Anthony Cunningham’s deep-rooted belief that there is an All-Ireland hurling title in this Galway team motivated his decision to seek a fourth year at the helm.
Their qualifier defeat to Tipperary last July brought the curtain down on Cunningham’s three-year term and the two-time All-Ireland medal-winner was informed by the county board executive that he would have to re-interview for the position of manager if he wished to stay on.
Challenged by Mattie Kenny, who served as his selector in 2012, the six-man selection committee was split down the centre. Chairman Noel Treacy was asked for his casting vote; Cunningham hanging on by the thread of his bainisteoir’s shirt.
The Galway manager admits there were afternoons in summers gone when he “couldn’t buy a performance”, but was determined to remain on the sideline, such was his faith in thisgroup.
“You want to stay with a team that you believe is going to win,” he said.
“You still have to win! That is the 70 minutes that is ahead of us. But you want to stay because you really believe these guys have talent.
“I think last year we were happy, we went very, very close. We actually came very close to winning in Tullamore [drawn Leinster semi-final against Kilkenny]. I know we were nine points down, but came back very strongly. We were disappointed with the replay. In the match against Tipperary, we had gone very, very well. But we had to learn as well. We have a lot of young players and I think they learned last year.
“2013 was hard to buy a performance, for whatever reason. We were flat in the Leinster final and then out of the competition so it did take some new players to come in as well. That is for sure.
“The thing we have worked hard on this year is bringing the standards up. Kilkenny have led that. The amount of work these guys do... we can’t ask for any more. That is satisfying and I am delighted to have the chance.”
The power of positive thinking has been central to Cunningham’s approach this summer and he explains how his post-Leinster final comment to Brian Cody — ‘we’ll see you again in September” — was fuelled by their performance against Kilkenny.
No, they hadn’t hurled the reigning champions into submission, as was the case in 2012, they hadn’t even beaten Cody’s men to the finishing post. They had, says the Galway boss, provided management with a canvas on which they could work.
“There is no point in being here if you don’t believe you are good enough to win the All-Ireland. If someone says at the start of the year, ‘what’s your ambition?’ For us, it is always the All-Ireland. So if you are still in the competition on July 7, for me it is the same as January 1. We had gone quite close. There was only three in it in the 62nd minute. So for us…they are fine lines.
“The big thing that is staring you in the face is that you are in Croke Park, you have played the All-Ireland champions. If you say we are finished for the year, the wheels would come off. You wouldn’t do that.
“It is a step backwards only if your performance is really, really low and you couldn’t buy a performance — as has happened in some years, to be honest. But we were well buoyed by the performance. While we would have been unhappy with a lot of aspects in play, there was a huge basis to build on.”
Elsewhere on these pages, former manager Cyril Farrell claims Galway’s match-ups in defence will be crucial to Sunday’s outcome. Five out of six were correct in the semi-final. Nothing less than six from six will suffice if Kilkenny are to be stopped.
“We got on okay in the Leinster final against top players from Kilkenny, but we will need to up that performance because TJ Reid and Richie Hogan as an example; they are probably the best two players in the country. So much hinges on them. And we have to be defensively so much better than we were the last day. That is huge for us.
“It is great to have a benchmark. There is not just one or two forwards — Ger Aylward, Michael Fennelly. Colin Fennelly. You know, top, top class players. Give an inch and they will put you to the sword.
“So we have to be much, much better in the defence than we were on Seamus Callanan.”
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