As we start out on the journey in the 2013 Championship, it worthwhile, I think, casting our collective minds back to last September. Aside from the match itself, what I remember most clearly from September 23rd, 2012, was the defiant attitude shown by James Horan, his players and supporters at the post-match banquet. Sure, we were all sick in the stomach at having had to endure yet another All-Ireland defeat but the mood that night was far from downbeat. And James did say, to a loud and earthy cheer, that it was only the beginning for his team.
And so, almost eight months on, we’re setting off again tomorrow at the start of another campaign, with another Game 1 to be won. It’s still fresh in our minds what it’s like to be involved all the way to September and that’s the scent we want in our nostrils again. Only this time without the sour taste of defeat at the end.
Any fool can tell us that our appearance in last year’s final is no guarantee that we’ll feature when it matters this year – our own forlorn 2007 campaign and Down’s failure in 2011 confirm this – which means that we have to go back and write the whole bloody book all over again. But that’s what has to be done if we’re ever to get our hands on Sam again.
Galway will always be a team we respect and tomorrow will be no different. Even more so because we’re facing them on their own ground, a venue where we haven’t had much cause for celebration down the years. Our paths have diverged a fair bit since we last locked horns with them in Salthill but Alan Mulholland is a good manager and his blend of older heads combined with several of the 2011 U21 All-Ireland team should have every confidence of putting it up to us. As someone remarked a few days ago (I can’t recall who it was now), worse teams than this Galway one got the better of their Mayo equivalents down the years. Maybe this one will too.
Our injury crisis certainly doesn’t help matters. We take the field tomorrow missing five players who, if they were 100% fit, would all be certain to start with a sixth, Chris Barrett, also very likely to have made the team.
Think about that for a minute: that’s 40% of our first team out of action tomorrow. If Donegal were to suffer that rate of attrition, Tyrone would have ten points at least to spare on them next weekend. Even Dublin, with their embarrassment of talent, might start to feel the pinch if they lost that many of their first fifteen. Fair play to James Horan, then, to paint this misfortune in a positive way, by pointing to the opportunities that have opened up for others to stake their claim on jerseys.
And, of course, as that awful saying goes, we are where we are. Tomorrow offers more established panel members like Kevin Keane, Alan Freeman, Enda Varley and, to a lesser extent, Seamus O’Shea the chance to show that they truly deserve a place on the first fifteen as well as giving new faces Cathal Carolan and Darren Coen the opportunity to make the step up to the championship team. All of them deserve our support, none of them need criticising here or anywhere else before the ball is thrown in at Pearse Stadium tomorrow.
It’s difficult to know what kind of game it’ll be tomorrow but I know what kind of contest I don’t want to see. Back in 2007, Galway took complete control around the middle from the start, hit us hard and often and scored two goals inside the first twenty minutes. That effectively did for us that day. Every team knows that early goals are still the way to unsettle us so we can, as James said in that piece linked above, expect Galway to come at us with everything they have right from the start. While I’d love to see us do likewise, it has to be more important for us instead to control the game’s tempo early on and then gradually seek to take control of the contest. So while we’re unlikely to win the match in the first twenty minutes, the more important thing is that we don’t lose it by then either.
Having not seen Galway play in the flesh since that horrible wet and cold day in McHale Park two summers ago, it’s difficult to know how well they’re fixed heading into tomorrow’s clash. Last year was meant to be a new start under Mulholland but after all the praise heaped on them following their sparkling destruction of Roscommon, their fall thereafter was rapid and far from pretty.
They’re better than that, surely, and by their own admission have been readying themselves for this challenge ever since the draw was made last October. But we’ve been girding ourselves for a test such as this even longer: that process surely began in the Regency the night of last year’s final and tomorrow provides us with our first opportunity to show the kind of business we mean in 2013.
I’m reasonably confident that we’ll have enough to get over this high, early hurdle tomorrow but only if we perform at the kind of level we displayed once we hit Croke Park last year. Anything less than that and the Tribesmen – stung, surely, by this long period in the doldrums – won’t need a written invitation to take advantage of any failings we display. I’d love to see us going to town on them but I can’t, in truth, envisage that happening. The important thing for us is to get the win and after a bit of a battle it’s a win I expect us to emerge with by the sea tomorrow.