It’s been a fair while since we watched a Galway football team move with such swagger, such confidence. Too long, Gary Sice would argue.
Sunday’s 11-point whipping of Roscommon and the manner of their first-half blitzkrieg would suggest the county is done being football’s stubborn teenager, refusing to grow up. They’ve matured, Sice would argue.
Not before time, mind you.
Take Galway’s fallow period between 2009 and 2014, during which just two Connacht finals were reached. Sligo twice marked their card in the provincial championship, while the 4-16 to 0-11 hammering by Mayo in 2013 was the county’s biggest championship defeat at their neighbours’ expense since 1907.
The qualifiers were routinely travelled and routinely ended in disappointment; the 2010 and 2012 defeats to Wexford and Antrim evidence of a county in crisis.
As football moved forward, Galway stood still.
Go back to 2008 and while it was easily one of the county’s more successful recent campaigns, the tell-tale signs were there. Under Liam Sammon, Galway played football as Galway have always done; open, orthodox and attack-orientated. Take that memorable quarter-final shoot-out between themselves and Kerry; Galway kicking 1-16 in torrential rain at Croke Park – a tally bettered by only one other county in the three remaining quarter-finals that August. Problem was that defence was less of a priority to matters further up the field and Kerry hit 1-21 to advance.
Liam Sammon handed Gary Sice his championship debut that summer. The Corofin footballer has lived through the bad days, the Mayo humiliations and the Casement Park championship exit.
There’s nothing in the above narrative that he can find fault with. He’s glad, though, a new page has been turned.
“Galway football hadn’t moved on with what football became over the past few years. We hadn’t worked hard enough and we weren’t adapting to modern football,” is his take on the county’s slide.
Gary O’Donnell stepped aboard the cargo train in 2009 and was excited to see where the journey would end given the head of steam built up the summer previous.
“There’s a handful of lads in that Galway dressing room and 2008 was their first or second year on the panel. When we won Connacht that time, we were probably of the opinion that was going to be the norm over the next couple of years and it didn’t prove to be the case.”
Kevin Walsh stepped in at the end of 2014 and has succeeded where Joe Kernan, Tomás Ó Flatharta, and Alan Mulholland failed; impressing upon these players that a balance can be struck between Galway’s flamboyancy of old and a heavily populated defensive structure.
“We’ve copped ourselves on a bit,” continues Sice, “we’ve adapted to the modern game, and we’re playing a bit of Galway football on top of it which is nice to see.” Added O’Donnell: “We probably decided that we were leaking a lot of scores. It’s not that we’re dropping bodies back like people think, but it’s being more organised, knowing our jobs and roles and we use it as a platform as well to play football.”
Will this first Connacht title in eight years and the manner in which it was achieved force others to sit up and take note?
“We’ve played two division one teams on the trot and everyone has been telling us that they’re this and they’re that. Yes, we got beaten by Cavan in the league, but that’s a long time ago now, and we were working very hard on what we were doing,” remarked Sice.
“It’d be a shame to do what we did against Roscommon and then turn up the next day and produce something that would be a little bit off, but with the belief that’s in the system now, I don’t think Kevin’s going to let us get ahead of ourselves.
“Yes, a Connacht title is lovely but now it’s time to play the real teams and really go at it.” O’Donnell is similarly excited.
“The championship is our oyster. We’ve achieved success by winning a provincial title. That won’t be our ambition for the year.
“We made sure that the Mayo game wasn’t going to be the defining game of the year and we didn’t get ahead of ourselves. The performance there reflected that no one got ahead of themselves. We made sure we had our sights set on the bigger picture during the year.
“I think there is more left in this team. There is loads to improve on, there always is.”
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