Galway’s tough six game trek to Croke Park was ideal for a squad in transition, and it helped the team develop nicely.
“We are definitely in a good place,” admitted Galway manager, Anthony Cunningham, when reviewing the road to Croker before Sunday’s big showdown with All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny.
The Tribesmen played a draw and replay against Dublin at the start of the campaign. Then they beat Laois before losing to Kilkenny in a high class Leinster final.
The Tribesmen didn’t flinch. They bounced back stronger than ever and a good win in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork was followed by an even better, nerve testing victory over hugely fancied Tipperary in the semi-final.
“It has been a season of good improvement for us,” insisted the boss. “The players who needed extra exposure in big games got it. We want to bring our A game to Croke Park now.
“I can’t ask any more from the players others than they improve each day they go out. We have done that in the championship. There are 32 players on the panel.
“There is huge pressure first to get on the 26 for the day, and then the first XV. Giving everything up to now is not enough. We have to be right for the final. The longing is there to be as good as we possibly can be.”
The Galway players and team have grown. Cathal Mannion, Daithi Burke and Jason Flynn flourished in what is their second season. Padraig Mannion and John Hanbury have been doing nicely in their first season, while the others have risen to every challenge put before them.
“It is all down to 70 minutes now,” insisted Cunningham, who was at the helm in 2012 when the Connacht side lost to the Cats in a replayed final. “For us it is all about the work preparing the team. Two nights after the All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary, for all the excitement and so on, we were back working towards the final.
“We have to get the players into a place mentally that they work to improve - I keep using that word - but you have to work. This game, no matter whoever has played it, at junior, friendly or inter-county level, it bites you if you are not on your toes. You must always be working to improve.”
When asked was the breathtaking semi-final win over Tipp the best of his best of his reign, he demurred. Nothing could be measured in personal terms.
“During the championship we have been improving,” he repeated. “I said it after the Leinster final that we were disappointed, but I knew we had a strong basis there to go on and make a serious run in the All-Ireland championship.
“It is of no benefit whatsoever what you thought about the semi-final win if you don’t go on and win the final. The players are buzzing. We are really in a good place, but you need to be in a good place facing Kilkenny.”
Mr Cunningham said it was “a privilege and honour to work with these guys”, because the level the top class inter-county players were at now was incredible.
“The standards were set, and I am not just saying it because I am speaking to somone from Kilkenny, by Kilkenny over the last, almost 20 years, definitely 10 years,” he insisted. “The way lads prepare, the work they do outside training time is tremendous. They are driven to be winners at All-Ireland level, to be remembered as a winner.
“You can’t survive in the game unless you give yourself to the game,” he added.
Galway haven’t won the final since 1988. They suffered five defeats in finals since. Understandably then, and bearing in mind the brilliance of their semi-final showing, the excitement in the county was unreal.
How did he keep the pressusre off the players?
“The hype is for others,” Cunningham said. “We try and get into a regular environment; get into the gym, to the ball wall or whatever. The players get back to doing the things they do throughout the year. They a regular routine. They can’t get sucked into the hype of the final.”
Galway have been aiming at Croke Park since they started training on November 7. They took off a couple of weeks over Christmas. After that everything was aimed towards Sunday’s 70 minutes.
“The number of times they guys get to go out socially is two or three times or so a year,” he revealed. “It is incredibly small. When they are not in with us they are working or playing with their clubs.
“The weekend after the Leinster final there was a full round of club games. Then they were in with us for two weeks preparing for the next game.
“The demands are extremely high. I don’t know how much higher it can go, really. I don’t ever think it will ever go fully professional because the infra-structure is not there; the country is too small.”
However, he was very concerned about players getting enough recovery time after tough matches. Players have to be given more space to recover, he insisted.
He was of the opinion that Galway suffered in the championship last year after losing against Kilkenny, following a replay. They simply hadn’t enough time to recover after two physically and mentally demanding matches.
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