It was the evening of July 9 last year and Galway had done a number on Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers at the Gaelic Grounds. Ten points from Joe Canning, 1-3 from Damien Hayes and, after a slow start, a 12-point victory. It was the county’s most impressive championship display of John McIntyre’s tenure and the buzz on the bus homewards was palpable. This, the players and management sensed, could be the start of something big.
Then they went to Thurles a fortnight later and being who they were — the country’s most reliably unreliable team — proceeded to calve against Waterford in the quarter-final. A shocking performance and a wholly unsurprising performance. Galway at their most infuriatingly Galwayesque.
Waterford 2-23 Galway 2-13. That, and not events at Croke Park five weeks ago, is the prism through which tomorrow’s showpiece should be viewed. Because last year’s debacle against Waterford is the Galway norm. Because last month’s deconstruction of Kilkenny was the deviation from that norm.
And yes, the Leinster final was bracing and refreshing and an rud is annamh is iontach and all of that. But a blazing championship performance by Galway was also well overdue. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a decade.
That’s one very good reason for not getting fixated about the Leinster final and what it may portend for the winners. We’ve been here so often before that it’s only sensible — nay, it’s imperative — to adopt the Doubting Thomas position. We’ll believe Galway can put two or three good performances together when we see it. Not before then.
There’s another very good reason for not regarding Cork as the 9/4 outsiders the bookies have pegged them at. Anthony Cunningham has overhauled the Galway team in jig time, right? Not so, as it happens. Care to hazard a guess as to how many of the 15 players that took the field at Croke Park last month had featured against Waterford last summer? Five? Six? Seven? 11.
That’s right, 11. Not so much a bunch of brave new playboys of the western world, then, as an instance of numerous bottles of old and middle-aged wine in new skins.
Might Cunningham, having done what he’s done with the hand he was given, consequently be the second coming in managerial terms? The diversity of his CV — success in hurling and in football, in Connacht and in Leinster — certainly suggests there’s something about him.
Might he have changed the attitude of the Galway players, reformatted their mindsets and generally recast them in his own image? On the evidence of the Kilkenny match, that’s exactly what he’s done.
But every game is different and every mindset can be reformatted for an afternoon. In the Leinster final Iarla Tannian had the kind of game they’d been waiting for him to produce since the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, while Cyril Donnellan, who’d been tried and failed as a conventional centre-forward but whose greatest strength is his ability to find space and get shots away, hit five points and saw three further efforts go wide.
Seeing both of them repeat the dose tomorrow — Donnellan is an injury doubt — will be the moment we can begin to accept that this time Galway are for real. Then and only then.
You were informed here on the eve of the championship that this would be the least difficult All-Ireland to win for the past aeon. That’s the way it’s turned out. The levelling-off process, the broadening of the group of realistic championship contenders, has begun.
The prize tomorrow is not to be sniffed at. Both Galway and Cork will have other and better chances to win an All-Ireland in the coming seasons. But you’ve got to live in the moment. And Kilkenny are not the team they were. And Tipperary are not the team they might have been.
For their part Cork, while hammered by Kilkenny in the league final, gave Tipp plenty of it in the Munster semi-final.
The qualifier circuit gave Cork extra matches and allowed them to do some road-testing against Offaly and Wexford. They may not have discovered what their best team is — and judging by the fact that the entire half-forward line was replaced against Waterford, they didn’t. But they at least went some of the way towards learning what their best team isn’t.
No question, they were blessed in Thurles a fortnight ago. Shane Walsh’s injury-enforced departure at a critical stage, Eoin McGrath’s missed catch when a point — a goal was too big an ask in view of his positioning — would have stretched Waterford’s lead to three with eight minutes remaining: as so often with the Déise, the might-have-beens.
If it’s a cliché that each team will have its period of dominance, late surges can be so ludicrously arbitrary.
You can’t time it; it just happens. Or, in this case, a pair of young legs such as those belonging to Darren Sweetnam, he of the assists for late points by Luke O’Farrell and Cathal Naughton, makes it happen.
Cork folk older than Master Sweetnam will have noted the parallel with 1999 and the late surges from the collective of Leeside young legs that took down Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final and Kilkenny in the final. And in hurling, as your correspondent keeps banging on, history continually repeats itself.
Cork are balanced and coherent and they’ve youth and speed and, all told, they’re a limited enough team as of yet.
Not that they can be expected to be anything more than that under their new manager.
To put it another way, if you were picking the All Star 15 tomorrow, two of the certainties would be from Waterford — Kevin Moran and John Mullane — and Stephen Molumphy wouldn’t be a mile away either. Can anyone name three Cork players to whom the same observation applies? Yet everyone is doing his bit.
They may well outpoint Galway tomorrow. Preventing goals, however, will be the winning and losing of it, not least given that Joe Canning’s record against Cork is better than his record against any other leading county. You’d fear for Stephen McDonnell, and Seán Óg won’t want Damien Hayes in his precinct either.
All the earlier caveats having been entered in relation to Cunningham’s team, it is no harm to remind any twitchy Galway readers that past under-performance is no guarantee of permanent future failure.
Year on year, teams transform themselves from losers to winners. Clare, Wexford and Waterford were all playing against the raging tide of hurling history when they made their breakthroughs; Galway tomorrow are merely attempting to ford a stream.
They’re not the 4/9 shots the bookies have them pegged at. But on the evidence of the Leinster final they’re entitled to the vote — accompanied, naturally, by an entire salt mine. And, for once, to the benefit of the Doubting Thomas.