Super 8 Focus: Galway suit their new identity - but they won't win Sam this year
THEY might already have won five on the bounce and guaranteed their place in the league final, but it was the day they faced Dublin at Pearse Stadium that gave a real sense of where Galway are at.
Ruairi Lavelle, Gareth Bradshaw, Declan Kyne and Seán Kelly didn’t play at all. Shane Walsh was taken off after 46 minutes. Damien Comer got 24 minutes off the bench. Johnny Heaney got 21.
And they drew with a team so used to pummelling all around them. Should have won, but a draw was grand. With the changes they’d made, it was a huge step in convincing themselves that they have the depth for this.
Two weeks later they gave it everything they had in Croke Park and took Jim Gavin’s side to their limit, but they couldn’t get across the line against 14 men when the opportunity was there.
Therein lies both of Galway’s problems with the notion of winning an All-Ireland this year.
The first is that they’ve come from virtually nowhere. The stock of the Connacht title is at its highest in a long time, but they maybe didn’t believe that themselves last year. Having succumbed to Roscommon’s creativity, they went at Kerry like a side that knew their fate before a ball was kicked. There was such a lack of conviction about them.
That’s one thing they certainly have not lacked this year. They’ve embraced a more counter-attacking style, throwing themselves headlong into a new shape and excelling in it.
Paddy Tally’s imprint has been debated at large. It’s hard to imagine they’d be playing the style of football they are if it wasn’t for the former All-Ireland winning Tyrone coach’s influence on things.
Galway are being painted as being Tyrone Lite when the reality is that they’re Tyrone Plus. Their defenders are as good, their midfield is an equal, and their forwards are better.
Their system has been repeatedly questioned in the sense of not getting the best out of quality forwards like Shane Walsh and Damien Comer, but it’s easy to make the opposite case.
Comer was the best player in the land during the league and Walsh has kicked on in the summer, his 0-8 in the provincial final one of the individual displays of the summer. It’s as if the idea of them having to work hard defensively on top of it is an alien concept.
Barry McHugh was quiet in Connacht but has scores in him, just as there are in Ian Burke and Eamonn Brannigan, the latter having dropped a bit deeper to accommodate Burke’s return to the side in recent weeks.
Johnny Heaney and Sean Kelly have best supplemented the impressive scoring tallies of their talismen. There’s enough about them going forward to carry a confidence into any game.
And because of the way they’re playing, the defensive worries have eased. They’ve kept the same full-back line of Declan Kyne and Eoghan Kerin in the corners and the excellent Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh in the middle all year. Cover aplenty has been offered and their concession of just four goals, two of which were in the Connacht final, underpins the entire operation.
There’s an adaptability there too, as they showed when they pressed up and hemmed Roscommon in during the second half of that game.
But against a Dublin or a Kerry, there is often no chance to adapt. If you get it wrong the first time, you’re already dead.
“It was important here to show who we are,” said Kevin Walsh after they claimed the JJ Nestor Cup.
THEIR new identity is just that, though: new. Despite winning promotion last year, there’s an inescapable feeling of year one about the whole 2018 project.
And year one is never an All-Ireland winning year. You go back through the annals and who’s done it? Discount Dublin and Kerry, who are never doing anything for the first time, and there’s nobody in living memory that stands out. Every team that climbed the Hogan Stand steps absorbed harsh lessons that were taught to them on big days.
You could argue that last year’s Connacht final would fall into that bracket. There’s no doubt they learnt lessons from it, because their full-back line hasn’t been anything close to exposed in that way this year.
That’s it, really. They were never close enough to Kerry last year to consider it a significant part of the learning process. This year’s League final against Dublin will prove far more useful given the game’s nature, and to come hopping off that and win a hyped-up clash in Castlebar was the mark of where their levels of belief are at now compared to 12 months ago.
But they haven’t suffered that gut-wrenching championship defeat that teams usually need to propel them to the next level.
The second problem is something they’ll have to reconcile themselves with over the winter. This has been a massive year for them.
Five consecutive wins in their first run back in Division One, straight into a final. A cut off Dublin. Then a proper clip at them in the final. They didn’t even feel the bloodied nose, such was the adrenaline rush of giving it so tight to the All-Ireland champions.
Then it’s Castlebar, and a few weeks later a Connacht final that they had to claw desperately at to win.
In all of it, what down time has there been? You can’t imagine them easing off much in the six weeks between the Allianz League final and the win over Stephen Rochford’s side. The only time they’ll have been able to rest on their laurels would have been after that game, when they would have known they’d have too many for Sligo in a semi-final.
The whole year has been up, up, up. And history tells us too that such mental sustenance is nigh on impossible to carry all the way from January through until August.
There’s been no stage through the year when they’ve been able to come down and that, mentally, is where this All-Ireland will get away from them.
If they throw everything they have into the Kerry game next Sunday, it could be their ruination. Should Monaghan and Kildare be the sides that come through round four to join them in Group Two, there’s a realistic chance that they might not even make it out of the group.
It’s been the best year Galway football has had in recent memory. There’s a strong chance that it will push them out of the pack to become serious contenders for the next two, three, four years. But not this year. It’s just too big an ask.
Probable starting XV v Kerry: Ruairi Lavelle; Declan Kyne, Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh, Eoghan Kerin; Cathal Sweeney, Gareth Bradshaw, Johnny Heaney; Paul Conroy, Tom Flynn / Ciaran Duggan; Eamonn Brannigan, Shane Walsh, Sean Kelly; Ian Burke, Damien Comer, Barry McHugh
2018 top scorers Championship scores in bracket
Barry McHugh 1-33 (0-5)
Shane Walsh 0-34 (0-16)
Damien Comer 3-20 (2-6)
Eamonn Brannigan 2-12 (0-3)
Johnny Heaney 1-10 (1-2)
Most minutes played
Ruairi Lavelle 700
Gareth Bradshaw 693
Shane Walsh 685
Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh 682
Declan Kyne 670
Super 8 fixtures
July 15, Croke Park, 4pm: Kerry v Galway
July 21/22: Laois/Monaghan v Galway
August 4/5: Galway v Fermanagh/Kildare