Misunderstood Galway's sense of adventure to prevail
Connacht SFC final: Galway v Roscommon (Sunday, 4pm, Pearse Stadium, live on RTÉ2)
IT might be Mayo that Connacht football of late has looked to when it’s come to crashing into the biggest waves, but to suggest this is a surprise final is harsh on Roscommon and Galway.
If you remove Munster’s duopoly from the equation, this is the first time two counties have met in four consecutive provincial football finals since Dublin and Meath were at each other’s throats from 1987 until 1990.
It hasn’t happened in Connacht since Leitrim (yes, Leitrim) and Galway were in four straight deciders together from 1957 until 1960.
Were you to argue that these were now the two provincial heavyweights, the theory would have too much strain to bear. Mayo’s record in high-summer still marks them out.
Certainly they stand over Roscommon, and despite an horrendous recent head-to-head record with Galway, only one has yet properly marked their territory in Croke Park.
That, ultimately, represents the challenge for these two. For a couple of hours, the world will revolve around the JJ Nestor Cup, but beyond 6pm tomorrow the emphasis will fall on where they go next.
The trophy could well leave Salthill with dashes of saffron and blue tied to its lugs, but would such a result promote Roscommon in the national standing or simply relegate a Galway side that many can’t wait to see fail?
Even the natives have failed to throw their real backing behind Kevin Walsh’s diligent work, which is into its fifth year now.
Bear in mind that when he took over, their heavyweight status was diminished. They hadn’t won a Connacht title in eight years, had barely looked like doing it, and were eternally floating in the middle of Division Two.
Yet here they are now, one big step away from affirming their status as Connacht’s best team. Tomorrow, despite being against fellow Division One opposition, probably doesn’t represent that step.
It’s only another statement win such as their Super 8s victory over Kerry last year that will nail their standing down, and yet despite it they’ve found themselves stuck somewhere between pilloried and ignored this year.
A more middling league campaign has been followed by two fairly lacklustre championship performances, and with that has grown the calls for Walsh to let the dogs off the leash.
Yet there is evidence to suggest that they’re in a much better place now than they were this time last year, when a strong second half saw them overcome the Rossies in the Hyde.
The Corofin contingent all effectively missed the league. Damien Comer and Paul Conroy haven’t kicked a ball all year, but that was treated as a serious opportunity to create some depth.
What they’ve ended up with is nine serious options for the six defensive positions, to the point where Johnny Heaney has been lining out in attack and scoring well.
There are five possible starting midfielders – Duggan, Flynn, Cooke, Conroy and Ó Curraion – while in attack they have that little bit more depth too.
They do miss Comer though. The perception that was created by the 0-5 to 0-3 half-time lead over Sligo was grossly unfair on Galway. Playing against a serious wind, they actually overloaded on Sligo’s kickouts and left their defence completely exposed. They pressed high up the pitch and thoroughly dominated possession.
But they botched three good goal chances and their attacking play did lack that je ne sais quoi. It was all nice and dainty and intricate, but ultimately none of their starting inside forwards scored. A limited Sligo side were able to keep them at arm’s length for longer than they would have held Dublin or Mayo or Tyrone.
Sligo did come with a very defined plan that worked in the first half. They fouled around the edges, tempting Galway into pot-shots that they mostly missed.
Clogging up the middle is a template that’s worked well for Roscommon in this fixture. Their success in the final two years ago was based on getting bodies back, but also crucially being better in midfield.
That was in spite of Galway’s height advantage in there, but the key in terms of a change to that tomorrow is that in Bernard Power, Galway have a better goalkeeper than they did in Ruairi Lavelle.
The Corofin man is much more adept at going short, and by guaranteeing his side more primary possession, he could have a major impact.
Anthony Cunningham’s men do have the better attack on paper. The quality of their kick-passing has been a notable feature of recent seasons, and Conor Cox’s influence up top has had a major impact on them this year so far. How Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh copes there will be key.
The aftershock of their Super 8s campaign last year looked like it might set them back five years, but it’s to the huge credit of Cunningham – who took plenty of flak from Galway hurling supporters when he was in charge there – that they have mentally recovered and improved.
The restoration of Diarmuid Murtagh to their starting line-up adds a shimmer to their attack, while Enda Smith and Conor Devaney also represent improvements in the middle third.
This is a team that managed to see off Mayo despite some glaring deficiencies on the night, not least in terms of having the ball itself. It was a game that James Horan’s side lost as much as Roscommon won.
Ironically, given the public feeling towards Galway, the visitors are the side that’s likely to impose the restrictions on this game. It’s been a fairly joyful template for them, albeit not in the second half of last year’s decider.
But Galway aren’t quite what they’re perceived to be. Expect them to be the team that shows a little bit more adventure, and for that to carry them narrowly across the line.