Galway football showing vital signs but the patient is still stricken
County’s success at underage level not being built on with Mayo dominating in Connacht
d Johnny Duane fail to prevent a Donegal goal during the counties’ qualifier clash in Croke Park last summer. photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Jim Carney caused a bit of fuss in Galway in April. The now retired journalist and broadcaster decided to get a few issues off his chest in an occasional column he still writes for the Tuam Herald. It was a reflective piece about the county’s footballers, with whom in decades past he was a selector, and the reality he was reflecting wasn’t cheerful.
“Nowadays, drawing with Fermanagh, Armagh (a Division Three team next year) and Meath appears to be acceptable,” he wrote. “Losing to Cavan in the final round of the league? We heard only about the ‘positives’ after that game. Has anybody the courage to say it like it is? There are no positives when you lose.”
The column gained national currency and wasn’t well received in a few GAA circles in the county but others appreciated the perspective of someone who has been observing Gaelic games in Galway and elsewhere for upwards of 50 years.
“It looked as if I was hammering the team but the tone was more one of sadness than recrimination,” he said this week. “Galway football just isn’t in a good place at the moment. There’s been the most non-existent build-up to a Galway-Mayo game that I can remember. People are almost more looking forward to seeing how Mayo get on in their quest for the All-Ireland. I never thought I’d say that.”
Looking at the current state of affairs in the county it would be hard to argue too vehemently with his pessimistic tone. Uttering a statistic that has gained a fair degree of attention, team manager Kevin Walsh said that 52 players had declined invitations to get involved in the Galway panel during the two years of his management.
“I think Kevin might have been better keeping that to himself,” according to Walsh’s former team-mate and All-Ireland-winning captain Ray Silke. “Of course it’s frustrating, but for instance Johnny Duane and Michael Lundy, who are in New York, went expressly for a year. It’s not like they’re turning their back on Galway football.”
This year will be the 15th anniversary of Galway’s most recent All-Ireland. Another 12 months and that will be half the duration of the famine whose relief Silke celebrated in 1998 when raising Sam Maguire for the first time in 32 years. Equally resonantly, next September will be the golden jubilee of the county’s famous three-in-a-row.
Underlying the sense of helplessness are statistical records that would appear to show vital signs even if the patient is stricken. Since 2001, Galway have won one minor and four under-21 All-Irelands. It’s the same record as Dublin, who are currently chasing a fourth senior title in six years.
Last season county champions Corofin won the club All-Ireland, playing an attractive, attacking style of football. But in a gloomy irony the team’s manager, Stephen Rochford, a Mayo man, is now in charge of his own county’s team as the counties get ready to meet this evening in Castlebar.
Mayo dominate much of the football thought processes in Galway. The neighbouring rivals are on course to win a record six successive Connacht titles this summer. They managed to mine the county’s one under-21 All-Ireland 10 years ago for a host of players, who went on to play in senior finals and challenge for the title even if that pursuit remains epically unfulfilled.
Galway, with all of their under-age riches, haven’t even reached an All-Ireland semi-final since last winning in 2001. “Way back, Mayo put resources into developing players and it has paid off,” said Pádraic Joyce, another of the 1998-2001 cohort. “We have talented players who are too busy or for whatever reason not committing to the county team, but if a county team is going well people are queueing up to get involved.
“I agree that players are looking at what they might win and deciding against it. At the start of my career – in 1998, not too long ago – we trained Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and maybe at the height of it on a Sunday. By the end of my career a couple of years ago we were doing nine sessions in a week – more than one a day between collective training, gym work, recovery sessions and core work.
“It definitely makes players think about it. In recent times I was talking to a college player, who wouldn’t play Sigerson and I asked him why; he said they were down to play UUJ and there was no chance of winning that so what was the point?”
The modern regimes referred to by Joyce also play their role in curbing the appetite for intercounty football, according to Ray Silke.
“To commit to it is a big decision. You’ll give it a go for a while but there’s bound to be a question about whether Galway are going to win anything soon.
“I’d question as well whether we have been strategic enough in guiding young players. Did anyone sit down with the 2007 minors and try to work out an individual pathway that might have kept them involved. Okay, some players at that age won’t be sufficiently good for senior and some will have injury issues but do we do enough to encourage and keep track of talent?
“The best thing we could do now is to lay out the plans to target an All-Ireland in 2026 because I think if we’re realistic it’s going to take that long to develop and bring the players through, starting with juveniles.”
Shane Walsh, Galway’s best- known talent, was asked about the situation as one of the under-21 medallists and his answer was interesting. He made the point that the grade suited Galway but that he could also understand that the intense commitment of modern senior intercounty football wasn’t for everyone.
“To be honest the football at under-21 level is perfect as a forwards game really because it’s so open and it’s so honest that if a player’s been beaten then he’s been beaten, it’s just the player he’s marking has been better than him on the day. Whereas at senior level, he’s not let have that influence.
Players at their peak
“The physicality of the game as well makes it difficult to make the step up to the senior grade. I think that’s the biggest thing that Mayo have done – whatever players they’ve had they’ve just held on to them and put them through the same process as the others so they’ve a lot of players at their peak, 27 or 28.
“It’s a big advantage that lads could have seven or eight years in the gym compared to lads coming straight out of under-21, fresh and hoping to have a crack at it.
“Everyone wants to live their life their own way and you can’t fault them for that. With the lads we have there’s so much talent in our dressing-room that it’s just a matter of getting it out on the pitch. I know we have a young squad but we’re still hopeful of success. I don’t think any of us would be in the dressing-room if we thought we weren’t going to win anything.”
Hope springs eternal but it’s also taking an eternity.