The letters arrived all summer and into autumn. The abiding theme was the same. Can’t wait to see Galway back.
“I remember one, in particular, from a guy who had lost his wife last year,” Pádraic Joyce says. “His family was reared and he was home alone. So Sunday was his day. When Mass was over, he was heading to a match. Didn’t matter what match was on – he was going. And he was a big Galway supporter. You read that and it would bring tears to a stone.”
This is shortly after half past eight on a cold, hazy Saturday morning in Loughgeorge. Joyce sits behind a desk nursing a paper cup of tea. The players are gathering elsewhere in the building for a nine o’clock morning session.
“And you relay that to the lads what this means to people,” he continues crisply – Joyce doesn’t so much speak words as machine-gun neat sentences into the nearest wall.
“We are in a position where we can give him and people like him something back in their lives. As he said himself, he misses the build-up to the game as much as the game. GAA keeps an awful lot of people in this country going. I think we realise it now.”
In the opening weeks of the league, an old familiar exuberance streaked through Galway football. Joyce stands as a vital link to its past and future. And he got the county excited again. He spoke boldly. He knows it would have been cuter to say nothing, to just step in as Galway manager and offer a few safe platitudes. But maybe he sensed it was time to make a noise about Galway football. So, when he took over last November, he did something controversial in GAA culture. He stated an ambition. He didn't disguise it in the language of metaphor either. He's out to win the next available All-Ireland.
“If I come out and say, ‘Ah sure we will win it in three years’ time’, then that means we’re not going trying for two years,” he says. “I played 14 years. I tried to win it every year. We won it two out of 14. I know it is not achievable every year but that is what you are aiming for.
“But I know when I got the job that was my ambition. I wasn’t in it to have a bit of craic or get my name out there or do anything like that. I am here to win an All-Ireland for these players and for Galway. And I said it. And I don’t care who – I wasn’t being cocky about it or talking sh**e. But it’s the goal. Other managers mightn’t say it but I am just an honest person. I got asked the question and I answered it.”
Galway haven’t featured in an All-Ireland final since their last success in 2001, the year Joyce finished as footballer of the year. They’ve appeared in one semi-final since then, two years ago, when they were comfortably dismissed by Dublin.
The reason that these words don’t sound preposterous coming from Joyce is that they come from Joyce. Across the county, Joyce has an epidotic quality simply because his play was incandescent for so long and lives vividly in the minds of those who saw him: ethereal skill and balance delivered in neat, economical bursts.
He is 43 years old now. Young enough to retain an aura over emerging players but the raven hair has silvered and a cameo role in Killererin’s junior final win last November marked the full stop on his football life.
He emerged at a perfect time, bursting forth from St Jarlath's, a steadfastly 20th century institution even as that century hurtled towards the next. Along with Michael Donnellan, he liberated many of the uniquely-Galway football qualities that had seemed permanently locked in a mid-1960s vault. And in the early months of this year, Galway played a brand of football redolent of that past. Then: the pandemic, the lockdown and the grinding through the gears towards the restart.
When we next saw Galway, on October 18th, an understrength and young team was pulverised by Mayo in a ghostly Tuam stadium. Afterwards, Joyce didn't downplay the experience: "The most embarrassing day in my involvement with Galway."
But he didn't seem shook. Joyce had stood as he always did that day: studying the play, saying little. He leaves it to John Concannon to gee-up the players. Even when the team fell 10 and 15 points behind, the Milltown man's voice rang out through the silence. Concannon, of course, is also a living link to Jarlath's mid-1990s glory. He's a bit of a fable around Galway.
“Look it. John was the most talented footballer in my time growing up,” Joyce says, as though to settle all pub arguments now and ever more. “Michael Donnellan was the next best after him. But ‘Scan’ was the most talented. And just . . . things went wrong.”
Concannon has spoken of those things in a searing story written by Christy O'Connor several years ago. And Joyce can say now that even as he went supernova for Galway, starring in the 1998 revival All-Ireland under John O'Mahony, he was acutely aware of Concannon as a vivid absence. It seemed, on the surface, inexplicable that Concannon couldn't be there, that Galway had somehow passed over its brightest son. So there is something poignant now about the sight of Concannon on the sideline with Joyce and John Divilly: the trio pulling the strings for Galway at last, even as they approach middle life.
“He got into the Galway set-up early. He got involved in an accident out in America and that didn’t help with his ankle – he got hit by a taxi one time and he struggled to recover from that. Even in 1998, John O’Mahony brought him in for an FBD match but his body wasn’t able for it at the time. He was probably better buddies with my brother Tommie.
“But we often had a few pints over the years and we’d always say: ‘Ah sure we’ll take over Galway some day. I’ll come in with you and you take over and we’ll get Divilly and away we go. Blah, blah, blah.’ But it has happened. Look, what I like about him is that he is very passionate. I know he is out on the pitch a good bit but it is because he is so passionate. And there’s a massively serious element to him as well. He would be on the phone 10 times a day organising stuff.”
Best of Galway football
Seven of their ’94 Jarlath’s gang would win a senior All-Ireland with Galway. In the summer of 1998, Seán Purcell, the exemplar of the best of Galway football, was a regular visitor to the senior dressing room.
“You’d tog out and you’d nearly be waiting for him to come in,” Joyce says warmly. “He would walk over and shake your hand. I remember we won the Connacht final in 1998 and on the Sunday we had a good bonding session in Tuam and he came in and sat down with us and was buying us drink all day. He was great fun, telling us stories of times gone by. But win or lose he would be in. Great soul, like. He had a shop in Tuam and I would go in and get the papers off him some mornings and he’d be talking about who was going well. Fierce interested in it and very progressive.”
If a torch was passed, then Joyce's St Jarlath's crew supplied the waiting hands. He remembers playing a Hogan Cup Connacht final against St Patrick's, their arch-rivals from Tuam. It was a healthy kind of . . . hatred. The stadium was jammed. Galway seniors were playing Meath afterwards. And, strangely, a large portion of the crowd drifted away after the schools' game. Galway seniors seemed light years removed just then – the power base was in Ulster.
And Joyce was trying to figure out Galway’s football heritage. His father Paddy and his uncle Billy, a classy player who won eight Connacht medals with Galway as well as featuring on the losing All-Ireland teams in 1971, 1973 and 1974, were his main educators. One night Mattie McDonagh came in with their father and uncle Billy and played pool on the table the boys had bought with their communion money. “Just great craic – having cups of tea and playing games of pool until three in the morning and they’d be arguing about who should be on or off for Galway.”
It meant he had a sense of what he was playing towards in St Jarlath’s. Galway’s revival coincided with a speed-of-light transformation in Ireland, socially and economically. They were a gifted, charismatic team. Three All-Ireland final appearances in four years, two titles, a defeat after a replay and a seismic Connacht final defeat to Mayo in 1999: they made up for lost time.
It’s arguable that Joyce placed his very best football in the years of diminishing returns. Late in his career, he sat in a team meeting and was told he didn’t care about Galway by a younger player. “This guy said I feel that the players who won All-Irelands – there were about three or four of us left – are not putting the effort in and they just swan about.”
He sounds offended now just repeating the words and shoots back when asked if there was any truth in them. “No. I went through him for a shortcut. I nearly killed him out training the same night. Like, whatever is won in the past is in the past. Any year I played I felt we were going for an All-Ireland. We came close a couple of years. Had we won that game against Kerry in 2008, then God knows where we would have wound up. But it didn’t happen.”
Life kept moving. He set up a recruitment company, PJ Personnel, in the depths of the recession. What started as a cottage company – the living room doubling as an office – now has a national presence. Ten years later, he and his wife Tracey have, like all businesses, been blindsided by the ferocity of the pandemic.
“It is an extraordinary time,” he says, shaking his head. “I would be caring towards employees. But we did have to lay some people off temporarily. We will try and make it up to them. You just get on and do what you can do. We will break even this year. But the main thing is: we have our staff intact. They have mortgages and bills to pay and they have shown loyalty to me. So you want to show that back.”
Ava is 18 now but Charlie is five and Jodie three: middle-of-the-night visits are still a regular part of life for himself and Tracey. “Then you find yourself looking at a match at five in the morning! Once I wake, I wake.”
But as a parent of an 18-year-old, he is well versed on the pull of technology on his younger players. At the All-Stars in 1998, one of the “gifts” included a mobile phone. “We were all looking at it like, what are we meant to do with this? There were nine buttons on it! All it meant was that your mother knew where you were too much.”
He ended up banning phones and earphones on under-20 trips last year. He uses social media himself but was shocked by the communication skills among the group.
“Lads have to talk and get to know each other,” he says. “It is not about being a dinosaur or anything like that. There is a caring element with these fellas. I think there is way too much pressure on young people now. And I missed the players when lockdown came. I missed being around them and seeing them grow. I always tell them coming training: leave your worries at the door.
“This is the sanctuary. But at the same time I’d know by their body language walking in the door whether they are going to train well or not. And I would speak to them straight away. You know by the way they tog out. They are dragging their feet and it’s cold and maybe they are hungry. And I would send them back in straight away and say, ‘Either buck up or don’t train.’”
The sentiment is pure Joyce: compassion wrapped in suffer-no-fools briskness.
So can he be the alchemist? Can Galway win this unique, fireside winter All-Ireland? They'll have to break through all sorts of walls to do so.
Meanwhile, he will keep busy. It’s a crazy year. He wants to look after his staff, to get Galway football back on its perch. His hands are full.
“Ah, I’ve no time to think about it. Pressure is for tyres, I always say,” he says, laughing.
Just recently, he had a television engineer booked to come to the house for a new service. The texts kept coming: he was delayed. He eventually showed up at half eight at night.
“And he was telling me he was down in rural Mayo on a byroad off a byroad to fix a TV for an 80-year-old man that didn’t see anyone all week. Like, nobody all week! And he couldn’t get away. That poor man just wanted the company. And you do worry about people like that. So yeah. I think it is massively important that this All-Ireland goes ahead. I know that sounds selfish as a GAA person. But people will find ways of making a day of it in the house.
"It will give people something to look forward to. And having live sport on television in the winter months is brilliant. I think the football is on at five o'clock on December 19th. I know nobody will be at it but an All-Ireland final under lights in Croke Park – for whatever two teams are there – is going to be magical and historic. And someone will have Sam Maguire on Christmas Day in some house somewhere."