Hurling Review 2017: Donoghue steers a rock steady course
Micheál Donoghue finds the winning blend as Galway finally land Liam MacCarthy
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue greets his father Miko Donoghue for the first time since winning the All Ireland. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
You had to forgive the scepticism but when Galway annihilated All-Ireland champions Tipperary in last April’s league final in Limerick, it was the sixth time since their most recent All-Ireland victory in 1988 that they had raised the Croke Cup.
No county has ever won six leagues without sliding in at least one MacCarthy Cup but then again, Galway have always stretched the statistics of deprivation. For instance, by this year the county had lost six All-Ireland finals since last winning one - a record exceeded by only their forebears between 1924 and 1980, who endured nine fruitless MacCarthy Cup finales.
So why was this year different?
It’s impossible to avoid identifying Micheál Donoghue, who took over as manager in the most difficult of circumstances in the wake of a dressing-room coup. His big achievement was the rendering irrelevant of the most frustrating question west of Shannon - which Galway team will turn up? In the end it was those conditioned to expect crazy fluctuations in performance who would be, if not frustrated, a little disorientated.
Ultimately the league final told no lies. Galway would remain formidable whereas Michael Ryan’s Tipperary, spoken of throughout the campaign as the team that would prove different by retaining the All-Ireland for the first time in 52 years, sustained a blow to their self-esteem that caused them to unravel in the Munster championship.
They were of course back for the now annual defining match of the All-Ireland, the one-point semi-final, against Galway but on the wrong side of the verdict despite their best display of the summer.
If it was a bit of a roller-coaster for the outgoing champions, nothing was steadier than Galway’s course.
If anything symbolised the change in approach it was that the county’s most familiar calling card, the goal blitz, which had propelled them to some of their biggest victories during the fallow years was replaced by painstaking points’ accumulations to the extreme extent that the team raised no green flags once May was finished.
Donoghue’s media style is guarded and unrevealing of a sharp-witted hurling mind and he also imparted a sense of calm and purpose to a team that had been subject to the wildest of mood swings.
If this all sounds a bit intangible or a suspiciously post hoc rationale, it was one of the first things attributed to him in interviews with his players during the season.
Of more material relevance, Donoghue solved team selection problems. For as long as anyone could remember, Galway had a problem down the middle, especially the defensive spine. Daithí Burke, an All Star corner back and wing back, was switched to the edge of the square and became the county’s first All Star full back since Conor Hayes.
In another echo of the 1980s Gearóid McInerney, only Galway’s second All Star at centre back since those days, is a son of Gerry, wing back on that team and whose white boots and transatlantic commutes added a touch of dash and glamour to the era.
The younger GMac was the subject of scepticism but he made himself essential at number six in a way that he had never managed elsewhere and produced irresistible surges in the All-Ireland semi-final and finals.
Donoghue optimised Joe Canning’s role and also liberated Johnny Coen from the constraints of corner back to become a quicksilver centrefielder, fast and quick-thinking.
Donoghue would have been entitled to ponder what might have happened in the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-final had Canning not had to go off at half-time and Coen not been forced back in to the corner to cover for the injured Adrian Tuohey.
In September’s final against a valiant Waterford, Galway’s bench became the launch-pad for victory. Holding back the in-form Jason Flynn and Niall Burke, Donogue played the cards expertly and the replacements scored two points each and attracted two more scoreable frees for the impeccable free taking of Canning.
In an affecting irony, Donoghue - for all his powered-down public projection - provided a moment of high emotion, captured by Morgan Treacy’s great picture, when presenting the Liam MacCarthy to his unwell father Miko, whose buses ferried generations of Galway hurlers and who had made sure that he personally drove the historic 1980 team across the Shannon.
Finally, it should be recorded that in an otherwise forgettable year for Dublin senior hurling, Cuala won a first All-Ireland club title for the county.
Much good-natured ribaldry greeted the achievement of the south county club but there was also predominantly goodwill that all the effort put into the game in the capital in recent years had gained recognition in such a tangible way.
Moreover, 13 of the players who started the final win against Ballyea were home-grown. And of course there wasn’t an almond milked in Dalkey for weeks after St Patrick’s Day.