It can often take time for any incoming manager to establish a voice and vision for how he wants his team to play. The new football season is only weeks old but Pádraic Joyce seems to have broken some kind of record. Tomorrow, his Galway team will play Donegal in an encounter that feels like a quietly significantly meeting for two football counties intent on having a say in what happens this summer.
Immediately after watching Kerry pip his team with an injury-time rush of 1-1 to win by a point in Tralee, Joyce summed the evening up with a memorable line. “We have only ourselves to blame. It’s not that Kerry won the game. It’s more that Galway lost the game,”
If the Kerry cognoscenti detected a note of light insolence in that remark, then firstly, tough. And secondly, it wasn’t intended. Joyce has always been unafraid to call things precisely how he sees them.
That observation was in keeping with his view on the league’s opening weekend after Galway had edged out Monaghan by the narrowest of margins in Salthill. The game was the archetypal league encounter: a grey day and a slog of an afternoon coloured by moments of brilliant football from both sides. Galway threatened to pull away but couldn’t: Monaghan promised to go away but wouldn’t.
Galway goalkeeper Connor Gleeson saved a penalty. Séamus McEnaney's team had a late chance to earn a draw. And in the end, the locals marked the dawning of the Joyce era with an impromptu and slightly surprising pitch invasion. Witnesses to Galway's glory decades may have been slightly puzzled by this. Since when does beating Monaghan at home in the league merit a pitch invasion?
But with the Kerry and Donegal trips looming, securing that win at home was important. And afterwards, Joyce spelled it out as he had seen it. “Elements we were very pleased with and elements that we were not. We shouldn’t have come that tight to be within a point. We were a far better team all day.”
Again, Monaghan listeners might take issue with Joyce’s reading of the game. But it was in keeping with Joyce’s fearlessness in stating where he believes Galway should be in the national scheme of things.
On the day after the All Star awards last November, he sat down with Ollie Turner for a Galway Bay FM interview. It was a perfect time to lay out his manifesto in that the world wasn't paying much attention. But at one stage in a wide-ranging interview, he gave a significant answer to the relatively straightforward question of what would represent a successful first year in charge.
“A successful year one would be to start off by winning the FBD league. And then go on and win the national league. And then win the All-Ireland. That is our aim. That is what we are aiming for straight away. It may sound far-fetched to a lot of people.
“But I’m not saying we are going to win the All-Ireland in two years’ time or three years’ time. We are training for the 30th of August next year. That’s when the final is on. And that is what we are training for. And if we don’t do that, I’d see it as a disappointment.”
The reply stood out for its refusal to play safe and to kick for touch. The easiest option for Joyce would have been a general tribute to the enduring excellence of Dublin and avowal to make sure that Galway are ‘competitive’ in that environment this summer.
Instead the blunt ambition of being in the All-Ireland final – against Dublin or whatever other crowd might happen to make it through – was laid out not just for listeners but for prospective players. If Joyce is that declarative in his public ambition, you can only imagine how he has been priming his players in recent weeks.
It's not difficult to understand Joyce's sense of urgency about this. In his own football career, everything happened early and fabulously. He emerged, along with Michael Donnellan, from one of the last feted St Jarlath's football teams to become emblematic of everything the Galway football tradition was supposed to espouse: style and lethal accuracy and a burning self belief.
At his best, he could make a truth of the illusion that football is a daftly easy game. When Galway won under John O’Mahony in 1998, the moment served as a gathering of the generations: a reunification, after 32 years, of Galway’s illustrious football past with its brimming future. And Joyce, because of his age and dash, was the symbol of that brilliant merging.
The first four years of his career yielded two senior All-Ireland titles, three finals, two All Stars and a Footballer of the Year award. By the time he retired, in December 2012, he had seen just how tricky and elusive the grasp on supremacy can prove to be. Galway haven’t played in an All-Ireland final since 2001. They have appeared in one All-Ireland semi-final, in 2017, since that last All-Ireland victory in 2001.
The frightening thing for Joyce and his former team-mates is that almost two decades have slipped away since Galway were last All-Ireland champions. The ’98 anniversary celebrations have come and gone. There is a restless sense within Galway that the senior teams should have been in contention more regularly over those two decades. They’ve won four All-Ireland under-21 (now under-20) titles since 2001. Significantly, though, they’ve won just one minor title since 1986.
They've tried every approach to the senior management, from the defensive solidity of Peter Ford to the total football philosophy of Liam Sammon. The appointments of Joe Kernan and Tomás Ó Flaharta, simply didn't work out. Alan Mulholland, who would have been on the '98 side had he not opted to step aside the year before, took charge after a low period when New York were Galway's only championship victory in two seasons and ended the downward spiral.
When Kevin Walsh took charge, the team was in Division 2 of the league and consistency and toughness were regarded as key qualities. Galway reached a league final under Walsh, they returned to an All-Ireland semi-final, they had the Indian sign on Mayo and won two Connacht titles. But the price of consistency was a more defensive oriented and cautious approach which drew loudening criticism during last year's diminishing returns.
“We languished in Division 2 for a long time and I was part of that group in Division 2 and couldn’t get out of it,” Joyce said in that Galway Bay interview.
“When I played with Kevin, he was the daddy of the team, always organising us and telling what to do, where to go and he always had the capabilities of the first man to be managing Galway. And he left Galway in a great place. He has a lot of work done and he might have got a bit of harsh criticism at the end but he did his best and he left us in Division 1.
“I am taking over a team that is on the up. They are an established Division 1 team. He was unfortunate last year with injuries and that plays its part. He has done Galway a great service and I won’t have a bad word said about him.”
And with that, Joyce has been quick to try and remold the team in his vision. Already, Shane Walsh, an electrifying if sometimes peripheral talent, looks set to become the attacking fulcrum. Direct and forward kick-passing has been a feature in the first two games.
When Damien Comer was introduced after half-time against Monaghan, Joyce located him at left half forward, where his ball-winning ability and wrecking-ball power in possession created an instant goal opportunity. Johnny Heaney has been converted to corner back and still managed to get forward for a goal.
He likes pace and he likes players to have a go-forward mentality. He has already been in contact with the county board to further clear the pathways through from the underage grade to the senior set-up. He has said that his term in charge of Galway under-20s left him a little bit shocked at the skill level he encountered from some players.
You don’t have to be around Joyce for very long to get the vibe that the recycling-possession obsession drives him around the twist. The object is to kick the ball between the posts. The posts are located down the attacking end of the field. The team is far from settled but the current squad are humming with the kind of can-do brio that Joyce evinces. When he reintegrates the Corofin contingent to his side, people will have a clearer idea of what Galway will look like under Joyce.
Of course, memories are short. It is only two years ago since Walsh took Galway, the returnees to top-flight league football, through an unbeaten regular league season. It’s only two years ago since the mood in Salthill was raucous and jubilant at the sight of Galway holding the All-Ireland champions to a 0-13 draw.
In 2018, Galway beat Kerry for the first time in the championship since 1965. Those were the foundations that Walsh left behind. Joyce’s imperative, continuing in Donegal this weekend, is to transfuse through Galway veins something of the dash and invention and exuberance with which he played the game. So far, so good.