WHEN THE SUN sets in the west this evening, Galway might find themselves looking back not just on the end of another day but on the end of their time in Division 1A of the National Hurling League.
The last few weeks have been a steep learning curve for Anthony Cunningham and the county’s crop of young hurling talent. The old sporting cliche that you win nothing with kids is a lot harder to pooh-pooh when your underage ranks are brimming with talent, offering new and exciting alternatives to a senior side that has looked flat and stale all too often in recent years.
These young guns — Niall Donoghue, Ger O’Halloran, Niall Burke and Barry Daly to name but a few — were the boys who looked so assured in winning an U21 All-Ireland last year. Could they now be the men to revive Galway’s flagging fortunes?
Cunningham obviously feels so, judging by the amount of new faces he has integrated this season from the first Walsh Cup fixture, but the results haven’t quite gone their way. Two wins from five, culminating in the 3-26 to 0-10 mauling against Kilkenny a fortnight ago, have left them teetering on the edge of relegation.
Their fate will be decided against Dublin in Tullamore this afternoon, a team they have already beaten convincingly once this season but who they will need to shrug off for a second time to preserve their top-flight place.
“I try not to think about getting relegated,” the injured Joe Canning, now one of the squad’s old hands at 23, tells TheScore.ie. “You have to be positive going into the match.
Obviously it’s the same for Dublin. They are defending league champions for another couple of weeks. It would be worse for them to go down than us. It’s going to be tough, they’re very physical and they’re a skilful team. With the few guys they have coming back in (from injury) for the weekend, it’s going to make our life a lot harder.
Earlier this week, former manager Conor Hayes took a slice off the current inter-county set-up, blasting Cunningham for trying to do too much too soon with his young talent.
Canning is quick to admit that as a team, Galway still have a lot to learn, but it’s folly to expect overnight miracles. There are still plenty of positives to take out of the league campaign so far.
“We’re still learning, we’ve a very young panel. I don’t think people realise how young a panel we have. We’ve 20 or 22 guys who were U21 last year and 18 or 19 of them are still U21 this year. For senior level, that’s huge inexperience and that’s a thing that we’ll just have to work on.
“We’re working hard, but we’re up and down. We were only a puck of a ball away from getting to a league semi-final. We could’ve won the Tipperary game, we could’ve won the Waterford game, and then obviously the disaster against Kilkenny was one of those days they give to nearly every team once in a while.
We won’t be too down on ourselves about that, stuff like that happens and we’ll just have to work hard and get back.
The shoulder injury which ruled Canning out of the entire league campaign was clearly frustrating, but just by being around and watching on from the sidelines, the young All-Star can appreciate that his role within the inter-county set up has evolved.
He’s no longer the kid but that shouldn’t shift a disproportionate amount of responsibility onto his shoulders come Championship time, he says. For the successful in senior hurling, there are no free rides.
“It’s the same for the guys who are 18 or 19 on the panel, they have to take responsibility. It’s not about looking up to the older guys. If you want to be successful everybody has to row in behind each other.
“That’s what success is all about. It’s not just about looking to the older, more established guys. We’d be just looking for them to give as good as they can give on the day.”
Hayes aside, there’ll be no shortage of critics lining up to take aim at Cunningham, Canning and the rest of the squad should Galway go down without as much as a whimper in Tullamore this afternoon.
The man from Portumna is staying on message though, regardless of the barbs that may lie ahead: give it time.
We have a very young panel and we are trying to improve and learn the whole time. I think people have to be a small bit patient with us for a while. We all have to get to know each other fairly quick. It’s a challenge but we are looking forward to it.