Conor Mortimer walked away from the Mayo setup this year, unhappy at being given only a supporting role by James Horan, while last season Kevin Cassidy was dropped by Donegal for what Jim McGuinness deemed a breach of confidentiality.
Both departures led to plenty of headlines but since both counties booked a place in the All-Ireland football final, it seems the decisions of both bosses were are justified.
But the decision to drop experienced players isn’t confined to the football finalists; Galway boss Anthony Cunningham and his management team of Mattie Kenny and Tom Helebert haven’t shirked from the hard calls.
In last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford, Shane Kavanagh was full-back, while Donal Barry and Adrian Cullinane were the wing-backs, Joe Gantley and Ger Farragher started in the half-forward line, while John Lee, Barry Daly and Aidan Harte came on as subs. Injured captain Damien Joyce didn’t play.
For the recent All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork, not one of the above-named players were even on the bench — that’s nine experienced players dropped. That Galway nevertheless went on to beat Kilkenny comprehensively in the Leinster final, before accounting for Cork, is testimony to the improvement brought about by the management.
The question must still be asked, however — did they cut too deep? While the bulk of this Galway team is still very experienced, just three genuine newcomers starting (Johnny Coen, Niall Burke and Conor Cooney — the other U21, James Regan, started last year, at corner-forward), this is now a very inexperienced bench. Could Galway pay a price for that on Sunday?
Former manager and double All-Ireland winning Galway captain, Conor Hayes, along with another double All-Ireland winning captain, Kilkenny’s Liam Fennelly (subjects of our legends piece in our Weekend Sports supplement), certainly seem to think so, and at full-back especially. Hayes admitted: “I was very surprised to see Shane (Kavanagh) was let go, I found him the easiest guy to manage. He was also a good character in the dressing room, a calming influence and he is a very good full-back too. Farragher too — if you were stuck for a scorer with 10 minutes to go, he’d come on and put over a point or two for you. I believe we have a good chance on Sunday but if Shane was there, even on the panel, I’d be giving us an even better chance.”
Fennelly, who made his reputation from exploiting full-backs, agreed. “I just think that Galway might find themselves stuck for someone like a Shane Kavanagh, with his experience at full-back. It is a vital, vital position against Kilkenny, and they could end up paying the price. Kevin Hynes doesn’t have the experience for that position against a team like Kilkenny and you can be sure, they will try to exploit him.”
They could well be right. Youthful exuberance will often carry a team over even the biggest hurdle but what if a team is in trouble, what if a team needs someone to anchor them again?
Hayes says: “If you go back to the U21 All-Ireland semi-final (Kilkenny beating Galway 4-16 to 2-15), Galway needed someone in the middle, not so much to play hurling but just to organise them. If you’re playing the type of game Galway are trying to play, you need someone with his head screwed on. You need someone who can take control, talk to the players and that sort of thing. Kilkenny love to come through the middle. That’s my fear, that the middle will be left open. There’s a big clutter in midfield but once you break past that, you’re going two on two inside — that’s 13-a-side hurling, and if you’ve ever played that, you know that is a forward’s game.”
Could the bench be where Galway get caught short this week? You go through their subs against Cork, every single one of them was U21 and Johnny Coen apart, three others of the senior sub defenders started the U21 game against Kilkenny, were part of a sextet that conceded that 4-16 in just 60 minutes. Asking them to come in and mark some of the highest profile names in hurling, especially when that player has already built up a head of steam could be a big ask. Perhaps too big.