Cunningham and Galway lean on twin towers of strength

One is Yin to the other’s Yang, one is Zig, the other Zag — we’re talking about Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenney, not so much Galway manager Anthony Cunningham’s two right-hand men as one his right hand, the other his left.

As with all the best modern GAA management teams, Helebert and Kenney aren’t there just to make up the numbers, standing with arms folded on the sidelines during training sessions, called on only when the team needs to be picked.

No, these guys are front and centre, integral parts of the new Galway system, each with a very active coaching role. Fifteen very enlightening minutes in their company and you understand why Cunningham values them so highly, why he brought them with him from the All-Ireland-winning U21 management team of last year on his own appointment as Galway manager.

Herewith, then, as they finalise preparations for Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, a sample of their thoughts, starting with the axe that was wielded at the start of the season, the deep cuts made to last year’s panel in favour of youth and the risks that went with that.

Helebert says: “The problem with management jobs in this sport is that it always ends in tears eventually! For us, we made a couple of very tough decisions at the start of the year. Those decisions were all based on what we believed were right, solid and fact-based assumptions based around the kind of player we were looking for, the kind of player we were going to retain and how we were going to blend that together and get a working group whereby we could raise everybody’s standard accordingly.

“We brought in a lot of U21 players from last year — they’ve all survived it, they’ve all got to this place right now and some of them have blossomed. The established players that we held onto have all turned out to be very important to us too and that was one of the reasons that we held onto them, because you could see the qualities in them.

“What they were devoid of previously, for one reason or another, was the opportunity to get into August and play an All-Ireland semi-final.”

Kenney takes it up: “We got this job for three years so we had to put the building blocks in place. We brought in a lot of youth, made an investment in our future. We were saying: year one plan; year two plan; and year three plan. We had to start with that youth policy, take the time to impart our knowledge, our coaching methods and coaching style on that complete group.

“And it was going to take time. “In all the league matches, apart from that day in Nowlan Park [heavy defeat to Kilkenny], all the stuff we were working at on the training ground, we were seeing bits of it and bits of it and bits of it. We always felt we were building and we always felt we were improving. But it’s a very young squad and there is a lot of improving to be done yet.”

The ‘year one plan’ though, did that include walloping Kilkenny in a Leinster final, perhaps beating Cork this weekend, making — and even winning — the All-Ireland final?

Tom: “The plan is based on the building blocks around performance management — results will always be a consequence of how you perform. We never sat down and set unique targets of winning a league or a Walsh Cup or an All-Ireland final.

“We set targets on ourselves in terms of where we got our fitness level, where we got our touch, where we got our use of ball, our possession, our free count, the small things that either win you or lose you a game. They are the things we worked on in every game we played, in every training session that we participated in.

“Performances take care of results but there are days when you can have a great performance and still lose the game. It has happened in the last three All-Ireland finals, where the losing teams performed just as well as the winning teams, but a score or a mistake either which way and it turns on its head.

“Our building blocks are based on performance management and that’s the way we have approached it.

“The job this week is to make sure the players are focused on Sunday and turn up ready in Croke Park.”

On this evidence, they’ll be ready.


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