Ciarán Murphy: Incremental development pays off for Galway

2012 Leinster final win began first sustained piece of team-building in Tribesmen’s history

Pádraig Kelly, of Galway and Sarsfields, won man of the match in the 1993 All-Ireland hurling final, the last time a player on the losing side won that award.

In fact, he played three games in Croke Park in 1993 and was man of the match in all three of them – the All-Ireland club final for his club Sarsfields, the All-Ireland semi-final that August against Tipperary, and the ensuing final loss to Kilkenny.

He started the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Offaly in 1994, played against Clare at the same stage in 1995, and was dropped in 1996 for the semi-final against Wexford. He appeared off the bench against Kilkenny in a calamitous quarter-final loss in 1997, started against Waterford in 1998, and featured against Clare a year later, but that was it.

He started a grand total of six meaningful championship games for Galway (excluding Connacht finals against Roscommon). That is what used to constitute an inter-county career for Galway's elite hurlers, even one as gifted as Kelly.

Another Sarsfields man, Joseph Cooney has made 24 championship appearances for the Galway seniors since he made his debut in 2012. Joe Cooney Snr played 16 years for Galway, and even in perhaps the most glittering career of any Galway hurler, which went all the way into the era of the back-door and the qualifiers, he still only made 35 appearances.

The history of Galway hurling then is a sole success in 1923, the wins of the 1980s courtesy of a team so gifted that it was able to overcome the limitations of geography and history that told against the county . . . and last Sunday. In between there was a lot of pain and hurt, and a nagging feeling that most seasons they were late invitees to a party already in full swing.

The back-door was introduced in 1997 but it was not until 2009 that Galway were belatedly (and to this day, still not unconditionally) added to the Leinster championship – and in those 12 years, the GAA still managed to treat Galway as a structural inconvenience.

In those years between the end of their automatic, or practically automatic, passage to the All-Ireland semi-final, and their addition to the Leinster championship, Galway were consigned to a purgatory of entering the qualifiers in late June, which always had an off-Broadway feel. Some years there was a facility for Galway to continue in the championship after a defeat, but only if they lost to Antrim.

Is it any wonder that inter-county careers would bloom and flourish and die in two or three years? When you only play one or two games a year, it’s not much of a sample size to judge your merits as a player.

The catalyst

One bad game equated to an entire bad season for a lot of Galway hurlers. Players will always go through peaks and troughs in a career, but out of that comes an average – a sensible, reasonably accurate judgement of a player’s ability. It’s hard to do that on one game a year.

The Galway players of today have suffered under the accumulated pressure of almost 30 years of underachievement since 1988. But really the period from 2012 to today is the first sustained piece of team-building that has been able to happen in Galway’s hurling history.

That win against Kilkenny in the Leinster final of 2012 was the catalyst for so much of what has happened since. Eight players who saw action that day were in the 26 last Sunday – James Skehill in goal (sub goalkeeper this year), Johnny Coen and David Burke, Niall Burke, Conor Cooney, Cyril Donnellan, Johnny Glynn, and of course Joe Canning.

Conor Cooney suffered the indignity of being brought on, and then taken off, in the course of just nine minutes in the drawn All-Ireland final of 2012. At 19 years old, as he has since admitted, it came as a massive blow. It’s not quite been a five-year job to restore his confidence, as he’s suffered a few serious injuries too since then, but this year the benefits for him of a defined championship season have been clear. He’s grown his way into the team, and now surely on to the All-Stars XV.

Galway fans have been able to watch those careers grow and develop – in the case of Coen and David Burke, from wing-men to possibly the best midfield partnership in the game.

Nearly every year used to bring massive turnover, new managers, and new wunderkinds fresh out of minor, for whom last year's wunderkinds often inevitably had to make way. Now for the first time, and not without the usual ups and downs, players like John Hanbury and Niall Burke have made themselves known to the wider Galway public, have experienced the slings and arrows of a full inter-county career, and have ended up playing starring roles in an All-Ireland victory.

There is no guarantee Galway will go on and dominate hurling for the next three or four years – we’ve all experienced the fallacy of predicting great things on the back of one glorious September. But they have a cohort of experienced, highly skilled players, being given every chance to grow and succeed as inter-county hurlers. Men like Pádraig Kelly would surely relish such an opportunity.