A “big culture shock” is how Galway’s Conor Whelan describes their June 15 exit from the 2019 hurling championship.
A senior player since the summer of 2015, Whelan’s first four years with the county saw him play in three All-Ireland finals.
Having become accustomed to almost annual involvement in the decider, it’s only natural that the young corner-forward was thrown off-kilter when Galway failed to secure a top-three place in last year’s Leinster round-robin.
Two weeks into June and Whelan found himself with an empty summer schedule.
Tending to his AC joint, injured during the season-ending defeat to Dublin, was his first priority, but once that was sorted, Whelan was on a plane for Boston, leaving behind the many post-mortems still smouldering in the county.
“I hurled with Fr Tom Burke’s, a Galway club out there. The summer in Boston was a good experience. Under the circumstances, it was an experience I probably didn’t want to get,” says the 23-year old.
“It definitely took me a week or two for it to sink in that we were out of the championship. I have played in three All-Ireland finals and there was also a semi-final loss. [Exiting so early] was a big culture shock. It was a bitter pill to swallow, losing out on score difference.
“Boston was the best place to be, away from the environment back home. You are working away out there, taking it easy, and enjoying the sunshine. I did a bit of construction, but it wasn’t really too hectic. There was only three or four days’ work. It was a nice break to get.”
He added: “It’s something that I hope I’m not going to get used to, but given the circumstances, it was beneficial to be out of that bubble [back home]. I’d seen friends travel to the US over the last two or three years so it was nice to be able to do it.”
Hurling alongside fellow Galway men Cian Salmon and Jack Coyne, Fr Tom Burke’s finished the summer as champions.
As for the championship back home, though, Whelan can’t say he was glued to the action.
“I tuned into the semi-finals. I thought Wexford were going to do it at one stage. It just shows you that the championship is very competitive and that teams can win at any given stage. Hopefully, going towards 2020, it’ll be more of the same.”
Whelan wasn’t long home when news of Micheál Donoghue’s unexpected resignation broke.
The new Galway vice-captain wouldn’t be drawn on whether or not he was part of the player delegation which sought to persuade the 2017 All-Ireland winning manager to row back on his decision.
There is always disappointment when somebody who you are close to steps away. But nothing is forever. We can only look forward to the 2020 season. Our mindset hasn’t changed, we are just focused on working hard under new manager Shane O’Neill. It is a clean slate from the start, and you are just anxious to impress the new management and nail down your spot.
“There’s always hunger there coming back [for a new season], but especially when you’re out since June 15. It’s a long time to be sitting on the sidelines looking in. We’re just focused on trying to learn from last year and trying to build something this year. That is the goal of the league; you’re trying to blood new players, integrate the new manager’s concepts and ideas and then build all that towards the first round of the championship.”
Having taken care of Westmeath in their league opener last weekend, Galway are on the road to Limerick tomorrow.
The sides haven’t met since the 2018 All-Ireland final, Whelan’s 71st minute goal triggering a Galway comeback that almost wiped out an eight-point Limerick lead during the near 10-minutes of injury-time played.
“We felt we were in the right place to go on and do [back-to-back] and we didn’t take Limerick for granted. On the day, though, we weren’t up to it, and we couldn’t reach the level that Limerick were at.
“We had no one to look at only ourselves. Obviously, with any final there’s going to be regret and you never know when you’re going to be back there again. All we can do in 2020 is to try and drive on and try and be the best we can be.”