I met Andy Smith at the Croke Park-orchestrated, Dicksboro-hosted launch of the Championship some weeks ago.
The lad was a much different product than the one I was accustomed to watching charging up and down, under and over opponents with his beloved maroon and white geansaÍ.
Quiet and unassuming, accommodating and articulate, this son of Portumna was the essence of good manners. Looking at him before uttering a word, I mused for a moment as to what changes all of that when he crosses the whitewashed line - as a man once remarked, systems were for space ships, pressure was for tyres and good manners were for high tea with the Archbishop!
‘When last we spoke, I remember that only Cillian Buckley mentioned Galway as his idea of an All-Ireland finalist’, I said to Smith. ‘You all excluded your own county. Did that surprise you at the time?’
“Not really,” the Galway captain said. “I remember that distinctly. I thought that Noelie Connors (Waterford) and myself might as well have gone home, such was the media frenzy about what they called the preferred All-Ireland of Kilkenny and Tipp. It very nearly was.
“When Noel Mc Grath came on, and slipped over that point, I thought our goose was cooked. But then our lads showed great character, and Jayo (Jason Flynn) stepped up to get that point,
“I knew then that we were not going to be beaten. There was a small bit of time left, and then Davy (Burke) picked up that breaking ball, and let it out to Joe, and Joe laid it on for Shane Moloney - it was like the Red Sea they way the whole thing opened - and the young lad popped it over the bar.
“It was tremendous feeling that we were on our way to an All-Ireland and that most of the pundits had been wrong.”
I put it to the Portumna man that there is a different character base to this Galway team, citing the response to the Seamie Callanan goals.
Learned from Kilkenny
“You are right - I feel that we have learned that from Kilkenny,” he said. “Kilkenny don’t hang around moping, and confused even when they concede a major score. They get in a response as quickly as they can manage it.
“I remember in 2012, whenever we got a goal, straight away they slapped a couple of points over and the value of our efforts was wiped out in a few seconds. I’m talking about the psychological value more so than the score advantages.”
I’m talking to a thinking hurler I mused.
And what about this upcoming All-Ireland?
“Who knows what is going to happen,” he said in advance of the latest Croker clash. “I do know that this is going to be one hell of a battle. This is going to be dog eat dog encounter from start to finish.
“We are well aware, and the whole country knows that Kilkenny are a superb outfit, and have been for a very long time,” he added. “We are well aware of what is coming down the track. Players have been working very hard since the turn of the year - even earlier for some of us.
“Kilkenny will present a massive challenge to Galway on Sunday - that is a certainty. They have been the best team in the land by a distance. We have tremendous respect for them, but we have no fear of them. They will not be allowed to use more than 15 at any given time, but we know that we have to be at the pinnacle of our abilities to take them. If our best is not good enough, there is very little we can do.
“The same applies to Kilkenny,” he continued. “They know they will have to be in the form of their lives to beat us. It is an intriguing event that nobody can second guess.”
As far as Smith is concerned, Galway’s preparation for the final could not have been better
“We will be playing our seventh game of the season against Kilkenny,” he said. Time was that Galway teams would have only had a semi-final to play before an All-Ireland final. That has changed, and has benefitted Galway big time.
“We had trouble against Laois, then we had Cork and the semi against Tipp. That was a very valuable agenda for us. We know where we are.
“Kilkenny of course are raging favourites, and that is understandable, but that doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “Sure, against Tipperary we were freely available with the bookies at 9/4, which was an amazing price for a two-horse race. But all of that stuff goes out the window when James Owens blows that whistle.”
When it comes to the final, Smith knows that mental attitude will be vital.
“Undoubtedly,” he affirmed. “Physically, both sides will be in tip top shape, but the top six inches will be vital. That mental attitude is so important. The lad that said that the toughest playing arena is only six inches wide said a ton,” he noted.
The players have kept that focus throughout - not easy when surrounded by final hype.
“ Our supporters have been getting into it with flags and stuff, but Anthony has focussed on keeping us fairly grounded and concentrated,” he said.
“It is a great time for supporters from both sides, but our concentration is absolute on the job in hand, and that is on Sunday in Croke Park.
“If we win, we will enjoy it,” he finished. “If Kilkenny do so, we will shake their hand, congratulate them and get back on the bus.”