Saturday, April 23, 2022

Galway’s Shane Walsh in action in the NFL Division 2 final defeat to Roscommon earlier this month. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Pádraic Joyce and Galway have done a lot right so far this season. Before a ball was kicked, Joyce upgraded his management team and structures and enlisted the help of the experienced and innovative coach, Cian O’Neill.

This was a masterstroke by the Galway legend. Joyce is known as the alpha male of Galway football – one of the most dominant, powerful and successful figures of his generation.

He was reared in the cradle of Galway football in and around Tuam and so has a clear view on how he feels football should be played and has little time for anyone who deviates from that philosophy.

He showed pragmatism and vision, however, to cede some control to O’Neill (another domineering, confident character) when helping shape the future direction of his team. O’Neill has worked, and won All-Irelands, with a lot of top counties in Gaelic football and hurling and is at the cutting-edge when it comes to new tactics and training methodologies.

The Kildare man also worked very closely with James Horan in 2011 and 2012 so will have an inside track on Mayo’s footballing blueprint.

Whatever about tactics, the area in which Galway were most behind Gaelic football’s top dogs was in the area of strength and conditioning. Last July’s second-half capitulation in the Connacht final in Croke Park was a rude awakening for Joyce and, again, recognising a deficiency in his management team he went out and recruited best-in-class. He cast the net wide and appointed Jonathan Harris-Wright as the team’s new Head of Performance.

Harris-Wright does not have a GAA background but is at the vanguard of sports science and performance, having worked with Cricket Ireland and Glasgow Warriors and London Irish in rugby.
Sunday will tell us if he is having a positive impact in this department and if Galway can now live with Mayo’s pace and power.

On the playing side, if you want to get your act together, you must start at number 1 and Joyce has also unearthed a good, new goalkeeper.

Mayo targeted Conor Gleeson in this position in Croke Park last year, rumbling a lot of his short kick-outs and thereby encouraging Joyce to look elsewhere for his stopper between the sticks.
Step forward Claregalway’s Conor Flaherty, a new-age footballing goalkeeper who is as comfortable with the ball in his hands as some outfield players.

Flaherty is young (he won an All-Ireland Under-20 medal in 2020 and played in the Sigerson Final this year) and didn’t have a perfect league campaign (he too struggled with his short kick-outs in the league final) but has the potential to develop into a top-class goalkeeper for the next ten years à la Clarke, Hennelly, Morgan or Cluxton. Galway need a regular, reliable and skilled netminder as they have struggled badly in this position for a while now.

Out the field, Galway do not have as much depth in their squad as Mayo but they do not currently have as many injuries either so that is a moot point. Joyce seems to have a settled line-up and has largely used the same 19 or 20 players in this year’s NFL.

After a few years of turbulence and a lot of comings and goings in the panel, consistency of selection seems to have been the order of the day for Joyce this campaign.

The Killererin man, by all accounts, is a no-nonsense leader and has gotten rid of any players who didn’t toe the line or whose hearts weren’t fully in it.

It was his way or the N17 highway and this has helped forge a more harmonious and happier squad which is reflected in their results and performances so far in 2022.

Selecting Sean Kelly as captain was another inspired choice. Last year’s captain Shane Walsh is the squad’s most talented and gifted player but he has enough on his plate every day trying to create magic and produce his mercurial best.

Kelly is a solid individual who seems to be unfazed by the extra burden of captaincy and whose performances have perhaps even been elevated since given the armband. The pacy Moycullen man is a class act who has given a string of superb performances for his club, university and county in recent seasons.

Where he lines out on Sunday will be interesting. He has flitted between the full-back line, half-back line and midfield but wherever he plays, Mayo will have to be alert to his piercing, penetrative runs from deep.

For Joyce, the most positive aspect of Galway’s season to date must have been their promotion to Division 1.
Granted, we sailed through Division 2 ourselves last year with little fuss, and it is a very different ball game to Division 1, but it is a good place to blood young players and mould a new team.

Galway scored an average of 20 points per game in the league and will have built momentum and confidence in winning away in places like Down, Cork and Derry. Of course, in spite of all the positives this season has borne, this Galway team is far from the finished article. Their defence can be quite porous – they shipped eight goals in the league and they conceded 1-20 in each of their last two games against Roscommon. The Division 2 league final against the Rossies is the game that probably gives the most accurate reflection of where Galway are actually at right now.

Worryingly for Joyce, the start of the second half was very reminiscent of last year’s Croker Connacht final as many of the Galway players went AWOL while Roscommon ran amok.

In that game, Galway showed signs that there was still an underlying softness in their make-up as evidenced by the number of times their players went down to receive treatment over the course of the match. Their physio, Aofáine Walsh, was as prominent on the field as some players as she administered the magic sponge with regularity.

In all fairness though, and as a sign that this team has developed from last year, Galway rallied well towards the end of the game and showed good character to take the lead before falling foul to Diarmuid Murtagh’s sucker-punch of a goal. And any team that kicks 22 points in a match can hurt you and deserves respect.With Galway’s firepower in mind, Sunday’s game will be won and lost in the match-ups. Who Mayo detail to mark Galway’s biggest threats of Paul Conroy, Shane Walsh and Damien Comer will be a deciding factor.

Most of Galway’s scores come from the talented trio so if Mayo can snuff out the considerable threat of these players, I think we will have more than enough around the park to eke out a win. Considering that, the availability and return to fitness of key players like Oisín Mullin and Diarmuid O’Connor will be crucial to Mayo’s prospects.

Conroy gave a virtuoso display in the league final, kicking six points from play from midfield. In many ways, the St James’ clubman has been Galway’s best and most consistent performer since Galway last won the All-Ireland in 2001.

Ian Burke has been their only All-Star since Kevin Walsh won the gong in 2003 but Burke’s impact was short-lived and Michael Meehan’s intercounty career was cruelly cut short because of injury.

It has, therefore, fallen on Conroy to be the county’s talisman since his debut in 2008. I have played a lot against Conroy in club football in recent years and if you give him an inch, he will take a mile. He is such a skilful footballer, a long and accurate kicker and a lethal finisher. At 32, he’s probably not as athletic as he once was so I would stick an athlete like Mullin on him to run the legs off him and have him chasing, rather than kicking.

I would assign Lee Keegan to tag Damien Comer at full-back. If that is the pairing, it will be intriguing watching that abrasive duo hopping off each other.

Tyson Fury’s fight versus Dillian Whyte on Saturday night will be mild compared to Sunday’s battle of those powerhouses on the edge of the Mayo square.

The whole season seems to have been building towards Sunday’s local derby and I for one cannot wait. All things considered, Galway should be in rude health for it.

I expect it to be a tense, tight and titanic tussle on our return to MacHale Park.

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