No need to panic for Galway

There’s been a media storm of sorts since the Leinster final. Pundits saw Sunday’s game as a collapse for Galway. Ger Loughnane and Ollie Canning have taken pot-shots at each other. It would be understandable for a Galway hurler to be a bit demoralised after that defeat. I watched Sunday’s Kilkenny v Galway Leinster final with great interest. Galway had gone through a lot over the past year. What I was most interested in was the shape Galway’s new manager Michael Donoghue would put on the team. What style of hurling would they play? What way would they line out? In what was going to be the first really big game of his tenure, who was Donoghue going to place as the spine of his team?

Galway started the game well. The first half went well. There is no question about that. The move of Daithi Burke to full back to mark TJ Reid was a good one. John Hanbury was at centre back and although not a natural centre back, he was strong and held the middle well. Davy Glennon and David Burke were at midfield. Up front, once Cathal Mannion went in full forward and got decent ball he had Joey Holden in real trouble. The second half changed all that. Hanbury went into the full back line. Burke went out to left half-back to follow Reid. Glennon was taken off. Mannion got very little ball. Joseph Cooney struggled in the second half at centre forward and was also taken off.

I remember when I was small watching All-Ireland finals and semi-finals in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and that great Galway team were my favourite. Those Galway teams had a structure. Other players knew Malone/Mahon and Coleman would battle at midfield and could come out on top against any pairing. The famed half back line of Finnerty, Keady and McInerney was excellent. Joe Cooney was a genius and could be relied upon to win his fight at centre forward. With structure comes confidence and cohesion. Players up their game because they know the team is relying on them to produce.

The Galway team on Sunday did not have the luxury of a solid team structure. Players were swapped around here, there and everywhere. From my reckoning, only a few players started and finished the game in the positions they were selected in for Galway. Padraig Mannion, Conor Whelan, David Burke, Conor Cooney and goalkeeper Colm Callinan were, I think, the only players for Galway to stay in the same position for the duration of the game. Kilkenny, on the other hand left their goalkeeper, entire defence, midfield, Walter Walsh and JJ Farrell in the same spots for the entire game. When the going got tough, Kilkenny backed their team structure and personnel, and worked harder. When Galway’s ship looked like it was starting to sink, they moved around the deckchairs.

To my mind, Galway are not getting the full value from the individuals in their team. I think it’s unfair to brand the team as “gutless” as more than one pundit has. They need structure. They need a spine in their team. I’m not saying they need a fully settled side, as there is no evidence either way on whether a settled team is better or worse off. But in this case, for Galway, I think they need to be decisive rather than making so many changed. Most players will tell you that it is hard to build confidence if you are moved out of position after under-performing for 20 mins. Likewise, it is hard to have confidence in the rest of your team if everyone else is similarly moved if they are not immediately performing. So, what structure? Here is what I’d do.

I’d concentrate on getting the spine of the team set. Daithi Burke at full back, David Burke and Andy Smith at midfield, Joseph Cooney at centre forward and Cathal Mannion at full forward. Centre back has been a problem position for Galway for a long time. Personally, I think it’s amazing nobody has ever tried Joe Canning there (his array of skills, reading of the game, and Galway’s inability to get the best from him in the forwards), but that would be very short notice for this year. Joseph Cooney perhaps could be placed there. I would pick these guys in these positions, leave them there, and fill in guys around them. Hanbury and Coen or Killeen in the full back line, McInerney and Harte at wing back, Canning and Donnellan at wing forward and Whelan and Flynn at corner forward. The important thing, I believe, is to pick those central positions and back the players to perform there even in adversity.

Galway’s hurlers look leaderless at times, and while off-field factors such as personalities, relationships and so on are important, on field they struggle to build leaders because guys are always looking over their shoulder, whether that be a positional move or substitution. Going back the years, successful teams have always had a somewhat settled look, particularly the spine of the team. Joe Canning is a leader, but the team has looked to him too many times in the past, and now opponents know if they stop him, it’s unlikely anyone else is going to don the cape and spandex to rescue the team. New guys need to step up, and management need to help them to lead by showing faith in them to win their battles.


Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Kilkenny were good yesterday. That second-half performance was top drawer, played at an intensity Galway just couldn’t handle. Who can live with that pace – we’ll have to wait until September to see if anyone can. Galway didn’t handle it well, and that game was there for the taking for them.

All my life I’ve been watching games with my Dad. Even though nowadays I live in Dublin and he lives back home in Wexford, we still, sort of, watch them together. The match will be on in both our houses. Most days we’ll have a chat before to see who’ll win, a chat at half-time to see what changes each of us would make, and a chat after briefly about what actually happened.

Yesterday, we had a chat at half-time just. It’s always easy to say “I told you so”, but yesterday I was in actually prophetic form. “Brian Cody”, I said, “will pull TJ Reid way out the field in the second half. Galway clearly have put Daithi Burke as a man-marker to follow Reid anywhere he goes. Daithi Burke was the best player on the field for Galway in the first half. Cody is going to pull TJ Reid out the field and see if Burke follows. If he does, Kilkenny are going to try to blitz the Galway full-back line who will be short their best player. No doubt.”

So it came to pass. Daithi Burke was ineffectual in the second half, Reid playing between the 65’s on the right wing for Kilkenny. Without Burke at full-back, Richie Hogan had a half of dreams. He was just unstoppable and should have been handed Man of the Match at the finish. As I tweeted last night, he did more in one half than anyone else had done in two halves.

To me, the best chance you have is to blitz Kilkenny in the first half. Cody tends, as far as I’m concerned, to weigh things up for the first half hour. That’s the time to get them. Before the game he was non-committal on what Kilkenny would do to counter Galway. “We’ll concentrate on our own game” is his usual mantra and yesterday it was the same. But while that may be true for the first half to some extent, the second half of games is where Cody’s analytical brain shines. Yesterday is a great example. He forced Michael Donoghue to choose- leave Burke with Reid or keep the Galway structure intact. Donoghue chose wrong and Richie Hogan and JJ Farrell destroyed them.

That, of course, wasn’t the only change in the game. Even the most casual observer could see that in both halves there was a lot of space for the forwards at the Canal End (Davin Stand). To begin, Galway managed to get numbers back to their own half-back line and midfield- and leave room at the other end where Joey Holden was in trouble with Cathal Mannion. Second half, Kilkenny reversed things- Reid and Walter Walsh retreated, their men followed and space appeared in abundance for Farrell and Hogan. One point in the second half illustrated this perfectly: TJ Reid won the ball around midfield, and instead of having a shot, arrowed a pass inside to Farrell who was one-on-one with acres of space. It was a simple catch, shuffle to the left and tap over for the latest in Kilkenny’s conveyor belt of forwards.

Galway’s players have gotten a lot of stick in the media since the game. How long will they blame others and shoulder no responsibility for defeats. But to me, the game was just as much about the sideline battle. There is no question Cody won. The tactical changes, positional changes and personnel changes he made were top class. You knew it was inevitable.

My father rings back. “Well, you were spot on. Fair play”.

“Da”, I say, “you have to remember this one thing: The real greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world Kilkenny aren’t into tactics!”.