IF GALWAY end the year with their tail in that familiar position, the blame won’t lie solely at the Tribal door.
The players, manager and most supporters have all been trying to lower expectations and, even when the media try to crank it back up, Galway have tried to just let it be.
This is a team in transition, 15 Under-21s from last year on board and time is needed to build up momentum – that’s been the line.
Defender Fergal Moore used that very word – momentum – repeatedly in the lead-up to the Westmeath victory and while Cyril Donnellan shared the sentiment, saying a turgid display against the Lake County halted their impetus in 2011, he knows time waits for no group of men: “We wouldn’t really believe in this two- or three-year plan; if the chance presents itself, you have to take it.”
The question is: has the chance presented itself recently? Yes and no.
Yes because they were in winning positions against Cork (08), Waterford, (09) and Tipp (2010) in quarter-finals and one big win can help a summer make.
No, because a look at their championship form since they did beat Kilkenny to reach the 2005 All-Ireland final reveals some damning evidence.
They have played 27 championship matches in those seven seasons since, including 2012: 15 wins, one draw, 11 defeats. First up, the draw was against Offaly in 2010 so there’s reason number one not to write off the Faithful in the Leinster semi-final.
Reason two: Galway’s wins from 2006 to 2012 were against Laois (four times), Westmeath (three), Antrim (two), Clare (two), Cork (two), Wexford (one) and Offaly (one).
The wins over the Rebels – whose presences gives this list respectability – were post-Gerald McCarthy impasse and in 2011, which to be fair was a decent win.
The defeats mostly read like a who’s who of regular semi-finalists and winners in that era: Kilkenny (4), Waterford (3), Dublin (1), Tipp (1), Cork (1) and Clare (1). And on average, Galway are losing these games by as much as four points (0-24 to 0-2), which is quite a mean across 11 defeats.
This evidence should be enough to deter hype until results match potential. Because it’s just that which is hamstringing the county: a reputation based on what tasty hurlers are doing as boys rather than as men.
Minor and Under-21 titles should feed into senior success but they won’t unless they are bedded into a solid senior base.
The England football team of hurling, in many ways.
Bruised and battered by disappointments, the panel and their fans are treading carefully this year. Unsure and unwilling to talk until they’re certain they can walk.
Truth be told, one catastrophic result aside, it has been an encouraging first season for Anthony Cunningham so far. It started well: the Tribe showed form in their defeat in Tipperary to back up the fine wins either side of it at home to Dublin and in Cork.
The loss at home to a Waterford side was a let-down, and no doubt John Mullane’s return had a large bearing on the result. Then ground zero in Nowlan Park – a reminder that cities are knocked in a day, not built in one.
Three games unbeaten later and we are where we are. Still unsure of what to expect. There’s good and bad to take out of the Westmeath win.
The game was effectively over by half-time and though the Lake County kept swinging, Galway always had their gloves up.
A year ago, the Tribe needed to bring on Joe Canning to help them win on a points decision.
So yes, the 2012 performance was better but, from conceding 2-14 in 2011, the Lake hit them for 4-12 this time around. That’s a worry, one associated with the question marks so prevalent around the full-back line. One that persists is: why did Cunningham drop Shane Kavanagh?
Galway used the same full-back combination – Declan Connolly, David Collins and Ger O’Halloran – for the first four league games this season but it has changed in each of the four competitive games since.
That began in the 3-26 to 0-10 loss to Kilkenny and, to this point, they have used seven different players in five different combinations.
Against Westmeath, none of the three that started the campaign wore any of numbers two to four, though Collins will come back in after injury.
The Lake County have earned people’s respect in the last year or so because, up until this latest defeat, they had won half their championship matches since returning to this level. However, they still are patently well behind the better sides and more in the bracket of Laois and Carlow.
So when Galway fans see Dublin dismantle Laois and concede just two scores inside the first three-quarters of the game, a concession of 4-12 to the Lake becomes a source of frustration.
The most frustrating thing for those inside the Galway camps over the last number of years is how polarised opinions have been outside it.
The team lurches from great expectations to disaster in the time it takes Canning to tuck a penalty into bed. That loss to Kilkenny was a disaster, relegation was going to be a disaster, imagine the fallout if Westmeath beat us, ah we’d want to be beating Offaly. But would they? This is a county that has been losing almost as many championship games as they’ve been winning for over half a decade – defeat to Offaly is not unfathomable. For Galway fans guffawing at this, you’d have to wonder what games they’ve been watching.
Galway can beat Offaly and are favourites to do, partly because in Canning and Damien Hayes, they have the most outstanding players on the pitch. In tight games, this can make the difference. It may again, but let’s hope for the players’ sake that there’s calm if they do not.