It’s such a pity from a Galway viewpoint that they are taking on Cork after having announced their credentials with a battling win over Armagh last weekend. The element of surprise is gone, Galway are firmly on the radar and Cork are prepared.
Even so, Galway have a lot more going for them this time than other ventures through the qualifiers. It took them nine years to record a win in the qualifiers and after seven defeats on the trot, the last four by a single point, the summer of 2013 represents a redemption of sorts.
Irrespective of the quality of opposition to date, Alan Mulholland and his management team deserve great credit for steering a course for their team to late July. When they exited the Connacht championship in May, they could have buckled under the weight of the rebuilding job required.
The county had been humiliated in the Salthill showing against Mayo. The fallout was always going to be bad and when Garret Bradshaw, one of the supposed leaders on the team, jumped ship shortly after we thought we knew all that was needed to be known about the character of the Galway boys.
To their credit, the senior players in the set-up refused to read the script and set about rewriting their own ending to championship 2013.
Seán Armstrong, Michael Meehan and Paul Conroy, in particular have led the crusade from the front and the young bucks have taken their lead.
The wins against Tipperary, Waterford and Armagh have given them momentum and momentum means a lot at this time of year. If you are a Galway player of a particular vintage such as Manus Breathnach, Johnny Duane, Colin Forde, Tomás Flynn, Fiontán Ó Curraoin, Danny Cummins, Shay Walsh, Michael Farragher or Adrian Varley, playing Cork in Croke Park in mid-summer is where you always assumed you’d be. These are lads who have taken on and beaten Cork at U21 level twice in the last three seasons so there certainly won’t be a fear factor there.
Indeed I can recall the U21 semi-final of two years ago in Ennis when an 18-year-old Tomás Flynn lorded it over Aidan Walsh who, admittedly, was suffering from a hamstring strain the same night. The point is that Galway’s younger players have a history of embracing challenges and, historically at least, they tend to embrace the bigger stage.
The danger for Galway is that Cork will catch fire this evening. They have done it this time of year before and they can do so again.
Their team selection, for what it’s worth, has a sense of square pegs in square holes for possibly the first time this season.
Alan Quirke’s return gives Cork a vital edge in experience, but, more importantly, it gives Cork a keeper who will recognise instantly where they are taking water on board from restarts. Ken O’Halloran has many fine attributes as a keeper but there were times in the first half against Kerry in Killarney where he should have acknowledged that Anthony Maher and Johnny Buckley were dominant and yet he didn’t radically alter his kickout. Quirke has the savvy and the tradecraft to ensure that opposition midfielders don’t dominate to the same extent again this season.
Alan O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill’s inclusion is merited given that it was they more than most brought Cork back into the Munster final but it is hard to imagine Aidan Walsh not drifting out there to help out at various stages.
Brian Hurley should thrive in the spaces of Croke Park and while we must accept that Ciarán Sheehan may not have been 100% fit three weeks ago, we trust that Cork will play their best forward from the start this time.
Indeed, judging by how easily Cork came by some of their scores even when under the cosh in the first half against Kerry, I believe they have the capacity to really cut loose given the right supply.
When Conor Counihan spoke about ‘throwing off the shackles’ in the aftermath of the Munster final he surely must have had the potential of Sheehan, Hurley and Goulding together in mind. With the likes of Donncha O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan and Patrick Kelly to spring from the bench it is clear that forward power isn’t going to be the issue for Cork this evening.
The issue of most concern has to be ensuring that the indecisiveness we saw from midfield back in the Munster final doesn’t make a re-appearance. Whether they will admit it or not, I believe at least four of the six backs didn’t have a clue what their brief was against Kerry.
Some of that can be put down to the clever running angles taken up by the likes of James O’Donoghue, Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan but mostly it was arrogance on Cork’s part to think that they could ignore someone as selfless and cerebral as Donnchadh Walsh so that Graham Canty could play the role of sweeper.
If Seán Armstrong is given the same sort of leeway this evening, he too is smart enough to do some damage. The ball is entirely in Canty’s court on this one but he is unlikely to leave his troops down on a landmark day in nearly a decade and a half of service to Cork football.
Twenty counties have made the quarter-finals over the course of Canty’s career, which dovetails almost perfectly with the advent of the qualifiers. Either Cavan or London will make it 21 before the evening is out.
I expect Cork to be there too and if the Rebels show any signs at all of what they are capable of, you can earmark them as a team to be avoided at all costs next weekend.