Seán Moran: Galway and Tyrone’s rise adds spice to championship

Counties bucked trend by winning provincial honours after a spring spent in Division Two

If there were worrying trends maintained in the provincial football championships – Cork's decline in Munster and Dublin taking the Leinster title in a repeat of last year's final except that they won by even more in front of fewer people – we did reach a bend in the road in Connacht and Ulster.

Not alone were the victories of Tyrone and Galway noteworthy departures in themselves – first provincial wins in six and eight years respectively – but they marked a challenge to the emerging orthodoxies of the past 15 years of All-Ireland qualifiers and the last eight of a hierarchical structure in the league.

It's all of16 years since Armagh became the most recent county not in the top division to win the All-Ireland and in the past five seasons of 20 provincial championships, 17 of them were won by four counties, Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal and it's six seasons since more than one of the provincial champions emerged after spending spring outside of the top flight.

That’s now been shaken up and if new Ulster champions Tyrone are on their way back to Division One of the league, their equally new Connacht counterparts Galway will in 2017 be settling into their sixth straight season in Division Two.


For Mickey Harte’s team it closes the book on a difficult period. Six years ago they got relegated for the first time in his managerial reign, a setback that ran counter to all his teachings on the importance of playing at as high a level as possible.

There was a symbolic importance in that relegation because it was confirmed by a home defeat against Dublin and in retrospect marked the start of divergent pathways for both counties. The Brogans dismantled Tyrone that day while the defence was held together impressively in their first season together by club mates Rory O’Carroll and Cian O’Sullivan at full back and centre back, respectively.

Only the league? It appeared so after Dublin’s new-fangled defensive structure fell apart against Meath that summer and Tyrone dusted off a fourth Ulster title of the Harte era. But when their paths crossed again the league form held.

Since then Dublin have won three All-Irelands whereas Tyrone couldn’t even win their province. That they did last weekend was the cause of significant celebration.

Harte in that time has become more philosophical about the league, a competition in which he placed great store in the heyday of his early management, but he is on the record as saying that he feels his team is a Division One outfit and it will be a surprise if they don’t put a stop to the yo-yo existence of this decade.

How though do we explain Galway?

The simple answer is that it can't be explained without reference to Kevin Walsh's achievement. The one thing he has in common with Mickey Harte is that they both know what it takes to win an All-Ireland, the latter as manager and Walsh as a player in the county's All-Ireland winning days.

When John O'Mahony took over in Galway in 1998 Walsh was one of the few remaining 1986 All-Ireland winning minors – one of his selectors Brian Silke is another – and his senior career had been patchy and unfulfilled. He hadn't a whole lot of time left and O'Mahony patiently harnessed a growing determination.

Although not one of the most media friendly of that team, he was one of the most influential and respected. Although one of the older players he welcomed and encouraged the rising talents on the team, which contained five under-21s.

He also fixed the team’s kick-out strategy, which had wobbled badly in the year before O’Mahony arrived during a defeat by Mayo in Tuam, by reassuring goalkeeper Martin McNamara that a reversion to straight-down-the-middle kick-out tactics would be unnecessary.

In the 1998 All-Ireland against Kildare, the pair gave a masterclass with McNamara varying his re-starts but being especially effective with ambitious kicks to the side-line for Walsh, with his basketball footwork and handling, to pluck down and distribute.

Ray Silke, the '98 Galway captain, in Monday's column in the [itals]Irish Examiner, lauded his old team-mate's coaching of successors Paul Conroy and Tom Flynn in the contemporary Galway centrefield.

That influence can be seen all around the team. Declan Kyne, a rookie full back in his 20s, is a front runner for the All Star. Former captain Gareth Bradshaw's performances have been far more focused on playing to his strengths at wing back.

Up front Danny Cummins – previously known as 'Crossbar Danny' in reference to the enthusiasm with which he was 'never afraid to miss,' the most tenuous of goal chances – has become a lethal forward, Man of the Match in the drawn and drenched Connacht final, and scorer of 2-1 in the replay.

Is it possible that he also saw Division Two of the league as, counter-intuitively, a better platform for the championship?

With five All-Ireland under-age medallists starting in the Connacht final and as many on the panel Walsh may have felt that he had the raw material and would be better able to prepare for the match against Mayo, which would define their summer, away from the pressures of playing the top teams in Division One and potentially having to battle against relegation.

Since the great day Galway won the 2001 All-Ireland, the county has failed to win a single match in Croke Park in 10 attempts. Kevin Walsh is one match away from breaking that dismal sequence and taking the county into a first All-Ireland semi-final in 15 years where they might well be facing Tyrone.

Suddenly the championship has new possibilities.