Gary Sice still a model of consistency as Corofin turn their attention to provincial goal

Galway star looking forward to the showdown with Mayo champions Castlebar

A photograph of the 1998 All-Ireland winning Corofin team hangs on the wall of the national school in Belclare where Gary Sice teaches. He walks past it every day and even if it is not a talisman, it is a reassuring reflection of the cause that occupies much of his life.

"Commitment," Sice grins when asked why some exceptional club footballers do not feature on their county sides. Sice has done both. He is enjoying a storming season for Corofin, the modern day exemplars of the local game. But he has also been, in a quiet way, one of the most consistent bright points through a restless period for Galway football.

“Commitment is the big one,” he repeats as he prepares to eat a light omelette late in the afternoon with another night of training in the rain awaiting him. There are lads out there with bags of talent who don’t want the huge hours involved with training with a county team,” he says.

“Go watch the Dublin championship and you will see bags of footballers you don’t recognise who would probably match up football-wise to county players but may not be into the work that needs to be done.

“I can understand it to a certain point but then I don’t know any different. I’ve been on the Galway panel since I was 20. Maybe lads who bloom a bit later and have lived a bit see the idea of playing for the county a bit differently. Your time is not necessarily your own. You are planning in six-week blocks. That’s not for everyone.”

Football mania
Sice, as he says, knows no different. That 1998 team photograph is significant because it triggered a football mania in the east Galway village that hasn't really dimmed since. As a kid, he would traipse the country with his father Jimmy, who has served as manager and chairman. His uncle Eddie Steede played on the side.

Like all youngsters in Corofin, Sice was fortunate to have Frank Morris as a coach. Sice is a keen student of training methodology and coaching and reckons Morris was years ahead of the crowd in his approach. Corofin won eight minor championships in a row and those players stuck and played senior and now the club has won seven Galway titles since 2000 to extend the run of five gathered in the 1990s.

All of a sudden, the place seemed to be teeming with natural born footballers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Kieran Comer, Alan O'Donovan, Gary Delaney, Ian Burke, Daithi Burke: Sice talks about team mates and opponents with equal enthusiasm.

Kieran Comer played in Croke Part at just 16 when Corofin won their only All-Ireland title in 1998. He also pushed for a starting place on the Galway senior team that won the All-Ireland just three years later and although he had the versatility to play both midfield and half-forward, he was competing for starting places with Kevin Walsh, Sean O’Domhnall, Paul Clancy, Michael Donnellan and Ja Fallon.

“Just a golden generation of footballers. It was dog eat dog,” Sice says.

The point is that Comer is still a hugely dominant, classy midfield player for Corofin

“Kieran Comer is a different level altogether. If there was a template for a Corofin footballer, it would be him. He has every medal you can possibly win bar an All-Ireland minor. He is still just 31. He had a lot of years put in early for Galway.”

Common denominator
Sice's football life has gone much the same way. He was drafted into the senior panel by Peter Ford after impressing on the U-21 team that won the All-Ireland. Already, winning had become the common denominator for Sice and his peers.

He had grown up winning with Corofin. He left the house in the morning and headed around the big bend on the Tuam road for school in St Jarlath’s. The 2002 Hogan Cup match against Coláiste na Sceilge was only a semi-final but was instantly recognised as one of the greatest games in college history: the teams were level on 17 occasions in the drawn game and all but three of the 40 scores accumulated over both games and extra time were from play.

In microcosm, the game was a dual between Declan O'Sullivan and Michael Meehan and some 7,000 showed up for the first game. Jarlath's got through and comfortably beat St Michael's Enniskillen in the final. The school has not won a Hogan Cup since. Sice agrees that the demise of the boarding school has been a contributing factor but identifies the late Fr Oliver Hughes as the main reason behind their success.

Six days
"The boarding school was a huge factor but Father Ollie was just brilliant for us. Like, we went up north for six days one Christmas to get challenge games. He got us games against St Patrick's Maghera. It was just to see where we at. If we were going to win the All-Ireland we had to beat those lads. He knew the season before it started. He was just fantastic. He is buried in Corofin actually. A serious man. We were lucky to have him."

When Sice started playing for Galway, the dressing room was still crowded with heavyweight names. He was, as he puts it, “starstruck” but couldn’t have known the light was already beginning to dim for that generation. He made his debut on a turbulent championship moment in modern Galway football history: a high summer evening, Salthill in pleasure mode and Westmeath doing the unthinkable to the home team in the qualifiers.

Pitched in
Sice was chosen at wing back and, presaging his style of play for the years ahead, pitched in with two points from play. Galway were beaten in one of those qualifier shocks. Peter Ford was let go; harshly said some.

And that was the moment when a certain anxiety overcame Galway football; a realisation that they had lost the grasp on the most elusive quality: how to win All-Irelands.

“We expected to win everything. We won Connacht the first year I was in. But it hasn’t been the case . . . we underestimated the influence of the older fellas. As they drifted away it left a huge gap. They were just gentlemen.

And it was nice for me to have played with, say, Michael Donnellan up close and to see what he was: a machine. Just athletic and football wise...he could just take over a game. I was sorry to see him go but I could see why. He had a few injury problems and had such mileage on the clock. . . “

In the years that followed, Liam Sammon came and then Joe Kernan and then Tomás Ó Flatharta ran the sideline for Galway football. Sice was ever-present: a hard-running half back with a knack for landing big scores.

In 2008, Sammon brought a team to Croke Park for what turned out to be a wonderful All-Ireland quarter-final in the rain against Kerry. That match gave Sice a sniff of what the late stages of an All-Ireland season might be like.

But he doesn't dwell on it. There is no point. Next year will be his tenth championship season with Galway. When Padraic Joyce left, that was the last of the old guard. And yet Sice is optimistic. He shrugs when asked about the cavalier way in which Mayo blasted through Galway in Connacht this year.

Nightmare situation
"Well, it was a nightmare situation of everything that can go wrong going wrong. But Mayo are at a difficult cycle to us at the moment. And I don't know how acceptable it is to say that in Galway but it is a sensible thing to say right now. With the players we have at our disposal, we weren't going to dominate last year. Mayo and Donegal and Dublin – those teams build over time. I believe we have some serious young lads coming through. The way we finished up, with a bit more cuteness, we might have beaten Cork. Mayo wasn't reflective of our effort last year."

Sice lives close enough to the Galway training pitch to see the lights on in the evening. He knows they are up there, going through the November purges in all weather. Right now, he is in a different place. Corofin won the Galway title playing really terrific, crisp football.

Tomorrow they face Castlebar, the Mayo champions. Sice can’t wait for the game. For regardless of how the seasons in maroon turn out, he has always had Corofin. This year, his team-mates waited 11 weeks between games and trained throughout. They were ready for him when he returned.

“They are just motivated. They want to be sharp. So I am lucky. You always have to earn your cloth.”

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