Opportunity knocks for Walsh and Galway to silence the critics
Victory over Mayo and a place in the Super 8s will make the season look a lot different
Kevin Walsh: he reversed a loose, drifting era of Galway football since he took the helm as manager. They have won two Connacht titles since and contested a league final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
It always matters.
On January 12th 2018, with most of the country emerging from a post New Year’s fug and facing into the dreary prospect of new lifestyle vows and black dark mornings, Mayo ‘entertained’ Galway in the local FBD competition. MacHale Park drew an attendance big enough that Friday night to make you worry that support for football in the region was not so much a passion as a general condition worthy of psychoanalysis.
The insignificance of the occasion fell away once the old colours mingled. It was Galway-Mayo: an unquenchable spark guaranteed even on the dampest night. Galway lost three men before the final whistle, Kevin Comer on a straight red, Sean Mulkerrins on a black and yellow and Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh the same. They also held on to win 1-10 to 1-9. It was the kind of obscure, barely noticed result that can, for the victors, be worth a month of training sessions.
Only the two teams will remember that encounter as they head down the dual carriageway for a match which feels like the 15th and final round of a heavyweight contest that has been going on for a long, long time.
We know what Mayo are by now: the wild bunch whose legend needs no embellishment.
But what of Galway? Since they concluded their league programme on March 24th against Tyrone, they have had two competitive matches. Their most recent was the Connacht final which they lost to Roscommon. In effect, they are going into this game, playing for their skins, cold. And it’s hard to a think of a team whose stock is perceived to have fallen as quickly or dramatically as Galway’s has done.
The response to the Roscommon defeat was harsh and condemnatory and boiled down to a verdict that the flow and expression of freewheeling footballers had become stymied by a system that was too rigid and conservative. Whether that stands up to scrutiny or not is a different matter.
As the manager, Kevin Walsh has been in the line of fire. He has kept his counsel since his post-match duties at the Connacht final, when he allowed, minutes after the game, that he couldn’t explain why Galway played so poorly in that second half. And he has been in Gaelic football long enough to remember just how quickly things can turn against a team and manager.
After Galway lost the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final replay to Donegal, it was Walsh who stepped up to call out what he felt was unfair criticism of his younger team-mates, scathingly suggesting that people “cop on to themselves”. He was a senior midfielder then and could speak freely; as manager, the only adequate response can be to win against Mayo in Limerick this evening.
Paddy Tally spent last season working with Walsh in Galway. It was an important year for Galway, who were back in Division One after a seven year absence. They turned out to be the spring sensation, achieving a first win in Kerry in 18 years, conceding just one goal and remaining unbeaten after a pulsating, fiery game against Dublin in Salthill.
The pundits became excited, talking up the impenetrable defensive organisation and the blistering counterattacking potency of players like Shane Walsh, Johnny Heaney and Peter Cooke.
Galway duly qualified for a national league final (their first appearance since 2006), going down to Dublin by 0-18 to 0-14. They won the Connacht championship and exited the All-Ireland at the semi-final stage, also against Dublin.
“If you look at both of those games, a missed penalty in the first half of the semi-final and goal chances too in the league final,” recalls Tally.
“There are fine lines here. In terms of criticism of the overall system, I don’t think Galway did a whole lot different to other teams. The national league final was a good game of football if you look back at it.
“Both teams went at it. And it was Dublin’s efficiency, which is way beyond most teams in Ireland, and their ability to score when they need to and their bench as well that made the difference. So I feel a lot of the criticism is unfair. I think most managers and coaches don’t pay a lot of attention to it. They have to focus on their job and come up with a system that is best for their team.”
Nothing much changed about Galway this season – except for personnel and, consequently, results. Their last league game of the season presaged that second-half collapse against Roscommon in the provincial final. In Omagh, Galway led by seven points at half-time and had one foot in a second consecutive league final.
The mood music about Galway was generally positive throughout the league. But their second half went disastrously: they lost it by 3-8 to 0-3 and suffered a 14-point turnaround. The first goal they conceded was a defensive mix-up between goalkeeper and full back, the second came from a penalty, the third mere icing on the Tyrone cake.
“Some silly mistakes and some indiscipline cost us,” Walsh said in his usual understated way. And that was that. Of greater significance was the extensive casualty list detailing Galway’s post-league bill of health. They were down 18 players heading into the championship and have had not had a full complement to pick from all summer.
“Look at the Galway team that played in the Connacht final,” Tally says.
“They have had a lot of players missing there. One of the big finds last year was Damian Comer, not only as focal point of the attack but as captain of the team as well. It is a big challenge to replace that. Ciarán Duggan came in really well last year and was playing well and has been unfortunate with injury.
“Paul Conroy had that injury last year. Sean Kelly has missed matches. And on and on. If that happened in any team, they would struggle. When you lose any influential players, you struggle. When you lose four or five it is difficult. That team was showing signs of progress and it has been disrupted. That is just a fact of life at top level sport.”
Galway’s midfield situation hasn’t improved much either. Reports are that Cein D’arcy, a midfield option, broke two fingers at training on Friday night. Tom Flynn, Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Peter Cooke are all listed as doubtful. Duggan remains out.
Ironically, the healthiest Galway midfielder this week is Paul Conroy, who has spent a year recovering from a terrible leg-break against Kerry in Croke Park last summer. Damian Comer has had limited playing time with his club Annaghdown but that is scant preparation for a game of this magnitude.
It leaves Galway and Walsh in a stark situation for this hugely anticipated fourth round qualifier. Anyone who was at the Connacht final will know the mood there at half-time; there was a resigned acceptance that the result was only going one way. Galway led 0-10 to 0-5, they were controlling the game and they looked comfortably superior.
But the snap concession of 1-1 shortly after half time ignited another Roscommon rebellion and Galway couldn’t adequately respond.
For all of the pundits’ obsession with Galway’s attack, it was interesting that one of the county’s greatest ever creative talents concentrated on the other end of the field when asked about that Roscommon game at the U-20 championship launch.
“There’s an awful difference in attitude,” Padraic Joyce said of the general contrast in attitude and aggression between contemporary teams and the All-Ireland-winning sides on which he starred alongside Walsh. He was referring to the general phone culture among players and the lack of communication, plausibly suggesting that can cause issues on the field of play.
“They just sat too far off them and let Roscommon play a bit of football,” he said.
When Ian Burke won an All Star last year, he became the first Galway man to feature on that honour roll since Walsh was voted on to his third All-Star team in 2003. You can argue about the arbitrariness of those awards but Galway’s disappearance offers a clear picture of how peripheral they had become prior to Walsh’s arrival.
“If you look at Kevin’s record, Galway hadn’t won a provincial title in a number of years,” says Tally. “The first thing he did was to create a culture where the squad believed they could beat with any team out there. When I came into the Galway set-up there was a surprisingly strong relationship and a good healthy respect both ways. It was really nice to see that and it was, I think, one of the reasons for the development of this team.
“There was a really good workmanlike, purposeful atmosphere there. And if a player had the right attitude and wanted to develop, he would certainly get the opportunity to do that.
“There is no guarantee that you are going to win the province each year but to win two more isn’t bad. Mayo haven’t won it in the last number of years, after all. He works really hard on that competitive culture.”
It’s beyond dispute that the way Walsh sets his team up divides opinion within the county and, in recent months, nationally. But the theory that Galway are a team decorated with high-flying, all-conquering attackers just waiting to be cut loose from the defensive sentry post doesn’t fully convince either.
And its also beyond dispute that Walsh reversed a loose, drifting era of Galway football. When he took over, over 40 players elected to turn down invitations for inter-county trials. In his first season, they returned to Croke Park for a fourth round qualifier. In 2016, they won Connacht for the first time in eight years.
The improvements were gradual and systemic rather than sudden and flamboyant. What is certain is that, when they were operating at their best under Walsh, Galway players wanted it so badly that they had three players sent off in a nothing match in early January. They will need to tap into that abrasiveness and spirit to keep this troubled season alive.