Galway entering the lion's den


GAELIC GAMES: TOM HUMPHRIESsets the scene for today’s showdown and looks at the history of the rivalry between Tipperary and Galway at under-21 level

POOR GALWAY. On the face of things, if form, pedigree and venue mean anything, Galway will be the stooges in a vast and bubbling celebration of all things Tipperary this evening at Semple Stadium.

It’s hard to remember a time when any county has waltzed into a final like this, on such a high and with so many factors running in their favour. Six days after one of the greatest hurling displays of all time prompted scenes of dizzy joy in every Premier parlour, Tipperary take eight of their winning senior panel, plus the other graduates of recent minor and colleges successes, and throw them into the pit with Galway.

That the pit happens to be Semple Stadium is another slice of luck. Galway can feel aggrieved, but they are probably best not to spit their dummy out of the pram. They will have enough to do out on the field, any field. When the sides played their semi-finals in Tullamore last month the difference was stark.

Tipperary went about shellacking Antrim in such a ruthless way that it caused one to question the entire competition’s structure. The beating did little for either team.

And then came Dublin and Galway in a game of such torpor and lassitude that it was hard to believe it was a national semi-final. Dublin, who had beaten Kilkenny in Leinster in a blaze of fiery passionate hurling, came down with some critical injuries and a collective case of the yuppie flu virus which has sapped the energy of various Dublin hurling teams at various times in recent years.

They scarcely turned up and Galway had enough to win. They progressed less convincingly then the seven-point margin suggested and Dublin headed home thinking about what might have been if they had a full team – or if they hadn’t all sleepwalked through the previous hour.

Galway bring two names with senior cachet to the party. David Burke the captain and Richie Cummins the Billy Whizz of up- and-coming hurlers. Their CV distinguishes them as the side hosed down by Cork three years ago in the minor championship by a margin of 17 points. And we all know where Cork stand today.

On the plus side, the players coming through from the last two years of minor endeavour have more of a sheen to them having contested two finals, winning the latter. A gaggle of these, including one Joseph Cooney of Sarsfields, are in contention. Four Galway players won Fitzgibbon Cup medals last spring with NUIG, but talk of the Fitzgibbon reminds one this is the first year in many that Galway’s under-21s don’t have Joe Canning to hit everything to.

History, of course, has lots of precedents. The counties have met three times in previous finals at this grade. They enjoyed a mini-rivalry in 1978-79 sharing a title each when they met in the finals in successive years.

Galway fans will be pleased to hear that very little changes.

The 1979 final was due to be played in Limerick where they had won their two previous titles, but the Limerick County Board switched the county final between Tournafulla and Patrickswell into the Gaelic Grounds thus evicting the under-21s.

Galway were keen to play the hurling final in Croke Park as a double header with the football under-21 final, which coincidentally was between Cork and Down. The GAA listened and opted to play the hurling in Portlaoise.

Apart from Dublin hurlers and footballers playing all their league games on the sacred turf of Croke Park in those days, as well as many Dublin club championship games being played there, almost anybody with a bona fide competition could get in.

That October the Psychiatric Hospitals cup final between St Ita’s of Portrane and St Finan’s of Killarney was played in Croker at 2.30 on a Sunday afternoon.

The Irish Times carried the fixture, but not the score so we are unsure as to how it factored into the Kerry-Dublin rivalry.

It is tempting to study the under-21 grade and adduce a pattern from it of success at senior level. Galway and Tipp at that time anyway, bucked the trend. From the 1978 winning team (a feat achieved in a replay) Galway brought Conor Hayes, Seán Coen, Steve Mahon, Bernie Forde and John Ryan through to play parts in the county’s historic breakthrough in 1980.

Yet, Tipp had four All-Ireland under-21 titles through from 1979 to 1985 and lost a further three finals, coming through taxing Munster campaigns each time, and they had still to wait for 1989 to collect a dividend at senior. While in the waiting room they lost another under-21 final to Galway.

Back in 1983, Galway had won the minor championship a few weeks previously with one Joseph Cooney from Sarsfields playing for Galway and one Niall Quinn playing for beaten finalists Dublin (Galway’s maiden title at under-21 in 1972 also came against Dublin).

It was Galway’s first minor win and though that was momentous the county was preparing in blissful ignorance for what would be the apocalyptic events of that year’s football final.

Meanwhile, the under-21s played Tipperary in Tullamore in the All-Ireland final.

Several players off both sides had been minors in 1982 when Tipp had nine points to spare over a Galway team which had hoped to be the first to triumph at that level. As context for the 1983 under-21 final that was a scant enough folder. With the coruscating rivalry which would develop between the counties it all assumed significance in hindsight.

Tipp had dominated in the under-21 grade at the turn of the decade and were enjoying a golden period in the competition which saw them contest seven finals in eight years – winning four of them. The game, tame enough in itself, set the seeds for much of what was to come later in the decade. Tipp had Nicky English playing centre back, Ken Hogan, Conor Donovan, Joe Hayes and Colm Bonner also started.

Galway had Tony Keady and Pete Finnerty of the half-back line which would become legendary; Gerry McInerney had finished his minor career earlier in the month with an All-Ireland medal; Ollie Kilkenny, Michael Coleman, Aidan Staunton and Michael McGrath all had, or would go on to have, senior careers.

Galway won a tame match, 0-12 to 1-6, and stayed ahead of Tipperary on the learning curve for a few years despite Tipp’s record in the grade.

Ollie Kilkenny, Finnerty and Keady were defenders in the 1985 All-Ireland senior final and were joined by McInerney in the following year’s final.

McGrath and Coleman graduated quickly, but Cooney made the jump out of minors even faster. By the time he won his second successive All-Ireland medal in 1988 (against a Tipp team captained by Nicky English) he was playing in his fourth senior final and he would squeeze another couple out in the ’90s.

Back to the future.

In Thurles tomorrow it will matter little. The thing we know about underage players is that we know nothing about underage players. Tipp should win and continue to reign at senior level.

Galway, though, have a habit of making much from little. A win on top of recent minor successes would be a breakthrough of note.

We can work out what it all means in years to come.