Have Galway developed a backup source of scores? 

A criticism levelled at Galway last season was a lack of faith in their bench
Have Galway developed a backup source of scores? 

Galway's Eoghan Kelly is tackled during the game with Monaghan. Picture: INPHO/Ben Brady

On the Wednesday before last year’s All-Ireland football final, this newspaper carried a stats-heavy piece spelling out Galway’s complete lack of bench press.

The outstanding piece of evidence presented against the Galway bench was that across the Connacht final, All-Ireland quarter-final, and semi-final, Finnian Ó Laoí’s 50th-minute point in the Armagh win was the sole score by a Galway sub in those three outings.

That tally was not improved upon in the decider. Of the four subs introduced in the second half of the Kerry defeat, three were forwards. None ended up on the scoresheet.

It’s a tired comparison at this stage, but where Galway got no bounce from their back-up brigade, Kerry got two second-half points from Killian Spillane alone.

Writing on these pages the day after the final, Éamonn Fitzmaurice noted that “Padraic Joyce will need to strengthen his bench to get it over the line”.

Galway’s starting team went unchanged from the Connacht final right the way through to the All-Ireland decider. Across the county’s six-game championship campaign, just 19 players received starts.

That can be interpreted one of two ways. The first is that management had arrived at a settled and winning formation, and saw no need to tinker. The second is that there was a lack of faith in the supporting cast sitting in the stand.

And while the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, the pick 'n mix of subs sprung in the final quarter of games spelled out that Galway didn’t have the required set of three or four finishers.

Of the nine players who saw championship gametime exclusively off the bench last summer, three - James Foley, Tomo Culhane, Eoin Finnerty - were used only once, while two more - Billy Mannion and Johnny McGrath - featured just twice.

The aforementioned Finnian Ó Laoí was the one constant off the bench. Having held down the number 10 shirt for the Connacht quarter and semi-final, Ó Laoí subsequently lost his starting spot to Patrick Kelly and moved into the role of impact sub.

Ó Laoi moved to Australia during the off-season. All-Star corner-back Liam Silke hit off to New Zealand. Kieran Molloy did his cruciate.

In their League opener, Rob Finnerty suffered ankle ligament damage. Damien Comer had to be stretched off the weekend after. Patrick Kelly didn’t feature in either game because of injury. Shane Walsh, meanwhile, took time out after Kilmacud Crokes’ club run.

Their good china shelf bare, management had no option but to raid the cupboard for new delph.

“We can’t be making excuses for the guys we don’t have. We got to get on with the panel that is there and develop a squad,” said Joyce after watching Roscommon kick five in a row to edge their Round 2 clash at Salthill.

“We were accused last year of having no depth in the squad, so this gives us a chance to develop some depth and see what lads can do.” 

Six rounds in and Joyce has looked at 32 players. Twenty-seven of them started at least one game. That latter figure would be 28 but for the ankle injury which kept Tomo Culhane sidelined until last weekend’s Armagh trip.

Introduced seven minutes after the restart, the 2020 All-Ireland U20 winner converted a pair of marks that were crucial in the visitors overturning a five-point deficit.

It was the county’s second League win where a substitute had made a telling difference on the scoreboard. Nine minutes into the second half of Tyrone’s Tuam trip, the visitors - elements behind them - had narrowed an interval deficit of four to the minimum.

Shortly after, replacement Cathal Sweeney landed the first of his three second-half points as the hosts succeeded in keeping their noses in front.

Add in Ian Burke’s return and the graduation of another U20 winner, Ryan Monaghan, to the senior ranks, and Galway have deepened their scoring arsenal.

And that’s without mentioning Peter Cooke’s seamless reintegration to the starting fold and a Matthew Tierney run of form that has seen the half-forward top score with 3-13 this spring.

Away from raising flags, corner-back Johnny McGrath broke forward with real purpose when introduced against Tyrone. He continued in that vein during his starts against Monaghan and Armagh.

There’s been plenty more who’ve put their hands up at different points; Neil Mulcahy, Eoghan Kelly, Cian Hernon, John Maher, and Daniel O’Flaherty.

“Looking in from the outside, there seems to be far more options there,” said Michael Meehan of the depth added this spring.

“It mightn't be a forward per se that will get you scores off the bench. It is getting players into the engine room - that middle third - after 50 or 55 minutes that will inject pace and power. They are the type of players that have shown up quite well in the League to date.

“Cathal Sweeney is probably most comfortable in that zone facing forwards. He has bags of pace. Johnny McGrath was very effective, as well, in the last game or two in an attacking sense and driving forward.”

McGrath was also singled out by another former Galway forward, Eddie Hoare. He also likes the cut of Cian Hernon’s jib.

“Cian was a big underage talent. He was unfortunate with injuries. He looked very assured in Armagh for his full debut.

“I take great confidence from the fact that they have more depth in the squad this year. It was an issue last year when we were very much firmly fixed on the first 15,” said Hoare.

Both Meehan and Hoare place stock on overcoming Kerry and moving within 70 minutes of a first Division 1 League crown since 1981.

“Galway will be looking to lay down a marker this weekend,” said Hoare. Added Meehan: "Kerry are not firing in the League thus far. I'd be wanting to beat them and be in a position to win a national title."

After that, then, comes the real test for Galway’s beefed-up supporting cast.

“They have got to do it in championship,” Meehan concluded. “If they continue to show improvement, they will get their chance.” 

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