In the aftermath of last year’s Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny, it would be wrong to say Micheál Donoghue’s Galway were indifferent to Ger Loughnane’s charge that they had been gutless, but fair to say they gave greater credence to the fact they had gone goalless.
A look at the video and stats of that game showed that their tackle count had been the second-highest by any side in the championship that year – Kilkenny’s on the same day just happened to be the highest. But something else they identified was how few goal chances they’d created.
Even Cathal Mannion, their best player on the day with five points from play, had a couple of chances to take his man on and drive for goal but declined. Galway had actually been the highest goal-scoring team in the country in championship hurling since 2014, averaging 2.2 goals a game, marginally ahead of even Tipperary and Kilkenny on two goals apiece, and well ahead of the fourth-placed team, Limerick, on 1.4. As good as their preparations for that Leinster final had been, Galway reflected that they had under-emphasised going for goals and the team’s excellence in that department.
For their next day out, an All-Ireland quarter-final against league champions Clare, they had a specific target – create at least two goals chances in the opening 10 minutes of each half and nail at least one of them.
Just minutes into that clash down in Thurles, Cathal Mannion won a ball at the apex point of the Clare D and turned towards goal. The safe – and seemingly sensible – option was to take his own point but Mannion looked to offload to a colleague outside him cutting in on goal, only for his pass to be intercepted. In another setup or on another day he could have been castigated for not taking his point but afterwards the Galway management applauded Mannion for his boldness. He had signalled an intent which radiated to his teammates. Minutes later Conor Cooney found the net, Galway were away and never looked back.
Even when they were seven points ahead at half-time they were relentless. The target was again to look for a goal in the opening minutes of the second half. Ten seconds in they already had it. From the throw-in, David Burke ran right through an unsettled Clare defence to offload to Joe Canning to double to the net.
The next day against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final, they would repeat that trick, Conor Cooney and Joe Cooney each striking for goal within 12 minutes of each throw-in. That mindset was still prevalent in this year’s league final in which they built on a fine first-half lead of six points by striking for three goals upon the resumption.
But an odd thing has happened in the championship. After again hitting the two-goal mark in the opening game against Dublin, they haven’t scored a single goal. In the last three games they’ve relied totally on points. Points alone have sufficed.
It’s hard to know if there has been less emphasis on scoring goals – Conor Cooney’s effort straight upon the resumption the last day against Tipperary which flashed just wide of Darren Gleeson’s left post hints that they may be looking to recapture some of the mindset of late summer last year. But there is certainly less of an emphasis – or at least a reliance – on a goal from Joe Canning.
In the league he was banging them in with the usual regularity; on his first two days back off the bench after a layoff recovering from the leg injury which finished his involvement in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, he banged a goal to the net each time. Should Galway go on to win this All-Ireland, the pivotal moment in their season could well be seen as the 10-point comeback against Waterford in the league quarter-final and probably the biggest turning point in that game was Canning’s goal from a penalty. But that’s been his last goal all year. His goal against Clare in Thurles over 13 months ago is his last in the championship.
In fact just as he’s on the precipice of winning his first-ever All Ireland at the 10th attempt, he’s also on the verge of going his first-ever championship without scoring a goal. Over 45 championship games Canning has found the net 25 times – but not one of those has come this year.
Why? Because his role has changed. In last year’s Leinster final he cut a subdued figure in at full-forward where he had been stationed for most of his senior career. After sitting down with Micheál Donoghue it was decided that the next day out against Clare he would float between centre-forward and midfield where he’s pretty much operated from ever since. Instead of being confined inside, he has room to roam. Instead of resorting to the usual easy out of ballooning ball in on top of Joe, the rest of the team are now inclined to play Donoghue’s preferred way all along, through the lines, and with it, go through Joe. Instead of having to be a finisher a la Michael Jordan, he gets to be more of a creator like Magic Johnson, Dalglish more than Rush.
This shift has also coincided with – or, more likely, accelerated and facilitated – the maturity of Conor Whelan and the reliability of Conor Cooney. This summer Canning has still chipped in every day with a steady two points from play, to go along with his usual six from deadballs, but Whelan and Cooney are averaging twice more from play, with 4.0 points per game apiece.
And in case you think four games is too small a sample size, well, fine, throw in the knockout stages of the league and Whelan’s remains pretty much the same, on 3.8ppg, while Cooney’s actually increases to 4.7. It means that for the first season since he broke onto the scene back in 2008, Canning isn’t – or doesn’t have to be – one of Galway’s two leading scorers from play.
With Joe having to score less from play, it means Galway are scoring more. This summer they’re averaging 29.5 points a game, more than any other team over 70 minutes (Tipperary were next, on 29.2, with Waterford on 26.8). The same held for the league; even if you remove games against Kerry and Offaly, and they were still racking up an average of 27.8 ppg; Tipp were next on 26.4 while Waterford were well back on 21.0.
Probably the most important development of all though for Galway is how tighter at the back they’ve become over the last 15 months. This year they’ve coughed up a goal in every championship game – but never more than a goal. The tallies of their opponents are strikingly similar: 1-17, 1-11, 1-17, 1-18. That’s an average of 1-16 a game, less than any other team in the championship; Waterford, as it happened, are next best, conceding 19.8 a game (fellow All Ireland semi-finalists Tipp gave up 23.4, Cork 25.3).
And again, that’s just consistent with Galway’s league form, where they averaged just 18.8 a game, the best in the country. Only once all year have they coughed up two goals in a game.
That happened to be against Waterford, in the league quarter-final. If Derek McGrath’s men are to win tomorrow, they’ll probably need to hit the two-goal mark again or else become the first team since Wexford back in February to hit more than 20 points against this Galway side.
The other day when David Collins was asked for a scoreline prediction, the former Galway captain went for Galway 0-23 Waterford 0-19. You could see his logic. Galway don’t concede many goals. Nowadays they don’t score many either, but they tend to outpoint teams, rarely conceding more than 19 at their end.
Or maybe this is the day Canning finds the net again. In his six previous national finals, league or championship, he’s found the net in four of them. When Galway needed scores the last day against Tipp, it was Canning who provided them, their final five points of the match, three of them from play. It’s happened before where a team learns to become less dependent on their star man for scores, only to get the best of both worlds with him coming back to the fore on the biggest stage of all: Kerry with Maurice Fitzgerald in 2000, Tyrone in 2005 with Peter Canavan and that goal he caressed inside Diarmuid Murphy’s right post.
Galway can still rely on Canning. But beauty for them is they’re no longer reliant on him.