Hurling legend Conor Hayes, the last Galway man to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup gives his views on Sunday's big game
“To be perfectly honest with you, I think this year could very well be our year,” said Galway hurling legend Conor Hayes when I caught up with him last weekend, to discuss the upcoming All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final between Galway and Tipperary.
The three-times All-Ireland senior hurling medal winner and indeed the last Galway man to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup (in both 1987 and 1988) feels that Galway have learned sufficiently over the last couple of years with some hard-to-take defeats and that they have matured enough this time around to finally bring the All-Ireland title back across the Shannon after a 29 year gap.
“I do feel Galway are a much more settled side now than they have been, and the key to this is balance. They are now a well balanced, more mature side and they are hurling much more freer than they were in the last two years in particular. I think this is our turn to win it having been very close against Kilkenny and Tipp in the past couple of years,” said the Kiltormer clubman.
“I genuinely thought we had the winning of the All-Ireland last year but we got caught at the end of a great semi-final with Tipperary, but I think we have come on again since that game and took some hard lessons on board. After losing two years ago in the final to Kilkenny and again last year to Tipp, we now need to come good. And I think we have learned from those setbacks and are a more mature, better balanced unit all over the field and good enough now for what is needed to win an All-Ireland.”
“What’s different too now is that we are not overly dependent on Joe Canning anymore. As good as Joe can be, the best teams were able to target him and play a man on him and a man close by in a half-sweeper role to deny him possession and keep his input to a minimum. Galway suffered in that situation but we have a wider selection of good forwards now and Joe is employed in a freer role around the half-forward line,” added Hayes, who over a glittering career played in six All-Ireland finals, winning three and losing three.
“There has been absolutely nothing between Galway and Tipp, a point in both of the last semi-finals. We got over the line with Shane Moloney’s late winner two years ago and Tipp caught us late last year. There’s absolutely nothing separating these sides.”
“Both sides have an excellent set of forwards, four or five marquee players on each team that can produce match-winning scores. At the moment they are the best forwards in the country, without doubt.
“As I said, the same emphasis and pressure is not on Canning any longer but his role is still pivotal. I always thought his best position was in at full-forward but he is better employed now in the role he has at centre-forward; it suits him best. He is winning possession, he has other forwards running off his shoulder and scoring, and Joe’s distribution is top class. He has much more freedom now to roam in and out and can score out on the wings also. His play is augmented by Conor Cooney, Joseph Cooney, Cathal Mannion (if he is available) and young Whelan. I am impressed by Whelan this year, he can stop his marker from hurling and is well able to pop a score too,” added Hayes.
“But Tipp also have excellent forwards and Seamus Callanan has been one of the best in the country over the past few years. Callanan has all that is needed of a top forward, he is tall and strong and fit. He is a forward with all the attributes and is so difficult to mark. Callanan is not just a big bustling full-forward, he can move and take a score from anywhere.
“But again, Tipperary are far from a one-man show. The same ability to score is there with ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, John McGrath, Noel McGrath. All these fellows need is half a chance and they will punish you,” added the former full-back who won three All-Stars in a row from 1986 to 1988.
“The match-up of Daithi Burke and Seamus Callanan will have a hugely significant bearing in determining the result of this semi-final,” Hayes pointed out.
“Daithi Burke is a real good defender, physically strong but also has the speed and cuteness that’s needed in that position in today’s game. I think his football play helps him here. He can sometimes let his man make a move and then react well enough to cover, rather than over committing. Burke is really solid at full-back and commands that position very well,” high praise indeed from a former player who filled that exact role for his county all throughout the 1980s.
Hayes, who won his first All-Ireland medal in 1980 at the age of 22, on a Galway side winning their first title since 1923, went on to add..
“David Burke at midfield has been excellent over the past couple of seasons and again this year throughout the league and Leinster success and if he can maintain that form on Sunday it would be a massive lift for the whole team. All through the side we look stronger and even more settled than last year and we have also avoided the injuries which didn’t help us 12 months ago. Hopefully Cathal Mannion will be available too,” added Hayes.
“While the two forward divisions are both excellent, I think Galway might have an edge over Tipperary in the defence. I saw the Tipp v Clare game and I thought Tipp were shaky enough at times. There are definitely question marks there and issues that will have to be sorted if they want to win another All-Ireland. But, having said that, Galway at times too looked a little loose against Dublin, and especially when Dublin ran at them, they looked suspect.
“But I do think Galway are on a learning curve and you feel they are taking the lessons on board each game as they go along; they look far more settled and that in itself brings a belief and gives confidence to a side,” said Hayes, who also managed the Galway hurlers over a four year period from 2002 to 2006.
“Having said all that, Galway will know that they will have to be at their very best against Tipperary.
“Do we know for certain how good Tipp really are this year? They certainly haven’t produced their best form yet in 2017. They lost their first game in Munster against Cork but have been slowly coming good again since and that too is a nice place for any team to be coming from.
“If Tipp can steady the back line and hold their own with the Galway forwards you couldn’t write them off. But on the balance of it, and going on the principle that Kilkenny and Tipp have had their turns in recent years, this should be our turn. I certainly hope it is.
“We have the backs who work well as a unit and we have an excellent set of forwards. Earlier in the year perhaps I couldn’t figure out what way we were playing and some of it didn’t make sense to me but they have gelled well and did superbly in the league against Waterford and in the league final when beating Tipp well,” said Hayes.
“Galway will have to handle the tag of favouritism also. Look, we had it ourselves back in 1986 when we were raging hot favourites to beat Cork in an All-Ireland final and lost it in the second half. You can’t go out on the field thinking of things like that. You have to just get on with it, handle the pressure, keep your nerve and hurl as best you can.
“That team came back from two defeats in 1985 and 1986 to win back-to-back All-Irelands in ’87 and ’88 and could have won again in 1989. And this present team will have to do the same. It is a learning process, hopefully. Being favourites in any game is not going to put two points on the board for you. Winning All-Ireland titles is not easy and you have to earn it the hard way. While I know this isn’t a final on Sunday, I am hopeful we can get over Tipp and go on again to be All-Ireland champions,” he said.
Finally, I asked Conor for his thoughts on how the other semi-final might go on Sunday week.
“Cork and Waterford, oh God? If I had to pick one, I think Cork. They are going well at present, they look the livelier and haven’t put a foot wrong in the championship. They too will feel that this could be their year,” concluded Conor Hayes.