In July 2008, I was upstairs in my sports shop in Ennis looking for runners to put out on display when my phone beeped with notification of a voicemail. I didn’t recognise the number of the missed call but I dialled into my inbox.
I won’t mention the man’s name, but the voice message was from a then high-ranking officer of the Galway County Board. “Just to let you know Anthony,” he said, “we nearly have him gone.” By him, he meant Ger Loughnane.
I was wondering if it was a hoax call or a wind-up. Why was the officer telling me Galway’s apparent strategy? Did he want me to ring him back for information on the numbers indicating whether Loughnane would be reappointed or sacked?
I’d never spoken to the man before in my life. I’d had a cut at Ger on ‘The Sunday Game’ the previous week after Galway had lost to Cork in the qualifiers. But if I’d been asked for my honest opinion of Loughnane, I’d have told the officer that that it would be huge mistake to get rid of him.
Galway almost beat Kilkenny in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final. If they had, they’d probably have gone on and won the All-Ireland. Losing to a Cork team with 14 men in 2008 was the dying sting of that great Cork team. That was the last straw for many within Galway but, for me, that was the time to back Loughnane, for the board officials to be asking what more could they do for him to get Galway over the line.
Instead, they couldn’t sharpen the blade of the guillotine quickly enough. Sure enough, the guillotine fell in the Raheen Woods hotel in Athenry later that evening when board delegates voted 28 to 26 against Loughnane staying on for a third year.
It was a complete farce. If that high-ranking official was ringing me, someone he’d never spoken to before, to inform me - with audible glee - of their assassination plans for Loughnane, how many more people did he ring? How many snipers had he rounded up? In my own mind I was thinking ‘Loughnane dodged a hail of bullets there, he’s better off steering clear of that crowd’.
We’re very close to Galway in Clare. We’ve always got on well but I’ve still always felt we have a different collective mentality. At times, you nearly always felt Galway were looking for a row, searching for an excuse. They appeared to be masters at the blame game. It was nearly always someone else’s fault.
Galway didn’t have to negotiate their way through the provincial minefields like every other county in Munster and Leinster. When they were in Munster, Galway eventually extricated themselves from that web of misery after one win in 12 championship games over 11 seasons. When we were all left heartbroken in Clare in the late 1970s, we’d have given anything for one chance to reach an All-Ireland final.
There always seemed to be an angle in Galway, which could take them in any direction. They’ve absolutely dominated the All-Ireland minor championship over the last three decades, but I was often intrigued by some of their strategies in how they went about gobbling up those titles.
I remember a few times when Galway leathered Cork, Tipp or Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final and they’d still make four or five changes to the starting team for the final. I could never understand how that worked with young players, of how mentally challenging it must have been for the lads who were dropped.
Were the training matches really that savagely competitive in the three weeks before the final? Could some lads’ form really have collapsed that dramatically? I often wondered was it down to club politics or doing some club a favour by selecting one of their lads? If Galway really had so much talent that they were able to drop four or five lads, and still win the final handy, how come Galway couldn’t win the U-21 three years later?
Some of the perennial questions we’ve always asked about Galway still haven’t gone away.
He had done four years as manager. Maybe Micheál felt he’d done enough but the word on the ground in Galway was that he and his management would have gone back if Donoghue hadn’t his fill of dealing with all the grief from the county board.
I just can’t understand that mentality where you would let a guy who had led the county to the Promised Land, and who the players wanted to stay, just walk away that easily. Could the board have reassured him that any outstanding issues could have been sorted out? Did the board not do enough to convince Micheál to stay on? To me, it reflected Galway’s serial tendency to press the self-destruct button.
The other constant question surrounding Galway is their perceived cornucopian level of talent. Is it really that copious? Despite Galway having won four of the last five All-Ireland minor titles, you’d wonder too about this next crop. Most of the players of the recent teams are still too young but, while plenty of the 2015 crop have already played senior championship, I’m not sure if they have made the impact expected of them by now.
In fairness to Jeff Lynskey, his system of playing a sweeper was central to Galway’s minor successes in 2015, 2017 and 2018. It may sound like a contradiction considering their dominance, but I wonder if having those young players protected by a sweeper system was less beneficial to their long-term development as hurlers?
Maybe if Jeff gets the job down the line, and he returns the team to playing that way, many of those young players he worked with at underage will easily be able to fit into that system again. Then again, why didn’t Jeff get the job after Donoghue walked away? He certainly was interested. Jeff had a brilliant track record at underage. He looked like the next man up but was that another political decision again not to give him the job? Or did the players want someone else? Who knows, but it smacks of another angle, and Galway taking off in another direction. Again.
At different times over the years, my name was linked to the vacant Galway job. Honestly, I never contemplated for a second making the short trip up the road. I don’t know what it was, but I never felt the fit would have been right.
I remember going up to a club one evening to take a session and never feeling as awkward. The manager who asked me up never told the guy who was training the team of my impending arrival. As soon as I appeared, the coach took off out the gate in a huff. ‘Did you not tell him I was coming?’ I asked the manager. ‘Nah, I didn’t bother, sure what difference would it have made to him.’ It clearly had.
That might sound like an isolated story, especially when there are so many great lads involved in the club scene up there, but it almost confirmed what I’ve long suspected about Galway – they’ll go looking for a row when there is no need for it.
The statistics don’t lie. Galway’s one senior All-Ireland in 32 years made less sense to me when I saw up close and personal how much underage talent they’ve consistently rolled off the production line during those last three decades.
When I was with the Limerick Academy, Cork were the standard in terms of success, but Galway were always the truest barometer in terms of quality. I remember going up to Ballindereen in 2015 with two Limerick U-16 teams. Joe McKenna brought up Gerry McManus, JP’s brother, with Joe clearly intent on showcasing to Gerry all the progressive work being done in the Academy.
I wasn’t manager of either team, but I was trying to co-ordinate both sides on the day. The A team were getting such a hiding that I cleared off down to the B game. It was also a means of disappearing out of Joe and Gerry’s sight. ‘How’s this going?’ I asked Leo O’Connor. ‘We’re getting beaten by seven goals,’ he replied.
I didn’t know where to go next. I was nearly looking for the nearest bush so I could go hiding. Joe never said a word to me afterwards. I knew he was bulling thick. Joe and Gerry just got into the car and tore straight back to Limerick.
The story of that afternoon was more about Galway than Limerick because the level of quality Galway had on show was off the charts. It was no surprise they won the minor two years later. I remember chatting to Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin during that 2017 summer about the minor championship. “There’s no team out there to stop that Cork side,” Sparrow said. “There certainly is,” I said.
Galway emphatically did in the final but when those players had graduated to U-20 last year, Galway were beaten by Kilkenny, who in turn were well beaten by Cork, who were subsequently hammered by Tipperary in the All-Ireland final. Underage never seamlessly translates through the grades but it was just another illustration of Galway’s struggles to make it count when those talented young lads get older.
That’s never an easy equation to balance but Galway clearly haven’t always been on the same page. For years, their club teams played a totally different style to their senior team. Towards the end of my Clarecastle career, we stopped going up to play challenge games in Galway because they were nearly always abandoned. There was constant war but then you’d play Galway and, apart from Joe Rabbitte, the Galway forwards were all small, light fellas, playing a totally different game. They were loaded with pace and class and skill but light on aggression.
Before we played Galway in Athenry in the league in 1997, Loughnane said to us: ‘These little f***ers will be running in and out under your legs, they’ll make s*** of you unless you walk down on top of them.’ They hit us for five goals the same afternoon but that was still always our attitude towards the Galway forwards any time we met – to walk down on top of them.
You certainly wouldn’t bully the Galway forwards now. They’re man-mountains but Galway still haven’t dominated the hurling world like they threatened to after 2017. And they’ve already lost the guy who looked set to lead that dominant crusade.
Now they’ve brought in an outside manager with no inter-county experience. Shane O’Neill is a great fella, but I was nearly feeling for him when he took over. I was thinking ‘They’ll savage him up there.’ Then again, maybe Shane is better off being an outsider. At least he can drive home if things go wrong, but Shane will also know how the other side of the coin may look - if Galway click into gear, they are good enough to win the All-Ireland.
They have so much talent that Galway could win the All-Ireland in any given year. They do so much right but they also appear to do so much wrong by reaching for that self-destruct button. That might sound rich coming from a Clare man but Clare have picked up three All-Irelands to Galway’s one in the last three decades. And we had to negotiate our way through Munster for much of that time, while none of our All-Irelands were preceded by the kind of underage success Galway have feasted on for 30 years.
One of hurling great mysteries continues to be how so many of Galway’s golden generations have faded to silver. Galway have been so exposed to that conundrum for so long now that you’d wonder why they haven’t learned from the experience. And it’s equally strange how Galway haven’t been able to find a better solution to such a complex issue from so much time spent in that matrix.