a 15-point win which was a shocking reversal of Galway’s early form. At the squad media day this week, Joyce said that the squad didn’t fully recover from that setback. With senior players like Bradshaw, Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Ian Burke among the absentees this year, they remain an unknown quantity going into the second year of the project. Again, the pandemic circumstances dictate a different structure: a rush-job of a league - against elite opposition - and then straight into a knockout provincial championship. It means that every game assumes a heightened importance.

“Maybe we don’t fully know what the real Galway is just now,” Cullinane admits.

“It started off so well last year. They were beaten by Kerry last year in the league but were absolutely brilliant on the night. But in the Connacht final against Mayo, basic mistakes cost them. We have to be fair and not use it as an excuse but going into a Connacht final cold … that is really difficult. So I think they will take the learnings from the first part of the year and then park the second part. I think they will be disappointed if they don’t get a performance against Kerry to suggest that things are going in the right direction. And I think they will.”

Serial winner

Bradshaw acknowledges that Joyce’s stated intention to win the Sam Maguire with Galway reflects the internal sense of where Galway teams feel they should be at.

“It is not a sense of entitlement but it is an ambition when you wear that jersey. Whether that is right or wrong for Galway. I don’t know because we only have two All-Irelands since ‘66. Pádraic obviously feels there is a group there to challenge. It sums up how he was as a player with club and county. He was a serial winner.”

It gets to the heart of the Galway dilemma. It’s true: those two, closely bunched senior titles in 1998 and 2001 won in over 50 championship years are not the biggest haul. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the most recent senior All-Ireland Joyce and company won under John O’Mahony: they’ve reached re-union and singsong country. But for all that, Galway are a perpetual big name. They have won five All-Ireland under-21 (now under-20) championships since their last senior title and are the reigning holders in that grade. Their minor teams reached the 2018 and ‘19 finals. Only Cork can match their ability to produce teams consistently capable of challenging for senior and football honours. That dual health partly explains why Galway haven’t bagged more titles - in both sports.

Pádraic Joyce and selector John Concannon arrive for the Connacht final against Mayo last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Pádraic Joyce and selector John Concannon arrive for the Connacht final against Mayo last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

In 2005, for instance, Cullinane played midfield on the All-Ireland winning under-21 football team and centre-back for the All-Ireland winning hurling team. Meanwhile, Corofin have, over the last decade, torn up the script when it comes to the standard of club football. One of the mysteries was the apparent difficulty, for successive managers, of fusing the best of Corofin with the intercounty squad.

“I don’t think it gave the Corofin players the full chance to showcase what they had or the likes of Kevin or Alan Mulholland a chance to see them,” says Bradshaw.

“But they still got plenty of chances and they are a phenomenal club team. And players like Liam Silke and Bernie Power came through. I don’t think it was a drawback: if anything it should have been a healthy relationship, the club going so well and then coming into the Galway set up.”

Whether Corofin’s brilliance served to oppress or raise the standard of the club game in Galway could serve as the theme of a lively and possibly endless debate.

“They were so far ahead of the chasing pack in Ireland, never mind Galway. But they did set a benchmark here. I think we are slowly closing it.”

The big question is whether Galway can bloom as authentic challengers. Dublin’s unerring domination has changed the approach for all counties. Last year, Galway quickly generated the kind of momentum and attacking quality that could, in a normal year, have posed a genuine threat.

Consistent

“I think Galway people are realistic in knowing that the bunch of players from 1998 to 2003 when we won two All-Irelands were brilliant,” says Cullinane.

“We are not a county that has consistently delivered in getting to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. We know we went down the pecking order from 2005 or so until 2012. Kevin Walsh had to come in and start near the bottom - you don’t have to dig too deep to find comments where Kevin said he rang 90, 100 players and a lot didn’t want to come in for a trial. You want to be consistent and playing in Division One and we are there now.”

It all starts in an empty Tralee. In the corresponding match a year ago, Galway were caught late by Kerry after giving a display of eye-catching football. It was further proof that when these two football traditions meet, they seem to feel honour-bound to produce a spectacle. It may be too much to hope for a similar show from teams who are just returning to training and finding their feet. Still, Galway will be looking anxiously for sparks after last year’s long, broken season.

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