“God, this is very early for cars to be along here,” a local resident muttered. Very early in the normal course of events, perhaps, but this wasn’t the normal course of events. Wexford were in a Leinster final for the first time in nine years and the boys were back in town, so many of them as to set a new attendance record for the fixture.
There would be just one problem. Galway were in town too, and Galway are hardy and handy and experienced in a way that Wexford are not.
And Galway are bursting with heft and presence in a way that Wexford are not.
And Galway had a couple of Cooneys and a Canning in their lineup in a way that Wexford didn’t. And Galway started the game as All-Ireland contenders in a way that Wexford didn’t and couldn’t yet be expected to.
And after yesterday they’re even stronger All-Ireland contenders.
Micheál Donoghue’s men were entitled to win this and to win it well. They did exactly that, with a piece of neat symmetry as a ribbon on the top of the wrapping on the box. Fourteen points in the first half, 15 in the second half and nine points to spare at the final whistle. Nicely paced and balanced.
If all of the above didn’t suffice to affirm the worthiness of their status as MacCarthy Cup favourites, consider the events of the previous evening. Kilkenny dismal at Nowlan Park, Tipperary abysmal at Semple Stadium.
Both counties are in a different place to the one they occupied last September and it’s not a better place. Galway, on the other hand, look to be in a slightly better place than the one they occupied last August, and that was no bad place to be in for starters. Really, o men of the West: if not this year, when?
They’re shooting the lights, and every other means of illumination, to bits: 2-28 versus Dublin, 0-33 versus Offaly, 0-29 here. It raises an obvious question. Can Galway win the All Ireland by points alone? Well, points and sheer, unapologetic physique?
A comparison with the Kilkenny of a decade ago is not misplaced. Put the sliotar up in the air and, as with Brian Cody’s side at their feral peak, a bunch of forwards who don’t require bespoke-tailored possession will do the rest.
It didn’t become a rout yesterday. Wexford’s mini-revival midway through the second half prevented such a scenario. But it still ended up a stroll. Mark Fanning didn’t have a save to make because Galway chose not to force him to. That’s how comfortable they were in their skin.
Conor Whelan, so bright against Tipperary in the league final and the scorer of seven points from seven shots last time out against Offaly, didn’t have a joyous afternoon here. No score, one shot, one wide. The bare stats, however, fail to tell the full story.
Whelan broke the odd ball down here, the odd ball down there, won a free now and again. The Cooneys, never far away from him, profited from the breaks. Whelan, unspectacular but diligent, did his bit. Grand. More so now than at any time over the past two decades, Galway merely require everyone to do their bit. They’re doing it alright.
The Cooney brothers, who of course aren’t brothers at all, one being from Sarsfields and the other from St Thomas’s, did rather more than that. Joseph, the former, scion of a noble house, hit five points from six attempts.
Conor, the latter, landed seven from play and an eighth from a free. Had proceedings lasted for another hour you sensed that they’d have been content to keep the scoreboard ticking over and forced Fanning into no exercise more energetic than taking puckouts.
Now contemplate the case of Joe Canning and ponder whether or not there’s a small mystery to be solved. This was a routine afternoon for him, as so many of his afternoons have been of late. Nine points – seven frees, a 65’ and a lineball – from ten attempts. Ho hum.
Canning sprayed a couple of passes here and there, like an unselfish forward should. What he conspicuously didn’t do was try to make a name for himself. He didn’t go on solo runs. He didn’t indulge in fancy sleights of hand. He certainly didn’t have goals on his brain.
All told it was a notably, and noticeably, conservative performance from a man who time after time has treated us to the spectacular, and it prompts a question.
Is Canning playing consciously within himself for the duration of the mocks and keeping his powder dry for the doctorate-level tests of August and September?
Or is it more that with the Cooneys and the others around him sharing the heavy lifting he simply has to play his position, and is approaching a state of zen as a byproduct of so doing?
Let’s dismiss the temptation to damn Wexford with faint praise by describing them as ‘brave’ and observe that they hurled really well for the first half an hour. With 28 minutes gone little Willie Devereux – little, at any rate, in comparison to the Galwegian man-mountains in his vicinity – sallied forth and put the underdogs 0-11 to 0-10 ahead. The majority in the 60,032 crowd were in heaven.
Thing was, Donoghue’s side hit the next four points to lead by three at the break. The conclusion was depressing but unavoidable. Wexford had thrown their hardest punches and still trailed. Could they turn it around in the first ten minutes of the second half?
They had the chances. But Conor McDonald was wide with a free from the right, then was denied from a penalty, Colm Callanan getting down well at his left-hand post to divert the sliotar out for a 65. Galway stepped on the gas and hit seven unanswered points to lead by nine approaching the three-quarter mark.
Suddenly the roof threatened to cave in on the men in the yellow jerseys – Yellowbellies indeed – and purple shorts.
Diarmuid O’Keeffe’s goal temporarily stopped the flow. Donoghue will stop the tape and replay it several times when he comes to investigate precisely how – and how easily – Jack Guiney turned back in from the sideline despite the attentions of three defenders and Callanan to set up O’Keeffe to poke the sliotar home.
It was Galway’s one and only lapse of the afternoon and they’ll be in dereliction of duty if they choose to gloss over it.
More than enough time remained for the winners to catch another wind. Canning created a point for Conor Cooney and they were off and galloping again, the hiccups banished. They added four further points before Wexford had their next score.
If not this year, when?