Yesterday evening’s draw for the 2011 provincial championships (I’ve never been able to figure out why they need to tell us in October who we’ll be playing against next June but there you go) has provided some clarity on the challenge facing James Horan and his management team as they start to plan on how to turn the county team back into a fighting force next summer. As it also has, of course, for Tomás Ó Flaharta as he settles into his new role as Galway’s fourth external manager in just eight years.
There’s little point now in wondering about whether or not the draw is a good one for us – it’s the only one we’ll be getting in 2011 so we have to deal with that fact. Once the London trip is out of the way – I think I’ll manage to make it over the water to my old stomping ground for that one and I don’t expect any catastrophic slip-ups by our lads over there – we’re probably looking at a mid-June date for the clash with the Tribesmen at McHale Park, which will make it the first big home match we’ll have at the venue since the new stand went in. Better late than never, I suppose.
It’ll obviously be a real high stakes encounter for both James Horan and Tomás Ó Flaharta. Whoever wins in Castlebar gains a clear road to the All-Ireland quarter-final – regardless of their newly exalted status within the province, I’d fancy either of them to take Sligo or Roscommon in the Connacht final – and the opportunity to show their mettle on the big stage. Reaching the All-Ireland series and putting up a decent show once there has got to be the Year One target for both men so it follows that they’ll be gunning for each other in McHale Park.
Obviously, beating Galway and then going on to reclaim the Connacht title is (as it always is) the most straightforward route for us to make it to the All-Ireland series next August. But while we should be going full tilt at the Tribesmen, we have to recognise that the other route to the All-Ireland series exists too. Our approach towards the qualifiers has, as we all know, been worse than pitiful to date (aside from their 2001 run to glory, Galway’s relationship with the qualifiers has arguably been even worse as they tend to go to pieces completely when they lose in Connacht) but, under the new regime, we simply have to develop a stronger mental core, one that allows us to take defeat in Connacht on the chin and enables us to make the most of the second chance that the qualifiers gives us.
Should we come up short against Galway (which is always a strong possibility), as a beaten provincial semi-finalist we’d enter the qualifiers at the second round and so would need to clear three hurdles to make it to August next year. That’s what Cork, Down and Dublin did this year to make the All-Ireland series (Kildare had to make it through four qualifier rounds to reach the last eight) so if we want to start punching our weight in the championship again, we have to be able to view this route with a bit of equanimity. We’d all love to see James Horan’s reign get off to a flyer with victory over Galway but getting to the All-Ireland series – however this happens and whatever happens to us on the way – has to be the target we keep our eye on for 2011.