Kevin Walsh turning things around for young Galway team

Galway haven’t won in Croke Park since the 2001 All-Ireland despite underage success

When the day was doused for good in Salthill a fortnight ago and thoughts were turning to wringing the rain out of our very souls, Kevin Walsh barely made a squelch as he rattled through his post-match do-si-do with the press. None of his players got too much credit, none of them got too little. Derry's lack of ambition wasn't exactly decried but he did make a point on two separate occasions of referring to their "duvet defence" in tones that were less than glowing.

And when it came to his view on the non-award of a Derry penalty that so enraged Brian McIver, Walsh got on the front foot immediately. Asked if he thought his side were lucky not to give away a penalty, he came back with a clipped, “You tell me.”

Informed that it was his opinion we were after, he parried with, “It’s fine for ye guys to be sitting up in the stand. I’ll have to go away and look at the video and tell you exactly how it looked.” When we presumed that meant he didn’t see the incident, he was right quick to set us straight. “I didn’t say that,” he snapped. So what did you see? “I’ll analyse what I thought I saw.”

Which, in fairness, was a mighty effective way of pulling the drawbridge on a discussion in which he had no interest. That we’re still not entirely sure even now whether or not he thought it was a penalty isn’t the point. The point is that in tone and manner, he was what his Galway team is gradually becoming.

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Business-like and efficient, yes. But just a little shirty too and with no real patience for fripperies. In other words, exactly the sort of Galway that Galway haven’t been for far too long.

It’s only when you drill down into the books that you get a real sense of how paltry the last decade or so has been for the erstwhile arishtocrats of the wesht. They haven’t won a game in Croke Park since the 2001 All-Ireland final. No fewer than 13 different counties have played in an All-Ireland semi-final since Galway were last one of the final four. They haven’t beaten Mayo since 2008, a barren spell against their neighbours to the north that has only been outstripped once in their history, away back at the beginning of the 20th century.

Conquerors

They went out of the championship to Kerry last year and Cork the year before but otherwise their ultimate conquerors in recent times don’t exactly trip off the tongue. Antrim, Meath, Wexford, (pre-Jim) Donegal, Westmeath, Louth. Between Kerry beating them in the All-Ireland quarter-finals of 2008 and 2014, every team that put them out of the championship went out themselves in the next round.

None of this would mean much of anything if it wasn’t for the fact that a good many of the usual underlying trends were there for the taking advantage of. They won a minor All-Ireland in 2007 to go along with a trio of under-21 All-Irelands in 2005, 2011 and 2013. Three different Galway clubs have been All-Ireland champions on St Patrick’s Day since 2003. And while St Jarlath’s of Tuam haven’t won a Hogan Cup since 2002, they still mopped up four Connacht colleges’ titles between 2007 and 2012.

In short, Galway should have been better than this. They have the players, the tradition, the support. It has been their misfortune to be playing in Connacht at the same time as one of the best ever Mayo teams but they were scratching around in the dirt for plenty of summers before Cillian O’Connor came along, so that excuse only washes for so long.

In his first year at the helm, Walsh looks to have infused them with a certain level of backbone. By beating Armagh in Armagh and then Derry in Salthill, they became the first non-Ulster county to beat two teams from the north in the qualifiers since Kildare did it in 2010. Neither game was a classic, both were exactly the type of test flighty Galway teams have flunked in the not-too distant past. It has been encouraging stuff.

"They're doing okay," says Jim Carney, the former RTÉ commentator and still a columnist with the Tuam Herald. "Kevin has forged a bond with them that, try as he might, I don't think Alan Mulholland quite managed. I know Alan and his family a long time but I don't think he managed to get under their skin really. Kevin has got a bit of steel into them and they're certainly playing for each other.

“I would still worry that they’re only a hair’s breadth away from getting a roasting off somebody before the year is out. If Donegal are up to the standard that won them an All-Ireland, they could be the ones to do it. You would dread to think what could happen if Finian Hanley got injured because there’s no real cover for him at full back. They don’t have a lot on the bench, full-stop. But they’re definitely improving.”

Responsibility

Defensively, they have taken far more responsibility for each other under Walsh. The team that gave up four goals to Tipperary last summer and three to Mayo have conceded just one this time around – and it was a slapstick freak of a thing against Mayo.

Gareth Bradshaw has had his attacking wings clipped at left half-back and is a net contributor now rather than a gloriously talented liability. Gary Sice is the Wall-E of Galway's middle third, diligently tidying up what he can when he can and making the world a better place along the way. The pair of them were an ocean ahead of everyone else in the man-of-the-match stakes against Derry.

Sice and Bradshaw would fit easily into the coterie of players who have driven Galway supporters to madness, fever and quite an amount of cursing over the past 14 years. For them to have become disciplined leaders under Walsh says only good things about the Galway manager.

Now and into the future.