GALWAY are not interested in the well intentioned but ultimately hollow plaudits that suggest that because they have a largely young squad that if they don’t win the All-Ireland hurling final this year they will some time in the future, writes John Knox.
Manager Anthony Cunningham and his selectors have assembled a talented and hungry panel that wants to win……now!
“There is no sense in saying haven’t you done well this year, and the best of luck next year,” offered Mr Cunningham when it was put to him that the gap in experience was massive between the two teams in Sunday’s final.
“So much work has gone into getting to where we are we want to go on and win the final. To think that way is almost a concession. We would never think that way. To me that is okay for some people who like to be involved in sport generally. For us, it is all about winning. It is a high stakes game.
“Winning the Leinster final if we lose the All-Ireland final won’t be of major use to us,” he added with disarming honesty.
When you get the opportunity, go for it flat out was the clear message from the senior/under-21 team boss.
Could be waiting long time
“We want to win because if we don’t we could be waiting a long time again,” he continued when expanding on the argument. “The last win was in 2007. People might have some false sense of insecurity there and say sure we will win next year. Sport doesn’t work like that.
“Tipperary had a fantastic under-21 team a few years ago and a lot came on to the seniors. Now a lot of Tipp supporters are asking, unfairly I would suggest, where have some of these players gone. Things ebb and flow. You have got to really press home when you have the advantage.
“You are never too young to win anything, absolutely not”.
Mr Cunningham, who is a top line coach in hurling and football, said the All-Ireland final was where Galway wanted to be and facing Kilkenny, the best team around, possibly the best team of all time, is who they want to face.
“To try and get one over Kilkenny is a great challenge,” he admitted. “You always want to play the best. You always want to be playing in Croke Park in September and that is what is has come to.
“We are hurling mad, really, and we always want to be playing at the top level games. We are delighted to have got this far, but getting to the final hasn’t satisfied us.”
He said records defined teams and counties. Kilkenny’s record was hugely impressive. This was Brian Cody’s 12th year taking the county to an All-Ireland final.
“They won five of the last six,” Cunningham reminded. “Henry Shefflin is going for a record number of medals. Records don’t lie.”
Kilkenny’s reputation and strike rate could be intimidating, so how are Galway handling that?
Concentrate on own game
“We try and emulate them, try and get better than them,” the Galway chief replied. “We are thankful that they set a great stand. They don’t scare us. That is not a word we would use at any stage, and we would never be in awe of them.
“We are in awe of their sportsmanship and the way they have gone about their business for the years and entertainment they have given us. We fully concentrate on our own game. We would never be scared of anyone. Unless you have that mentality you shouldn’t be in the game.”
Mr Cunningham worked with most of the squad at under-21 level, and when he moved up he promoted most of the players. The reason? He saw a huge work ethic there.
“The harder, the more often and the tougher the conditions were, the more they liked it,” he revealed. “More than anything they love learning. They really want to get better and better and better.
“If you point out this is a skill Eoin Larkin brings to the game and how he deals with a situation, they want to do it and get better than him. That mentality is excellent from our point of view.
“You can’t put certain qualities into players. The commitment has to be there. Honesty has to be there. They all want to get better. They love trying to be the best, being better than their opponents.
Pace of change
“That is what you love to see. It is okay having raw material in terms of talent, but if a player has the raw material and he can’t deliver on it and thinks he more or less knows it all he won’t survive.”
The intensity, pace of the current game left no room for less than 100% effort all the time.
The pace of change over the last 10 years was amazing, Mr Cunningham said. The contributing factors have been many - fitness levels, coaches, referees, pitches, diet, facilities.
“The skill level and ability to score, to defend, to tackle and the control the players have of the ball now is phenomenal,” he continued. “I don’t know if we will see the rate of improvement in the next five years that we have seen in the last five or 10 years.”
Still, he insisted, hurling was a simple game. He didn’t want to see it become complicated. Basically teams have to score and then out-score the opposition.
“You need tremendous honest as a player,” Mr Cunningham insisted. “You can’t be lazy. Your work-rate now has to be extremely high. That is what we look for. That is what we encourage. That is what we are always pushing.”
Honesty is a core value?
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “If a player doesn’t want to work hard, to retrieve, to defend when he hasn’t got the ball, that is lack of honesty. He will be found out by the top players on the opposing teams.”
There was no room for an easy approach now, even during the winter break. A gym session, even during lunch hour, was common among the Galway squad.
“We find the players want to improve in every aspect,” he elaborated. “There wouldn’t have been a session when we would have had to say come on lads, let’s have a better effort here.
“They are so keen to learn and develop and emulate the standard that is before them they drive on and on. If you don’t do that you will be found out, and you won’t get to the top.”
He didn’t see Galway’s lack of experience in the big time, in a senior final, as necessarily a burden. Youngsters can sometimes have no fears, it was suggested.
“That is true. As the years go on the older you get, sometimes the more nervous you get. You can see the dangers. When you are young you are flamboyant, you throw caution to the win and you can play hurling at ease.
We would hope we would have a bit of that in reserve for Sunday.”
And so to the Leinster final and the stunning win over Kilkenny, what was the story there?
Galway got the breaks early on and opened out a good gap, he offered. Kilkenny hit back and won the subsequent scoring exchanges. Galway would have to look at how they hit back, and what they did during that period.
On the day, Galway did their business well.
The Tribesmen subsequently answered another question about their character when they turned in another strong showing to defeat Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.
“We answered that,” was Cunningham’s response to the ‘two together’ issue. “Our defence played extremely well against Cork. We would have room for improvement in all aspects. That is a great way to go into an All-Ireland final.”
While he and fellow selectors Tom Helebert and Matty Kenney (coach) would examine Kilkenny’s style of play, their main concentration would be on their own team.
“We play our own style,” Mr Cunningham said. “We obviously look at the way the opposition set up and bits and pieces they do. In the main you bring your own game and you concentrate on your own performance.
“Kilkenny play the Kilkenny way. They play to their advantages. They are very physical. They are big and tall. They are good in the air, and they have skill to turn.
“Ever since I have seen Kilkenny play they are always hard, always fair. They always tackle hard. You knew you were in a game. It was always within the rules. They bring great ferocity and intent. They are hell bent on winning.
“They have a great attitude. They are driven, but they always play within the rules. They have everything we are looking for. You always want to emulate the best, which is Kilkenny, and to get what they have.
“There is no better example to be given than Kilkenny.”
So Galway are ready?
“We have a lot of talent and great experience in our games this year,” he smiled. “We are ready for it.”