Cunningham reaps rewards of Galway play-for-club policy
Galway manager Anthony Cunningham during a senior hurling team press night ahead of their side’s GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game against Cork, in Croke Park, on Sunday 12th August.
Strange things are happening in Galway hurling. A player is able to go to the Galway Races and not be asked the routine question ‘what happened ye?’ And the senior club championship is within sight of the finishing line.
There are many who strongly believe one is related to the other.
After years of treading carefully and not allowing the club championship to get to its business end until all the county teams had wrapped up for the year, Galway Hurling Board have ditched the caution and just let it happen.
Over the next month, all their county teams will be in action but at club level the show has gone on, a six-day rule instead of the obligatory 13 days allowing it to roll along.
It has the full endorsement of senior manager Anthony Cunningham who believes the policy, which exists in counties like Kilkenny and Cork, should be enforced countrywide by the GAA. Galway have already played five rounds of their senior championship.
“It’s a great way to ground players too because after the Kilkenny match they were back with their clubs the following weekend and it was knockout, so they’re down now to the quarter-finals. That’s something we endorsed,” said Cunningham.
“I think, across the board, I see that not happening in other counties, either in football or hurling. Some clubs don’t have a match until August. I think Croke Park should push that there is a championship round in every month from May right through because it’s all about clubs really.”
Easier said than done, with the way the inter-county calendar is scheduled, but the benefits are obvious in Galway.
“For us, there are probably younger fellas playing with clubs who we will be looking at for next year already that maybe didn’t make the Galway panel this year,” Cunningham said. “But the more summer hurling they get this year helps them for maybe a league campaign next March.”
Even the arm injury sustained by Cyril Donnellan (he is due to return to action tonight) in the most recent round of fixtures hasn’t diluted Cunningham’s position on that. His lack of hurling over the last three weeks isn’t as much of a concern as it may ordinarily have been.
“He has a lot of hurling done. He has done a lot of very good hurling with his club as well and has a lot of matches (under his belt). He’s an experienced campaigner. If you were to pick someone for it to happen to, you would pick the likes of Cyril Donnellan.”
The role of the development squad, primarily the intermediate team, is also cited as a springboard that has contributed to their bounce in this championship.
Run by Johnny Kelly, the former Portumna manager, it is a structure Cunningham believes they have to harness.
“We have a big number of U-21s in both panels and that has been good. Sometimes players would be with us who might not be going that well and we’d leave them back with the development squad,” said Cunningham.
“Tipperary have been very good at that and Limerick, too, in the last few years. Galway needed to tap into that structure. It’s good to see that now.”
Cunningham admits the Galway players and management have been “surprised” by the reaction at home to their Leinster title success last month.
“We’ve had a lot of goodwill over the last few weeks. Over the years there has been a lot of criticism. I don’t think it has been anyone’s fault in particular.
“There have been a few hard-luck stories as well and maybe back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of changing of managers. There’s no real reason for it,” he continued.
“We’re hoping that it will bring confidence to young players who are developing. Playing and winning matches is all about confidence.”
Cunningham ensured that the Bob O’Keeffe Cup has been put away under lock and key within a week of their victory over Kilkenny to maintain full focus on Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final.
“I don’t want to sound like we are above a Leinster title win, but that’s one competition and it’s over. Now it’s the All-Ireland series,” he said.
He makes no secret of the fact that delegation has been the cornerstone of his management of this Galway team and the shared responsibility that exists with Mattie Kenny and Tom Helebert, his fellow selectors.
“Mattie’s coaching abilities are second to none. Within the county, he has been coaching for many years and has a fantastic insight into the game, a great knowledge, and has put in huge work. The game plan that you see and a lot of the performances that you have seen are down to him.
“Tom has focused a lot on the mental side and the preparation. There have been some frailties in that in Galway over the years, but he has done outstanding work, particularly on mental and one-to-one preparations with players.
“They were two areas where we sat down at the start of the year and addressed. We didn’t have consistency. That area was taken by Tom but the coaching area was Mattie’s. We’re all involved in it on a nightly basis, we all have input into sessions.”
Up to the end of March, Cunningham managed Westmeath and Leinster club champions Garrycastle, taking them to an All-Ireland final replay, so he’s well placed to notice how hurling has become just as physically demanding as Gaelic football again.
“I’ve heard some of the media and commentators saying it’s because a lot of guys are wearing helmets. They plough away, they are not afraid of the tackles. I think it was always strong but I think the way fitness levels have gone in the last number of years, definitely hurling has caught up with football and has brought a lot of strength to it now.
“To be a hurler now you have to be very fast. There are both hits and speed and the laws of physics say that if you are going a lot faster and have a bit of strength, it’s better than a big fella going slow.”
– Colm Keys