Last winter’s coup has all eyes on Galway this summer

Ousting of manager Anthony Cunningham, followed by relegation from Division 1A, ensures the pressure is now very much on

 

Galway hurling is on the precipice. But that is nothing new. Go back to September 6th of last year in Croke Park; half-time All-Ireland festivities on the pitch, the usual autumnal feel about the day and also an undeniable giddiness generated by the Galway fans permitting themselves to believe that this was finally it: the day.

What transpired over the next 35 minutes of play seemed like the cruellest of all turns since the last maroon triumph of 1988. Kilkenny returned to the field in bossy, vengeful mood and the Galway team, beaten after a replay by the Cats in 2012, seemed almost acquiescent in this defeat.

Since then, Galway hurling has weathered the protracted and saddening stand-off between the management and the squad which stretched for some seven weeks until Anthony Cunningham decided to opt out.

Micheál Donoghue, the incoming manager, could not have inherited a position under closer scrutiny and his maiden league campaign was beleaguered with injuries.

Comic twist

“It’s getting worse to be honest,” Joe Canning said on Newstalk in a very honest interview late that September when asked if he was over the defeat.

Canning made passing reference to what remains a key factor in Galway’s defeat. The challengers had nine starters playing in their first All-Ireland. In other words, since their last September appearance in 2012, almost two-thirds of the first choice team had been changed.

The simple statistic spoke volumes about Galway. Few teams in hurling or football could hope to make such radical alterations and still make an impact. Yet Galway made it to two All-Ireland finals in four seasons with effectively different teams.

Since Tipperary’s success in 2010 – which looks increasingly more splendid in its isolation – no hurling county has troubled Kilkenny as much as Galway.

On both All-Ireland final occasions they seemed to have Kilkenny wavering but paid dearly for not striking when the momentum was with them. Still, their ability to challenge last September with a newly constructed team was a further confirmation of the quality and number of hurlers within the county.

And it could also be held up as an explanation for what happened during that disorienting second half. This was a young Galway team pitted against a side that places an immutable trust in its ability to triumph in All-Ireland finals. Kilkenny know how to suck in all the available oxygen and they did so.

Second Captains

It was as if Galway were still gasping for air during the league and now they face into the championship having exited the top division.

“You’d just think that something happened to the computer and somebody hit the wrong button,” says former Galway player and U-21 selector, Tony Keady. “People will say that it’s not bad going into Division 1B because you can blood players. Do they realise the calibre of hurler that is in Galway? I walk away when I hear that.

“The thought of Joe Canning hurling in 1B . . . and this is no disrespect to the division. You have Limerick coming with good U-21 teams but would you play Joe Canning against Kerry or Laois? It will do Galway hurling no good to play in that division. People say it will do Galway no harm for one year. But one year?

“They could be down there for three or four years. And it is where the likes of Joe could get an injury that would put him out for a year. So you have to look at the big picture. But the way people are talking at the minute is that Division 1B will be totally Tipp-Ex-ed out if Galway have a good run in the championship.

“Against Cork, Johnny Coen, Daithi Burke and Pauric Mannion were all missing; they could actually be the full back line. Cyril Donnellan, Conor Cooney were absent; you had seven or eight lads who could have started against Cork all injured. Michael Donohue has been beleaguered with all the injuries he has had. I have said it to people; don’t kid yourself that Galway can’t go on and win an All-Ireland from this.”

Keady’s view reflects the lurching mood within the county: surface pessimism obscuring a deep-down conviction that the talent is there: that the team is never that far away. He is a senior manager with his club this year and saw countless hurling games last year in his time with the U-21s. He is fairly sure that the eye has been run over the best players in the county.

“Anthony definitely had his time scouting. If he asked me was there anyone else out there, you would have to think about it. He really had seen everyone who was in the county gathered up. And Micheál Donoghue hasn’t been there long enough. It is really only starting for him now.”

Great concern

Johnny Glynn

Now it’s the same with Glynn. Micheál Donoghue has confirmed the player won’t be available. Judging by his conversation with Eoin McDevitt on Second Captains broadcast from Randall’s Island in April, part of Glynn is missing hurling dreadfully. Plenty of sleepless nights and agonised phone calls home but he is staying put; Glynn just got caught between the moon and New York City. The best he could do was promise to be in the Hogan Stand if Galway get to the final next September.

But can they? The post-season managerial putsch made precisely nobody feel good and split opinion. Some saw it as another example of player-power run amok and placed their sympathies firmly in the Cunningham camp. Others saw the failure to steer the team through that traumatic second half as the responsibility of the former management team.

“It is worse than 2012,” Canning said in that September interview of the last great disappointment.

“It is hard to put my finger on it. I haven’t watched the match since and I don’t want to. When you are three or four points up at half-time against Kilkenny; we didn’t change anything. We were going well so why change it? Everyone asked what happened at half-time. But we did the same as we did in every other match.”

As it turned out, what Galway should or should not have done in that second half became crucial to the conversations which led to Cunningham – ratified by the county board – to step down.

The words Cunningham used in his television interview - “gutted”, “disappointed”, “heartbreaking” conveyed the extent of the hurt the management position caused. Whatever Galway did or did not do in the league was not going to matter anyway.

“If they don’t get a good run in the championship, the knives will be out and people will say they are only fit for 1B,” says Keady. “That’s what will be said. They brought on the change and it is up to them to see what they can do.”

Winter’s coup

“This result isn’t going to define our year,” promised Micheál Donoghue as the crowd fled Salthill for the hurling heartlands, absorbing the Cork defeat and wondering where the next twist was coming from.

“Throughout the league we tried a lot of players and the game, the magnitude it was, we could have used more experienced players. But we are going to push on and drive it on from here. Galway needs to drive on and be with the top teams. We are just going to work hard on getting the lads back that are injured and push on for the championship.”

All eyes will be on them.

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