Not prodigal, just prodigious

 

So you open up the sportspages and hear the morning radio bulletins and suddenly find that you are the prodigal son of Galway hurling. You are, understandably, a bit baffled about the trumpet fare which heralds your "return". You weren't aware that your absence had been an issue - you weren't even aware, in fact, that you had ever really left.

Sure, you had spent a few months soaking up San Francisco, but your path was no different to most kids who have recently boxed up their college books for the last time. Change of scene, a gulp of life in which pattern and structure has no place. Fun, it's called.

But, sceptically, you read about yourself and begin to wonder if just maybe it was all true. Perhaps you had actually dropped off the face of the universe for a few years, floating around the galaxy in a maroon O'Neill's jersey, a blood-frozen hurler inanimate and suspended, one of the unearthly diaspora of Galway proteges awaiting some divine hand to steer you back towards the green fields. No mistake, you are delighted that Mattie Murphy is giving you a league run against Antrim, it's a good feeling, but you didn't expect this. Finbarr Gantley rides again! Back from the wilderness! You are, last time you looked, just 23 years of age. You shake your head and wonder what's the big deal. * * *

Hit rewind. It is 1997 and hurling is in the midst of a state of wonderful flux, making no sense since Clare overthrew the ancien regime two summers before. This particular scene, in Thurles, perfectly illustrates the new spirit of adventure.

Kilkenny, humbled in the Leinster final, are in action again, beneficiaries of the "back-door" experiment. Even though Galway leave them punch drunk in an exhilarating opening half, those Cats are firing back now. Inspired by DJ Carey, they are hurling as if in a hypnotic fury and the coltish Galway backs are buckling.

One of their number is Finbarr Gantley, living his first senior championship afternoon. For company he has Charlie Carter, who on this day is hurling on instinct. Kilkenny will torch their opponents in the white heat, running out 4-15 to 3-16 winners, and history will record that Galway blew a nine-point half-time lead. As it transpires, that game is Gantley's only championship run for his county thus far.

So when his name re-appeared on the team-sheets this spring, maybe the jury peered through a distorted lens, wrote the last few years off as a void and settled upon that game as a suitable source of origin for young Gantley's entire career. A second coming after that traumatic birth. Such a summary is neat, but it is also rubbish.

"Aw, Finbarr had a fine game that day, yes," recalls Cyril Farrell, who stood on the line as manager. "I mean, he was marking Charlie Carter, who was really on his game at the time, and yeah, no question, he gave a good account of himself."

Thinking about that game now, Gantley is matter-of-fact and diplomatic. There are no ghosts. "Well, we did lose a nine-point lead, we were playing against a strong breeze and I think, if you ask why we lost, that DJ Carey had something to do with it. But our own forwards hit 3-17, so in that sense you have to say that the second half was down to the backs. From my own point of view, there was no real pressure because I don't think anything was expected. It was grand really."

Contrary to popular perception, he didn't trudge off the field that day and despondently fall through a crack in the earth.

"People forget how young he was then," points out Tony Regan of UCG. "Most of the team were probably made scapegoats for that day and with Finbarr being so young, it perhaps didn't do his confidence any good, which is why he benefitted from hurling with the Fitzgibbon teams here in the college. Finbarr was part of the minor team that won in 1994 and a lot of those lads were rushed through to senior. It's a feature of Galway hurling that at senior level, you often only get one bite at the cherry. In a sense, Finbarr is one of the lucky ones."

The Gantleys of Beagh. Moons ago, Joe Gantley set out from Ardrahan and established himself just off the fault-line which cuts through the tiny hurling villages of south Galway and north Clare. The sport surged through the family blood. Joe's brother, Fr Paddy, hurled like a wizard under madcap pseudonyms for his cloak, back when they had a ban on priests playing Gaelic games.

In the 70s, with Galway on the cusp of a new beginning, Finbarr Gantley senior came home from England, and his presence reinvigorated Beagh. In 1980, the September which changed everything in the west, Gantley won an All-Ireland with the county. "I do recall little snippets of that time all right," says young Finbarr now. "Like, I remember the homecoming fairly well and going up to the match."

This was Gantley's landscape, hurling constantly in the mind's eye, simple and uncomplicated.

"He would always have been recognised as a excellent talent, he featured on all the Galway under-age teams," recalls Tony Regan. "He was up and coming. But Finbarr was always very unassuming about it all, letting his hurling do the talking. He wouldn't be one for roaring in the dressingroom. Yet on the field, he was very calculating, he has a real understanding for the game. You'd see it in his play."

Gantley continued to play with Galway under Farrell through 1998, drumming his fingers on the bench as the team sank disappointingly again in their next quarter-final. By the next summer, he gave in to wanderlust and booked a ticket to San Francisco. Hurled a little, fell for the sunny life. Came back to Beagh before Christmas. Found himself running in the drizzle under lights to Mattie Murphy's instructions.

"I don't really know why Mattie asked me back. Our club is intermediate, so I doubt he saw too much of me at that level. I've never asked him what the reason was. It's something you'd need to put to himself," he says now.

When he talks about the league this year, Gantley insists that he has been lucky; he got chosen for a role that any one of 10 lads could have filled. Nothing is set in concrete yet, he says, places are all still up for grabs.

Appraisals are, he reckons, not his business.

"I'm not surprised to see Finbarr hurling for Galway again, I don't think anybody who would know his game is," offers Cyril Farrell. "He had a fine match against Waterford in the semi-final and hurls the wingback area so well. I would say he is close to nailing down a championship place. He could have many seasons ahead of him."

Gantley is reluctant to elaborate on this line of speculation. All he knows is that he is enjoying it, loves hurling alongside his brother Rory. "We'd have a bit of communication, mostly for puck-outs and the odd word of, em, aggressive encouragement."

In Thurles the last day, it was a bit strange running out, the maroon colours lonesome in the stands and a distinctive, mournful booing acknowledging their presence. Not so many locals journeyed to Tipp. "Hard to say why it is," say Gantey, "I suppose it happens to all teams that are quiet for a while, the support goes quiet. But it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Depends how you look at it."

Not that he dwells too long on perspectives. Tomorrow, Finbarr Gantley will hurl for Galway. Who will you see? Storied stranger resurrected or a young defender on the threshold? Gantley returns? Sure, he's only just arriving.