How did Galway shed the ‘gutless’ tag to become hurling’s top dogs?

IT’S HARD TO believe now, but there was a time in the not too distant past when the Galway hurlers were seen as a soft touch. Mentally weak.

David Burke after Galway’s one-point All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tipperary in 2016

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

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They outplayed Kilkenny in the opening half of the 2015 All-Ireland final, leading by three at the interval. But Galway’s challenge was toothless in the second period and Anthony Cunningham’s team were outscored by 0-14 to 1-4 as Kilkenny romped to the title.

10 months later, the counties locked horns once again in the Leinster final. Micheal Donoghue was now in charge of the Tribe but the end result was the same.

Once again, Galway threw down the gauntlet for 45 minutes or so before wilting. After a half hour, they were four in front. Two late Kilkenny scores had the gap down to 0-12 to 0-10 by half-time, despite the Cats being outplayed for the majority of the first 35 minutes.

Brian Cody sprang Richie Hogan and he hit five points from play in a virtuoso second-half performance. Kilkenny outscored Galway by 0-9 to 0-3 in the final 20 minutes to take the provincial title.

This time, the reaction to Galway’s meltdown was more visceral. They’d put a target on their backs after the messy players revolt that ousted Cunningham over the winter. They had their man in charge but the end result was the same. Pundits in the media began to wonder: ‘Maybe it’s the players who are at fault?’

Joe Canning after their Leinster final loss to Kilkenny in 2016

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ger Loughnane’s column in the Daily Star the following day ran with the headline: “Gutless Tribe going nowhere, defeat proves Galway are made of nothing.” He didn’t pull any punches in the article itself.

“After the stance they took against Anthony Cunningham, this was the day when Galway had to stand up and be counted,” Loughnane wrote.

“Otherwise, they’d rightly be regarded as a laughing stock. This defeat showed they are made of absolutely nothing. You can forget about this Galway team — they have no guts whatsover!

“Galway are always looking for a crutch. There’s always someone or something to blame. The manager, the trainer, the physio, the length of the grass on the training pitch, the weather…

“After pushing Cunningham out the door, the crutch was kicked away from the Galway players. They had to stand up for themselves. No-one would listen if they played the blame game again.

“If people only knew the inside story of how the coup against Cunningham was organised…it was a farce from beginning to end. The day came when the Galway mutineers had to stand up. What happened? The usual Galway story. They collapsed.

” Yesterday, they were getting by because Kilkenny were casual early on. But once Kilkenny got serious, there was no sign of character from Galway.

“Every single Galway player dropped his head when the pressure came on. There wasn’t a sign of a leader when the game was a game.”

And Loughnane went on to make the infamous “Fr Trendy” jibe at Donoghue, declaring that his timid body language on the sideline was no match for the fearsome Brian Cody.

Donoghue was playing catch-up from the off after only appointed a few days before Christmas in 2016.

Micheal Donoghue before his first league game in charge of Galway against Dublin

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

His late appointment seven months earlier mean their pre-season had been curtailed. In a team meeting following that Leinster final, Galway’s stats men showed how it was fatigue and a drop in the tackle count in those final 20 minutes that contributed to their demise, rather than a mental frailty.

At about 3.25pm in Croke Park today, 12 of the 15 starters from that provincial final will be marching behind the Artane Boys Band. A further two are likely to be brought off the bench with injured keeper Colm Callanan the only starter from two years ago who won’t see any game time.

But Galway have almost reinvented themselves and their manhood can no longer be questioned. After ending a 29-year wait without the Liam MacCarthy last September, their eight-game march towards another final this season has been even more impressive.

Galway stared down Cody and the Cats three times this summer, beating them twice and drawing once. Of their last five championship games, just one has been decided by more than a point. Both Kilkenny and Clare brought them to replays and yet Galway have gone to the well each time and managed to come out unscathed.

“It’s absolutely massive for confidence,” former Tribe centre-back Tony Og Regan tells The42.

“You could be winning matches by 10 or 11 points in championship and you don’t get the same sort of momentum and confidence off it. Winning them one-point games, you just absolutely know you’ve been tested every single way physically and mentally to get over the line.

“That’s a huge resource of resilience to tap into at any point in a game when you’re maybe struggling by a couple of points down or going into the last five minutes when every decision and every ball is a pressure moment.

Tony Og Regan in action for Galway in 2012

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Having that to go back to in your mind and memory bank is an absolutely real positive for Galway and something they can really tap into against Limerick when the tough moments come in games that are always there.”

Donoghue deserves enormous credit for creating an environment that allowed his players to thrive.

Before Jim Gavin took charge of Dublin in 2013, he met with performance consultant Fergus Connolly. Connolly later revealed that Gavin’s plan was not to just win one All-Ireland, but to put the foundations in place to achieve multiple titles.

“The goal is not success, it’s not to win one All-Ireland,” Connolly told Off The Ball AM. “The goal is to have sustainable success to win All-Irelands. That is the goal. It should always be the goal to win more than one, not just one.

“To absolutely dominate. There’s no other way to win. It’s a mindset.”

Donoghue had a similar aim when he was appointed Galway boss. “It was one of the big rocks for us when we took the job that we wanted to be competing at the highest level as much as we could,” he said last week at Galway’s media day. “That’s the goal.”

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There are plenty of similarities between Donoghue and Gavin, not least the player-driven environments they’ve created. It’s no coincidence both sides are reigning All-Ireland champions and find themselves one game away from retain their crowns.

“It’s crucial to it because if you don’t have the drive from the players, you’re not going to get the response,” says ex-Galway captain David Collins.

“Your manager can drive you so much but if you haven’t got that player power to drive the lads over the line and be competitive. The subs we’ve had over the last few years and the A v B games have been phenomenal. It’s competition for places all the time that’s really pushing teams.

“If it’s not there, are you going to reply on the manager to drive it? You can only do so much. The manager is key to it all in setting up that culture and that belief and letting the players lead it but control it also. It’s huge. The Dublin boys are massive on it.”

Regan concurs with his former team-mate.

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“From the soundbites you’d be reading, it’s definitely a player-driven environment and players seem to be taking ownership of performance and leadership on the field and making decisions on the field in the moment,” he says.

Jason Flynn celebrates the win over Clare at the final whistle

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I think most teams are becoming more player-centric the last number of years. You can see it in the Dublin footballers to an extent that they’re so flexible and versatile in a game. Galway are definitely moving towards that model more and more at the moment.”

There’s a chapter in James Kerr’s great book on the All Blacks, ‘Legacy’, that’s focused on creating leaders on the field. Kerry delved deep into the New Zealand Rugby team to explore their secrets of sustained success.

How do you maintain exceptional standards, day after day, week after week, year after year? How do you develop ownership, leadership and accountability in your team?

World Cup winning head coach Graham Henry told Kerr: “The management always felt that they had to transfer leadership from senior management members to the players…they play the game and they have to do the leading on the field.”

A working week under Henry would begin with a Sunday evening review meeting facilitated by the coaches, with input from the on-field leaders. Over the course of the week, the responsibility and decision-making would gradually be handed over to the players.

By Thursday, the intensity levels and other aspects were ‘owned’ by the players. By the time game day arrived on Saturday, the inmates were running the prison.

“The players had a big part in setting the standards, the life standards, the behaviours that are acceptable,” former assistant coach Wayne Smith added.

In the Galway set-up, Regan feels the players are trusted to make key decisions during games. There is no looking towards the sideline for instructions.

“These lads are very much intrinsically motivated in their sport and are very high achievers in their sport,” he explains.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They’re all looking for better tactical information and better mental information. Between the white lines they are the key decision makers so it’s important that you’re empowering players and making sure you’re giving them the right tools to do that when the pressure comes in big games

“The moment has passed that the players are relying on that sort of feedback. How to adjust in-game to what’s happening, you’ve got to create that environment in training where you’re constantly putting them under stress in them situations and making sure it simulates as close to match conditions as possible.

“Training that decision making and flexibility in the moment to adapt to what’s in front of them and play what’s in front of their face.”

Another important aspect of Donoghue’s management is the humility he’s established within the group. It means they never get too high after a big victory and allows them to hit a similar level of performance every time they cross the white lines.

“It’s a small and tricky predicament after winning championship matches that you obviously harness the confidence you’ve got from that performance and the win, but there’s also a borderline where lads might get a small bit complacent.

“At elite level sport, if you’re off 1% or 2% because you’re a small bit complacent about where you are as a player at the moment or where the team is at, then physically and mentally you’ll be just blown out of the water. It’s very important lads are humble after victories and they get back down to work in training and around their diet and preparation going into the game.

Jonathan Glynn celebrates scoring his sides opening goal against Kilkenny in the Leinster final replay

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That they’ve everything spot on because it is really, really tested in that environment in every moment you’re on the pitch. If you pull back from your preparation leading into these big games and you’re a small bit complacent over a couple of things, then you’ll get blown out of the water as I said.”

Regan has been impressed too with Limerick’s progress this season and can see performance coach Caroline Currid’s fingerprints all over their set-up. The Shannonsiders beat hurling’s ‘Big Three’ Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary, while they’ve also demolished last year’s finalists Waterford.

“I think there’s a process Limerick seem to have followed all year around the team and the importance of the team ethic,” Regan says.

“I think they’re very much a process and task focused team who are focused on performances and the key things within their performances that are going to make them successful.

“They’re not carrying any baggage from the last 20 or 30 years, it’s nothing to do with them. They’re not worried about future outcomes of winning All-Ireland finals or what their legacy is going to be.

“They’re really focused in on their preparation for games and the process within that and what their performance KPIs (key performance indicators) are per game. I just see a team that’s very well grounded and very hard working in what they’re doing.”

Michael Donoghue celebrates after the semi-final replay

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Limerick are a mature side despite their age profile with arguably the strongest bench in the country. Na Piarsaigh star Shane Dowling will be held in reserve today despite scoring 1-4 in the semi-final and with Pat Ryan and Peter Casey sitting alongside him on the bench, Limerick’s replacements pack a serious punch.

“It’s a huge part of management at the moment. The 17, 18, 19 lads that aren’t getting a starting jersey, that they’re adding to the environment and adding a positive energy to it and not being a drain and draining people’s energy through negativity or complaining that theey’re not starting.

“I think that’s the skill of the man management of John Kiely that he’s able to keep everyone on the one page that they’re playing for a cause that is Limerick rather than themselves. Players in the modern era have to realise it is really about the team ethic and the team effort that’s going to win matches.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“The effort lads are putting in on the Tuesday and Thursday builds into performance on the Sunday. If you can get 35 or 36 lads buying into that team ethic and ethos it really does have powerful effects.”

For Regan, Donoghue’s tactical nous on the sideline might be enough to see them retain the All-Ireland for the first time in 30 years.

“Galway’s record over the last number of years since Micheal has come in has been really, really strong. Their management team have been really good at identifying weaknesses in the opposition team and going after them.

“They’ve exploited a number of teams over the last two or three years around that. I’d expect Galway to have their homework done on Limerick and get at them fairly early and try exploit the couple of areas that maybe Limerick are weak.”

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