In the weeks before the pandemic brought everything to a halt, the Galway footballers were playing spellbinding football. It’s water under the bridge now but they had looked sensational in their opening games. Then, everything suddenly stopped.
When the season finally resumed last autumn, an inexperienced Galway selection met a young Mayo team in rampant form on a tough day in Tuam. As it happened, the same teams were almost inseparable in a tense and tough winter Connacht final in an empty Pearse stadium. But Galway's season ended there. In retrospect, manager Pádraic Joyce recognised that Galway were playing catch-up throughout the delayed season.
“We were going well, yeah” said Joyce at Galway’s training centre in Loughgeorge on Monday. “And then a lot of different factors came into play. We came back from the club championship with a lot of injuries. Our club season in Galway probably ran on three weeks longer than most other counties due to the nature of hurling and football and clubs involved in both.
“So we didn’t have a full squad. We probably only had 18 or 19 training for a few weeks up until the first league match and that showed in the first league match. And we probably never recovered from that performance and got things right. But look, we have learned as much as we can and have trained as much as we can. The lads have put in a savage effort over the last couple of months and we will see where we are.”
It's a fair assessment. The Galway public only got that tantalising pre-pandemic glimpse of what Joyce wants to do with Galway. The potential is vast but Galway are starting from scratch. Eight players – including playmaker Ian Burke and veteran defender Gareth Bradshaw – have left the panel for retirement or through not being able to commit to the season. Among those returning is Peter Cooke, the versatile midfielder who had spent last season in New York.
“He’s probably the first man to come back from New York in great shape,” Joyce laughed. “The place has been closed down over there, so he’s in good shape. He’s settling in – obviously a bit rusty with the ball but he’s doing well.”
That rustiness is bound to be general. Galway open the season with a trip to Tralee to play Kerry on Saturday afternoon. It’s a mouthwatering game and a serious test for both teams. Joyce admits that the absence of challenge games means they are preparing for this game blind.
“That is the one concern. You are told you can go back and it is cancelled and then you are trying to alter training plans. And then you get four weeks to prepare for national league matches where you are not allowed to play challenge matches. And then there was a fiasco last week where you can’t play challenge games and then it came out the next day that you can, so as it transpired we have games organised before May 4th.
"And you talk about player welfare: it is a buzz word really. I don't know who is using it up there in Croke Park or do they actually look into it at all. Because how you expect lads to come back and be fully match sharp within four weeks, it is kind of funny really. Challenge games are part of getting a team ready for league and championship and the fact that you have only three league games this year is an area where I feel we were let down a bit."
Cillian McDaid suffered a knee injury on the first night of training while Darragh Silke had his ankle scanned on Monday for a weekend injury. The ability to adapt and shuffle teams will be crucial in dictating the teams which thrive or suffer in this league.
“It is a great match to look forward to,” Joyce said. “We are going to be travelling down there again because of the way we were drawn. It’s tight . . . four games, you need to be winning two to survive in Division One because you go into relegation, anything could happen.”
Galway Senior Football Panel 2021
1 Bernie Power (GK), 2 Conor Gleeson (GK), 3 Jack Glynn, 4 Sean Mulkerrin, 5 Liam Silke, 6 Gary O’Donnell, 7 Dylan McHugh, 8 Johnny Heaney, 9 Johnny Duane, 10 Cathal Sweeney, 11 Seán Kelly, 12 Kieran Molloy, 13 Ciarán Potter, 14 James Foley, 15 Seán Andy Kelly, 16 Peter Cooke, 17 Paul Conroy, 18 Mattius Barrett, 19 Ronan Steede, 20 Cein D’Arcy, 21 Matthew Tierney, 22 Paul Kelly, 23 Eamonn Brannigan, 24 Shane Walsh (capt), 25 Damien Comer, 26 Dessie Conneely, 27 Robert Finnerty¸28 Finnian O’Laoi, 29 Rory Cunningham, 30 Tomo Culhane, 31 Pádraig Costello, 32 Liam Costello
Injured players: 33 Darragh Silke, 34 Jack Keady, 35 John Daly, 36 Tom Flynn, 37 Conor Campbell, 38 Ronan O'Bealoin (GK).