Galway’s Terrible Twins back on centre stage

Michael Meehan and Seán Armstrong were once the bright future of Galway football

Michael Meehan: back on the Galway squad afte a hellish four years of struggle with injury. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Michael Meehan: back on the Galway squad afte a hellish four years of struggle with injury. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

The Galway football pilgrims were already well-sated by the feast of scoring provided by a shimmering forward line against Donegal when Kevin Walsh decided to put a transportive slant on the evening.

In came Michael Meehan, back from a hellish four years of recurrent injury, back from retirement, back from the shires of Galway’s last golden epoch. It would be easy to write the introduction off as a salute from Walsh and a concession to public sentiment.

The heartland hollered in approval as Meehan trotted into the picture, gym-armoured now but still unmistakable. Still, the big Oughterard man is hardly known as being a hostage to nostalgia and the striking thing about Galway’s hugely confident performance in Markievicz Park was that it seemed to bridge the best of the county’s past with its sharpest present.

Shortly before throw-in, which was delayed for 15 minutes while Mayo and Cork continued their dual in the sun down in Limerick, it was announced on the tannoy that both Seán Armstrong and Ian Burke would be elevated from the substitutes to the starting 15.

For Burke of Corofin, it marked a championship debut that some observers feared may never come. For Armstrong, the match represented the second half of an inter-county career that seemed to have concluded in a fog of what-ifs.

Both men had an instantaneous effect on the pattern of the game, linking with each other as though they’d played on the same club team all their lives rather than at opposite ends of the field. First the Galway forwards and then the entire team played with abandon and authority and the newcomers seemed to show the way in attitude.

Afterwards, Walsh nodded when invited to throw bouquets at Armstrong’s feet and instinctively moved the conversation away from praising any one individual.

“Yeah Seán is a very smart player but it wouldn’t be all about him. The movement was much better today and if you were to look at one difference, from what I saw it would probably be the dirty rotten ball on the ground where even if fellas didn’t catch it the first time.”

The response was in keeping with the themes Walsh has sought to reintroduce to Galway: consistency and substance to match the style. Still, it was difficult to ignore the leadership and maturity which informed Armstrong’s game. He was constantly in motion and getting involved and keeping the ball moving, taking the right options.

Galway’s famous under-21 final win over Down in 2005, in which Armstrong and Meehan each scored three goals in a memorably weird 6-5 to 4-6 scoreline heralded the next era for the county that never quite happened.

Ankle trouble

The great 1998-2002 team on which Walsh was the central column was beginning to break up and despite two Connacht championships in 2005 and 2008, Galway couldn’t quite return to the top despite the help of two sublime individual talents.

Meehan’s career revolved around his spellbinding 0-10, five from play, in torrential August rain against Kerry in the quarter-final of 2008 before chronic ankle trouble after a serious injury in 2010. Armstrong, meantime, left the panel in 2014 after realising that he simply wasn’t enjoying the game anymore.

“Seán has an aura about him that he was confident,” says Ciarán McGrath, Corofin’s centre-back who has faced the Salthill man.

Seán Armstrong in action against Kildare in the Division 2 league final at Croke Park. The return of the skilful forward has proved a useful addition for manager Kevin Walsh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Seán Armstrong in action against Kildare in the Division 2 league final at Croke Park. The return of the skilful forward has proved a useful addition for manager Kevin Walsh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“He would always play with the chest out and the head up. That is his personality. People used to mistake that for cockiness but, to be fair, Seán worked as hard anyone. He was kind of a free spirit too and he has a bit of character and does his own thing. But behind the scenes he was always working hard and had a huge love for Galway football. And he was a great club man. But he was a scapegoat on days it didn’t go right because they expected so much off him, which wasn’t fair.”

It was true. The All-Ireland successes of 1998 and 2001 led into U-21 titles in 2002, 2005, 2011 and 2013. It seemed like Galway could build a stellar forward unit around Meehan and Armstrong and at times, it sparked.

But despite the talent, Galway seemed unable to get beyond a certain point, suffering All-Ireland quarter final losses in both those seasons before going off-radar. Frustrations mounted and Armstrong was one of those players that the crowd seemed to single out on the down afternoons.

“The best forwards are man marked,” says McGrath. “Seán Armstrong was always one of those. He was man marked at club and at county because he was seen as a main threat. He could never get a break. And if you have a spoiler on you, it can be hard. Sometimes we are too critical of forwards. Sometimes 0-2 is a good return if you being marked by a good defender.

“And then you might go out the next day and get 1-3 and people would say: ‘ah yeah he can do it against lesser teams.’ I think that was the big thing with Seán Armstrong. People expected too much off him at a young age. The fact he was away from the game, there wasn’t as much expected from him when he came back.

“It’s like everything else, when you are gone you are forgotten about. Not matter how good you are the game goes on. He is back now and there isn’t as much expected and he seems to be enjoying it. To be fair to Seán, he was always a good footballer but people probably expected too much out of him in his early years.”

Armstrong had more or less made peace with the end of his county career when he quit in 2014. At 28, he should have been in the peak of his career but was instead coming in for limited minutes from the bench and had decided it wasn’t for him.

Renewed vigour

Like Meehan, he was injury prone, with hamstring trouble interrupting his availability in his mid-20s. He spent a summer in San Francisco in 2015, played some football and returned to play for Salthill in the autumn with renewed vigour for the game.

When Walsh phoned him this winter to invite him back, the manager made it clear that there were absolutely no guarantees in terms of game time but this time, Armstrong was just happy to be involved again.

It has been a slow-burning project, with underwhelming early league returns blooming into a 0-5 return in the league final win over Kildare – Armstrong’s second ever win in Croke Park.

He was impressively together in the significant semi-final win over Mayo but was injured for the Connacht final against Roscommon. Armstrong still has recurrent injury troubles and is prone to back spasms.

In the week ahead of the Donegal game, they had cleared up and Armstrong looked sharp. Springing Burke alongside the returned man was a leftfield move that seemed to ignite Galway’s contemporary stars – the powerful, bustling full forward Damian Comer and Shane Walsh, who may yet catch fire this summer.

Like all of Corofin – and other parts of Galway – McGrath was thrilled to see his team-mate get his chance. The intelligence and imagination of Burke’s play has been incandescent on many a winter’s afternoon during Corofin’s prolonged campaigns. But county was a different matter.

“Ian Burke is similar to Army in that there is an air of individualism about him. But he works hard and is a very good footballer . . . People enjoy top forwards. And Ian is a top forward. We get to see him at club level on a regular basis but I often thought it was a shame because the football purists were missing out on Ian playing football.

“He mightn’t end up for 1-3 but he might create the space for Seán Armstrong to kick two points or set up goals. The last day he seemed to have a hand in a lot of good things Galway did. At one stage it didn’t look like he would ever get a chance. Ian is the kind of lad who mightn’t be going well at training but on his day he can destroy the best of them.

I think Army’s best game is coming off other players rather than as a ball winner.

“Lads like Shane Walsh and Damien Comer enjoy playing with him because they know that if he has the ball and they come off him, they are getting that ball. His first instinct is to give it. That is probably the best part of Ian Burke’s game; that he can bring players into it. Seán Armstrong is smart and can identify that he can move off Ian. I think Army’s best game is coming off other players rather than as a ball winner. I think that goes back to the relationship he had with Michael Meehan at U-21 level.”

Full circle

And so to Meehan. The wheels came full circle when he made his reappearance last Saturday night. The Caltra man hadn’t kicked a ball for Galway since he fired an audacious bullet of a goal from a close range free against Cork in 2013.

After that, the ravages of a serious ankle damage he suffered in 2010 became too much. He had to step down from the panel without ever conceding to retirement. Meehan tried everything, from surgery to alternative healing but nothing worked. Except time. This winter came one of those brilliant rumours that turned out to be true. He was back.

Meehan is 33 years old and Armstrong is 31. Their reappearance has been a sudden gift as they prepare for another championship swing at Kerry. There is a heavy expectation that this will be a task beyond the Galway men, which is why the thought of the millennial Terrible Twins is so appealing. It’s a shot to nothing with the brightest future of Galway football now back as the senior men in a maroon attacking unit capable of hurting any team.

Whether Walsh uses them both at once remains to be seen.

“In theory it would be lovely to see,” acknowledges Ciarán McGrath.

“But it all depends on the style they depend on playing. If the two lads were used as the ball winners, would it be of benefit? Maybe not. Maybe one coming in for the other is the more likely scenario. Or if Damien Comer was inside as a primary ball winner and you had them running off him, then who knows? It is definitely something Galway people would love to see. And if that did turn out to be the last time you saw the two of them together on a field, it would be a nice ending.”

And just maybe a new beginning too.

Galway’s last championship victory over Kerry was 52 years ago in the 1965 All Ireland Final.

Galway 0-12 Kerry 0-9

Since then:

1984 Kerry 2-17 Galway 0-11 All Ireland semi-final

2000 Kerry 0-14 Galway 0-14 All Ireland final

2000 Kerry 0-17 Galway 1-10 All Ireland final replay

2002 Kerry 2-17 Galway 1-12 All Ireland quarter-final

2008 Kerry 1-21 Galway 1-16 All Ireland quarter-final

2014 Kerry 1-20 Galway 2-10 All Ireland quarter-final.

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