Galway hurling’s pain softened by dynamic club scene

Dispute over Anthony Cunningham’s position casts shadow over novel county final

Galway manager Anthony Cunningham. Nobody has come closer to bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to the county for the first time since the late 1980s. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Galway manager Anthony Cunningham. Nobody has come closer to bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to the county for the first time since the late 1980s. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

As if to confirm that Galway hurling is predictable only in its startling unpredictability, up pop Craughwell chasing a first county title since De Valera was a young man. They will play Sarsfields in the county showpiece tomorrow, a club whose names and former players evoke the brightest of maroon yesteryears. Meanwhile, mediation continues between the beaten All-Ireland panel of players and its management. The head-scratching goes on.

The exhilarating and at times bitter rivalry which characterises the local championship has helped the Galway hurling public to recover from its latest All-Ireland trauma. The club scene has been characterised by dynasties that are at once both majestic and oppressive, from Castlegar through the 1950s, Turloughmore’s invincible sides of the 1960s, through to Joe Canning’s All-Ireland-winning Portumna teams of the past decade.

Sarsfields are something of a lucky star for Galway, winning a county in the county’s breakthrough year of 1980. During a public audience this week, Joe Cooney – half-farmer, half-deity in Bullaun/New Inn – was among those who steadfastly concentrated the conversation on the current team rather than on old glories, but he did allow that there are a lot of familial connections between this year’s team and the 1980s vintage.

“There is. That is what happens in smaller clubs. It might take a few years but when they do come they start blossoming again. I suppose we rode our luck against Tynagh but since then the team has come on in leaps and bounds.”

Sarsfields are no strangers to these days so interest has been fixed on the emergence of Craughwell through the thicket of strong contending clubs. Tomorrow will be their first county final march since 1932.

“It is hard to put a finger on why,” Gerry Moloney, Craughwell selector, says of the club’s long absence from county final day.

New families

“Some good teams came through. We won back to back under-21 titles in the early 1970s but we never seemed to make the breakthrough at senior level. The parish has exploded in terms of population but the hurling side of it; well, a lot of new families have moved in and are starting to take part in the underage side of things. But the core of the senior team is going back to the traditional families in the parish. That will change in the coming years. Craughwell is only 15 minutes from Galway city so it is a commuter town now.”

You only have to trace the outline of Craughwell’s progression to gauge the claustrophobic nature of the Galway championship. After their first group match, manager Stephen Glennon and his backroom staff were left to analyse a 10-point defeat by Tommy Larkins. In his day life, Glennon is a sports journalist with the Connacht Tribune and so had plenty of opportunity to study the form. That was in May. Now it is November and Larkins are not guaranteed a place on the senior championship roster for next season, while Craughwell can take an historic step tomorrow.

They haven’t exactly come from nowhere: four semi-final appearances in the last decade indicate a tenacity, and people paid less attention than they should to the 19 wides they fired in losing to Portumna in last year’s semi-final.

“It has been a gradual process,” Moloney says. “We were in the semi-final last year and were a bit unlucky. We had a lot of wides against Portumna and we didn’t push on. So yeah, we are delighted to be in it. Maybe not that big a surprise to us but to other people it might be. The players are more confident. Winning games breeds that. They have never panicked this year and took their points to come back into the games.”

The novelty of Craughwell’s emergence has been welcome. But the composition of this county final pairing can only deepen the sense of confusion and anxiety as to where Galway hurling ‘is’ right now.

The sense of anticipation and giddiness that swept through the city and county immediately after the sensational All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary was unprecedented. Veterans of the 1987 and ’88 era declared that there was no comparison. The wild nature of that victory – Galway seemed destined to lose to Tipp after Noel McGrath marked his return from illness with a sublime late point – only contributed to the soaring optimism.

Coupled with the aggressiveness of the quarter-final win over Cork, another traditional county, that win over Tipp helped to fuel a sense of manifest destiny about the team. The performance in the first half against Kilkenny did nothing to dilute that sense that their day had finally come. At half-time, Galway hurling people must have felt so close to victory that they could smell it. In retrospect, the idea seems almost innocent.

Over the course of an absorbing interview with Jim Carroll of this parish at the Web Summit this week, Joe Canning reflected on the treacherous light in which championship seasons can project teams.

“It was a lot easier for me than the first one,” he said of the All-Ireland hype. “When you get so close, the supporters get carried away. Tipperary could easily have won that game and if they had . . . we would have been the worst team in the world. I don’t think people step back and look at the whole picture.”

It was a reasonable call for perspective. But in a perpetually strong hurling county that steadily produces All-Ireland-winning minor, under-21 and club teams, perspective has given way to a kind of desperation. People just want the code cracked – and now. Canning’s assessment of Galway’s second half against Kilkenny – “They just had more experience in the second half and ground it out” – is, at a fundamental level, commendably honest.

As one Kilkenny supporter marvelled leaving the ground: “We didn’t even have to do that much to win it.” But at the time it didn’t feel like a prosaic win by an experienced outfit; it felt for Galway people like a traumatic and public disintegration of a really promising position.

Disillusionment

The disappointment was overwhelming and the subsequent disillusionment has brought about the well-publicised stand-off between the panel and manager Anthony Cunningham.

Nobody can doubt Cunningham’s passion or ambition for the squad and no manager has come closer to recapturing the senior All-Ireland the county covets.

He became the first manager since Cyril Farrell not to lose a senior final with the 2012 draw against Kilkenny and after two subsequent disappointing seasons had appeared to put Galway in the right place again this year.

Against that, Galway looked so ill-prepared to cope with the ferocious second-half Kilkenny onslaught, which everyone knew was coming, that it seemed like an indictment of the management. The team played into Kilkenny’s hands and once the Cats were dictating terms, Galway seemed helpless to change that.

Whether the players failed to stand up as a team or whether the management failed to properly armour them with mental resolve and a tactical plan is a matter of opinion. That is presumably being thrashed out this weekend.

“There is mediation taking place at the moment,” says Galway PRO Mick Curley. “I don’t know who the mediator is and the two parties have requested that no information be given until such a time as the process is over. We haven’t been given a time-frame on it and I don’t think a time-frame has been set for it either. It has to take the course that it’s taking.”

It has been a long and draining process. A month has passed since Cyril Farrell, a man who now seems thoroughly tired of wearing the crown of ‘Last Galway Hurling Manager To’, spoke on Galway Bay FM about the negative repercussions of the breakdown.

“You have to analyse every part of it. I don’t know how it got this far. You upset families and fathers and clubs and you will have fellas talking about it. It is a bit simple to just say we will just get rid of the management team and then we will win the All-Ireland. What happens if they don’t? It is a two-way love affair and there doesn’t seem to be any love at the moment. It is not the ideal way to go into a championship next year.

“I don’t believe in my time that we had ever as big a crowd as we had in Croke Park the last day. I don’t believe in my time that the county was ever as much in colour. It gave a new lift to villages that were kind of half dying. All of a sudden now they are saying: what’s happening?

“The older fellas on the team have to realise that they are only wearing for the next generation. Ten years is a long time in intercounty hurling. I remember Iggy Clarke saying that for five years you are coming and for five you are going. Once ye win, all the cracks are covered over.”

All of that is indisputable. Whatever momentum Galway created over the summer has surely been lost over the course of this internal dispute.

Meanwhile, Kilkenny are garlanded with seven All-Stars and their fortress seems more secure than ever. None of the Galway starting XV from this year’s All-Ireland final will appear in this tomorrow’s county final.

Joseph Cooney, a mainstay for Sarsfields, is, however, a regular and Niall Healy, who nailed a nerveless late free to put Craughwell in the final, is still a panel member after a decade of service. But this year’s final substantiates the feeling that Portumna’s golden period is coming to an end.

“I think myself that the days of one team dominating the championship to that degree are a thing of the past,” says Gerry Moloney.

Player burnout

“Teams tend to win it for a year or two but it is hard to keep it going for four and five years in a row because of player burnout and the schedule of matches. It is hard to do.”

Would this be a bad thing for Galway hurling? When Canning was asked this week about what it was that separated Kilkenny from the other hurling counties, he immediately identified the culture which has been developed since Brian Cody took charge to a distinct lack of trumpet fare back in 1999.

“To have that culture of winning. We had it ourselves in Portumna for the last 10 or 12 years. There is something about it that you have an extra confidence that you believe no matter what. You have to give them a lot of respect for coming back year in and year out.”

Canning came as close to anyone has to articulating the elusive traits which generations of Galway hurling teams have been trying to harvest: winning through habit and consistency and synchronicity. Successive Galway clubs have had it in abundance. But perhaps a more even spread of championship wins would facilitate a transfer of those traits to the county dressing-room.

Galway’s potential remains enormous. That will be in evidence again in Kenny Park tomorrow. Turn up in Athenry before throw in and you will be left in no doubt as to the robust appetite for the magic game in maroon country. Two months after heaven’s gates almost opened, Galway hurling is in a deeply uncertain place.

But certain truths remain. There is a panel of talented and primarily young hurlers out there. The pressure on Joe Canning will remain distorted and absurd. And Galway will show up for its first national league game next season, if not under the charge of Anthony Cunningham, then under somebody else. But those are future distractions. Tomorrow, the emphasis turns again to the hurling field.

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