Let’s begin with the 2005 decider. Galway were first back out for the second half. Ger Farragher had taken up arms in the right corner of attack, with Damien Hayes doing likewise where the end of the Hogan Stand meets the Nally terracing.
It left Niall Healy all alone in front of an empty Cork goal.
As the 20-year-old stood waiting for John Allen’s charges to return back up the tunnel, a pocket of Rebel supporters positioned in the Hill decided they’d have a bit of fun with the isolated Galway forward.
“All I could hear coming down from Hill 16 was, ‘Sully’s gonna get ya, Sully’s gonna get ya’,” Healy recalls.
Now, he was far from the first hurler to have that particular chant lobbed in his direction.
But as a young lad appearing in his first All-Ireland final, it certainly didn’t help matters.
“At the time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Much of the commentary before the game had centred on the match-up between Healy and Diarmuid O’Sullivan. This despite the former having only three championship starts to his name — in what was his debut season. It was during the last of these where the spotlight had fixed on him. Three goals in the space of 16 minutes against Kilkenny will do that. Indeed, on that glorious semi-final afternoon, Healy became the first player to record a championship hat-trick against a Brian Cody defence.
Having been largely bypassed in the opening period, he remembers being driven by fear more than anything else when scorching the Kilkenny full-back line.
“Kevin Broderick was on the line, a genius of a hurler. Management wanted to get him on as soon as they could.
“Maybe, I was going the worst of the forwards. I knew I needed to do something.”
A rebound, a rasper, and a kick later and Healy stood saluting Hill 16 as James McGarry and John Tennyson slumped on the ground.
Then began the chatter about himself and the Rock — the new kid on the block going in to disrupt Cork’s no-nonsense gatekeeper.
“I had watched him for years growing up. I’ll never forget when he hit the Limerick lad in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and drove it over the bar from 100 yards. You realise then you’re going to be marking him in an All-Ireland final. It was intimidating. There is no point saying otherwise.
“I shook hands with him before the start of the final and then I got a thud. I tried to hit him back —it was like trying to hit a brick wall.
“I did OK in the first-half, won a few frees and he wound up being booked. The Cork goal, though, came from a ball that came in between us. To this day, I still think he fouled me when the ball broke between us. He cleared it down the field and Ben O’Connor got a goal.”
Minor consolation came in the form of an All-Ireland U21 medal the following weekend. Parking the disappointment of the defeat to Cork, the Craughwell forward had enjoyed a seamless transition to life at the top table. To those inside the county, that came as no surprise. This was a chap who was three years a Galway minor — he notched 1-10 in the 2003 All-Ireland minor final and still came out on the wrong end of the result. A week later, he came off the bench in the All-Ireland U21 decider and finished as joint top-scorer from play — Kilkenny again their conquerors.
That year, 2005, should have been the beginning for Niall Healy. And it was, to a certain extent, given he’d continue to pull on the maroon shirt for another 10 years.
He was a first-team regular during the watch of Ger Loughnane and early on under John McIntyre. He took Noel Hickey for three points in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final and was one of just four scorers on that toxic evening in Thurles a year later when Joe Canning hit 2-12. Fits and starts. He knows himself he didn’t often enough scale the heights he was capable of.
Indeed, he’d never play in an All-Ireland final beyond 2005. Or semi-final, for that matter.
“I got a lot of stick from within the county during the years I was playing with Galway. There was a lot expected of you. Maybe, more often than not, I might not have delivered. I struggled not being the main man as such with Galway. I was the free-taker with the Galway U16s, minors and U21s, as well with the club, and I struggled not being the main man with Galway seniors during the decade or so I was there. Maybe, it was selfishness on my part for not being the complete team player.”
He thrived on a central role that rarely fell his way. When he came on board, dead-ball duties belonged to Ger Farragher. No 20-year-old should expect to be handed the frees when walking in the dressing-room door. And Healy certainly didn’t.
Down the line, though, he was hopeful. Loughnane arrived on the scene in ‘07, with Eugene Cloonan, first, and then Kerril Wade assuming responsibility. Farragher was back in the box seat the following spring. Come the league final against Tipperary, young Joe Canning was the man being entrusted. Healy simply wasn’t figuring. This hampered his confidence.
“I have to admire Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney. They are the free-takers at their respective clubs. That’s not their role with Galway but they are flying it at the minute. That was just me and the way it panned out. I got to be the main man for a few league games here and there where I did do fairly well on the frees. That helped my general play. But I just wasn’t able to blend in.”
Anthony Cunningham stepped into the ring in 2012. A fresh chapter, fresh hope.
That optimism soon turned to frustration. During a challenge match against NUIG that January, the 26-year-old suffered a cut between his thumb and index finger which required stitches and a week long break. On his return to training the wound reopened. More stitches and a fortnight off.
A trend developed — the problem refused to go away. This is when the surgeon told him that if the wound was again exposed, he risked losing the power in his thumb as the initial cut had gone so deep. Plastic surgery was required and it was mid-July before he rejoined Cunningham’s group.
Trying to edge into a forward unit that had put 2-21 past Kilkenny in the Leinster final was asking a lot. Management had seven forwards for six positions. Healy wasn’t part of this group and so never rose from his Hogan Stand seat during the semi-final, drawn final and replay.
“They had their 20 players they knew they were going to use. No matter what I did, I don’t think I was going to figure in their plans. I would have regrets about that, nearly more so than 2015. They pulled me aside in early 2013, I remember Mattie Kenny telling me why I wasn’t brought on and all this, that I had to go for it again.”
In March, a tackling drill with the late Niall Donoghue led to a torn bicep and a four-month lay-off.
The 2014 league went well, but a collision with Daithí Burke during a club championship game saw the cruciate ligament give way. Another season over.
“I aimed to be back late in the spring of 2015. Jason Flynn got injured ahead of the Leinster semi-final against Laois and I got in.”
It was to prove his final championship start. He saw the concluding nine minutes in the Leinster final and was sprung with 67 minutes gone in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork.
“I didn’t think that was going to be my last involvement. The result was sewn up when I came on, but I was still looking to make whatever impression I could for the semi-final. A minute here or there would nearly do you, give you hope for the next day. I knew when Shane Moloney came on in the semi-final and I didn’t that my time was up. The game was changing. I’d have struggled at times to win my ball.”
He walked into Croke Park on the afternoon of the All-Ireland final knowing it was the last time he’d arrive at the venue as a player. He left empty-handed and had no involvement in the player vote which led to Cunningham’s departure two months later (“I did not see it coming”).
“I know people get out and say they have no regrets, I definitely have a few. Growing up as a youngster, the only thing I dreamed about was going up the steps of the Hogan to collect an All-Ireland medal and coming back to Galway on the Monday evening.
“There is huge disappointment I never got to do that. In 2015, my age wasn’t the primary reason for stepping away.
“You look at the Galway forwards now, they are all big, strong lads who can hurl. Would I fit into that role? I don’t think so.
“I was putting myself under a lot of pressure just to try and get a jersey on match-day. You’d be nervous before training because you wanted to do so well. I was thinking, ‘I’m 30 now, I could be doing without this’.”
Club hurling is serving him well and this December he’ll tie the knot with Deirdre Burke, the older sister of Galway captain David.
“Life goes on and you just hope the lads can do what we didn’t on Sunday.”