According to the former Galway centre-back, the Tribesmen are ready to end a 16-year losing streak at GAA HQ, they’re ready for Division 1 fare and most pertinently, they’re ready for Mayo come summer.
Let’s start with the latter assumption.
June 11. That’s a big one for Kevin Walsh and Galway footballers. All going to plan, Mayo will be make the relatively short spin down to Salthill for the Connacht semi-final. And for the first time since 2010, Mayo won’t travel as reigning champions.
Blake, who played in the Galway defence during a turbulent period for the county (he came in towards the end of John O’Mahony’s reign and saw six different men wear the bainisteoir’s bib), has watched a fair amount of football this spring owing to his analyst role with Galway Bay FM.
What he’s seen has filled him with a genuine belief Walsh’s young charges can string back-to-back championship victories over their greatest rivals — a feat last achieved back in 2008.
He was present at Pearse Stadium on the opening weekend when Galway earned a share of the spoils against Cork in a game where they were clearly second best.
In previous years, he says, the home side wouldn’t have had the maturity, resilience, or nous to successfully hang in there. He’s watched their counter-attacking gameplan take shape and, in the process, deliver the highest goal tally — 12 — in Division 2. Aside from their failure to hold the inside lane when Meath attacked in the closing stages of their round 4 meeting, it’s been all positive.
“Last year, we caught Mayo on the hop. Mayo will be ready for Galway this year and I think Galway, in turn, will be able for Mayo,” he says.
Come Monday morning, June 11 will be their sole focus. They’ll have a full nine weeks to plot and plan. In the meantime, there’s the small matter of a Division 2 league final. Promotion back to the top tier may already be secured but the silverware on offer is not to be sniffed at, especially when the county hasn’t won a national competition since 2001.
That was also the year when last Galway won a football match at Croke Park.
It’s incredible to think the westerners haven’t churned out a victory at GAA HQ since the annihilation of Meath in the All-Ireland decider 16 years ago. They’ve played there 11 times since; 10 were lost, while the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal ended in a draw.
They’d have lost that too but for an imperious display by one Kevin Walsh.
“To win up there would be huge just to get that stat off the lads’ back,” insists Blake.
“To win up there would give them confidence going into the championship. A bit of silverware would make a huge difference to a young team.”
Relegated to the second tier in 2011, the Tribesmen should have come back up the following spring but for an injury-time Johnny Doyle penalty on the concluding weekend of action which promoted Kildare at Galway’s expense. Blake was inside the Salthill whitewash on that frustrating afternoon.
“Kildare were raging hot favourites and yet, we should have won. I would have played against Kildare a lot. Irrespective of how good Kildare were or how poorly Galway were going, it is one team we never feared and one we usually got a result off. I’d expect the same on Sunday.
“Promotion is massive for this team. For the younger players, if you’re pitching yourself against the top teams across the spring, then you are going to train harder to get to where you need to get to.
“If you’re playing at a lower level, you just don’t get to that. You’re content in your self until you play one of these big teams in the championship and by that stage, it is too late because before you know it, they’ve knocked you out of the championship.
“It will really harden them up to play at the top level. Last year, we played Cavan with a chance of getting promoted. But we weren’t really ready to go up. Now, we are ready.”
Management has looked at 31 players over the course of their seven games to date, including five members of the 2013 All-Ireland U21 winning team. Standing out for Blake is Michael Daly, son on Val, a man with little or no underage experience at inter-county level. The centre-forward has made four starts and kicked nine points from play across that quartet of games.
“This guy had never played league or championship until he was introduced against Cork on the opening weekend. The first ball he got, he just went by his player with such ease. You were looking at him thinking this was a guy who’d been playing at this level for five or six years. He really makes the forward line tick.
“You’ve Damien Comer and Shane Walsh up there too. Galway does have one of the best forward units in the country. And then you have Michael Meehan back in the mix. He’s after hurting his good ankle so I think it will be championship before we see him. If we could get 25 minutes out of Michael in a championship game, Galway would go from being a top 10 team to a top six team, and could beat anybody on their day.”