Galway have enjoyed a certain amount of success at U21 level in recent times, but the failure to find a way of hot-housing latent talent for the benefit of the senior team has been a major cause of vexation for their supporters.
Since Galway last won an All-Ireland, Tyrone have won three titles and remained competitive on the back of two U21 crowns from over a decade ago, Cork have drawn on their formidable U21 teams of 2007 and 2009 to achieve senior success and, they tell us, Dublin are now on the cusp of becoming a dominant force mainly because of the smooth transition of players from the U21 teams that have won two All-Irelands in three years.
Meanwhile, Galway folk have looked on enviously and are now searching for the fast forward button to success that will allow them to relive the glory days of the dim and distant past.
Some have already abandoned all hope of ever seeing the recent U21 success converted into a senior title, but these things take time and the younger players shouldn’t be burdened with too much expectation just yet.
Their manager, Alan Mulholland, seemed to acknowledge as much this week when declaring that those in the 24-28 age-group need to show leadership and to become the players the public want and need them to be.
It is unfortunate in this regard that the main player in this age bracket, Finian Hanley, is absent, but perhaps it is time that Paul Conroy, Gareth Bradshaw, Niall Coleman, Michael Meehan, Seán Armstrong and Gary Sice reminded us once again of what it was made them inter-county players in the first place.
There was a bit of an olagón when Padraic Joyce and Joe Bergin departed earlier this season, but in severing the last links to the All-Ireland-winning team of 2001, Joyce and Bergin have allowed the rest of the panel some breathing space. With the best will in the world, both veterans may have had a stultifying effect on their team-mates in recent years.
Perhaps tomorrow in Salthill will be the first time Niall Coleman and Paul Conroy really feel they can make things happen for this team without having to look over their shoulders.
There are no such concerns of course for the two stars of the recent U21 win, Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Tomás Flynn. Ó Curraoin produced one of the great midfield performances of this season two weeks ago in Limerick, but the leap from there to here is huge. Even Darragh Ó Sé found out that the step from U21 to senior takes more than 12 months and not too many youngsters come out best in an afternoon’s horsing with Mayo’s O’Shea brothers. Ó Curraoin and Coleman are going to have to box cleverly to get a foothold here.
They will be aided by Flynn at wing-forward and despite coming up against either Lee Keegan or Colm Boyle, the Athenry man should have a distinct advantage under dropping ball. Stopping Keegan and Boyle and the irrepressible Keith Higgins from bombing forward at every opportunity is, however, Galway’s biggest challenge tomorrow.
Even in the most trying of circumstances, Mayo can get their midfield to perform. Their 16/5 count from kickouts in the second half of last September’s final tells us that, while returning Aidan O’Shea to his natural habitat has to be good for the team.
I’ve been of the opinion for quite some time now that Galway have struggled to make their midfielders look good because of some flawed kick-out strategies from their goalkeepers. I’ve always been amused by the irony that the county who revolutionised the restart in my own playing days (with Martin McNamara and Kevin Walsh in 1998) are now toiling to find ways of keeping the ball from their own kick-out.
Galway have tried many goalkeepers in the last three seasons — Paul Doherty, Adrian Faherty, Eoin Ó Conghaile, John Egan and current goalkeeping coach, Padraic Lally, have all got game time since 2010 — and now the task of reinventing the wheel falls to Manus Breathnach, their U21 goalie from 2011, and his deputy, Thomas Healy, of this year’s U21 vintage.
Securing their own kick-out and grabbing a share of the opposition’s is now a matter of urgency for Galway. It’s an area in which they are going to need some consistency tomorrow with noted foragers Keegan, Boyle and Kevin McLoughlin sniffing around. If they manage to outfight Mayo here they will give themselves a chance.
It’s not like Mayo don’t have problems of their own. With so many quality players sidelined through injury they are as vulnerable as they are likely to be at any stage this year and with all the talk of Chris Barret, Barry Moran, Andy Moran, Jason Doherty and Alan Dillon being out, Michael Conroy’s absence is perhaps the one that will be most keenly felt tomorrow.
In the intense opening minutes of September’s final against Donegal, Conroy was the only Mayo forward to win a ball played into him and he was also their best forward in the league. A cursory glance at their starting six forwards tells us that scores are not going to be that easy to come by. Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking is going to be hugely important and Pearse Stadium, with its tricky breeze even on a calm day, is not the best place to be trying to find form.
Philip King, the man who whispers The South Wind Blows from Raidio na Gaeltachta’s studios in Baile na nGall every Sunday on RTÉ Radio One, told me during the week that it was 30 years since The Smiths released their first single, Hand in Glove.
When the musicians that defined your youth begin accumulating anniversaries it can make you feel old. Football and footballers can have the same effect, and there will be plenty of men and women in Pearse Stadium tomorrow for whom Galway’s last All-Ireland success is but a cherished childhood memory.
There will be youngsters in attendance too, who while they may have seen for themselves Padraic Joyce in the twilight of his long career, will only have heard stories about the great Galway team he played on at the turn of the millennium.
Walk the Sathill prom now, as I did yesterday, and you’ll see the green Connacht rugby flags fluttering on lamp-posts. Just about half of the 4,324 souls in the Gaelic Grounds a fortnight ago were Galway people who will be desperate to have the maroon and white supplant the green of Pat Lam’s team in the coming weeks and months.
Since 2001, underage success has meant that Galway supporters have often felt the stirrings of resurgence, but the unpalatable truth is that they haven’t been serious contenders for a long time.
Championship 2013 arrives just as another batch of underage champions have been anointed as the saviours of Galway football and, having seen enough false dawns, the wearier among the faithful might reasonably ask, as The Smith’s did many years ago: “When you say it’s gonna happen ‘now’/Well when exactly do you mean?”
Of course, in Mayo, acounty that has endured more than its share of hoping and waiting, they won’t have much sympathy. They are more likely to tell their neighbours, as another Smiths lyric would have it: “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby/You must suffer and cry for a longer time.”
It’s been a while since the long-suffering Galway team have shown their teeth, but they might make an exception for Mayo tomorrow.
Still, ‘now’ isn’t gonna happen just yet and I expect Mayo to progress.