Last weekend I went to a few matches in the Galway senior football championship. The only consistency in the games that I observed, was the absolute inconsistency in the referring between games, the softness of some of the frees being given, and the poor standard of club football in the county. Anyone who has been watching inter-county football over the past decade or more will surely be aware of how the Tribesmen have drastically slipped back down the football rankings. From top of the pile in 2001, to not having won a senior provincial title since 2008, or even more shockingly, a provincial minor title since 2007. Watching the dire standard of referring at club level in the county last weekend convinced me that poor quality referring is also a factor in Galway’s, or any other county's demise.
In the Corofin (managed by Mayo's Stephen Rochford ) and Mountbellew/Moylough (managed by former Galway star Val Daly ) - there were 48 frees. And there was not an ounce of genuine physicality, or a puff of a dust-up, in the entire match. In fact there was not a single really big shoulder or anything that could be considered really dirty play. Apart from one blatant hand-trip as a forward ripped in on goal, however, the referee must have left his black card at home on the kitchen table. Corofin are odds on favourites already to retain the Galway county title and they won in a canter, by 3-14 to 0-10, which begs the question, why was there a need to blow a free for almost every minute of the tie?
Some of the frees given in the games I watched would not normally be given in a game of rounders, not to mind a senior club championship game. In the Cortoon Shamrocks (Derek Savage's club ) and St James (Paul Conroy's club ) - some of the frees were totally unfathomable and left players on both sides extremely frustrated. The worst one in the entire game was when Savage, who was an All-Star in 2000, powered past a St James defender and was whistled up and subsequently booked, for what the referee appeared to consider a case of being overly aggressive and physical on the ball. It was neither.
I am not advocating overly tough play, however, when frees are being given out willy-nilly at club games and for any kind of physically strong play, it does not help the mindset of the county player, nor the county team as a unit either. Is it any wonder that the Galway county players are blown away - as Mayo did to them last year - when they get into a physical battle. They are too used to being mollycoddled and playing in a soft and largely un-competitive domestic championship, and then when they are put out into the big bad world of facing the likes of Donegal, Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone, Meath, Cork or Dublin (perish the thought ) - they are not even remotely able for the step up in class and physicality.
Train hard, play hard. That is a motto that many players wish to live by. However, the Galway club championship and league has become so lame that the county players never get a really tough championship style game until it is in inter-county action, and the adjustment is too much and they are not able for it. The Galway club championship has become far too dominated by Corofin and it is not good for club football in the county, or for the club itself. They have won 12 senior county titles in the last 23 years, four of the last six titles, and only Killererin and Salthill have really challenged them in the past decade. Another problem for Galway football is that the ambitions and collective ability of once famous Galway clubs such as Dunmore MacHales, Tuam Stars and Milltown have really fallen on fallow ground. Dunmore, home of the Donnellans and the Keenans, have not won a county title since 1983, and are currently in the Intermediate ranks. The Stars - home club of the likes of Ja Fallon and Seán Purcell (RIP ) - have not won the county senior title for 20 years, and Milltown - home club of Noel Tierney, Gay McManus, and Tomás Tierney are searching furtively for the promised land since 1981. When once top clubs like those are struggling so badly, emigration ripped the heart out of many teams, especially in Connemara, and referees are giving out frees like confetti at a wedding in championship games, how can a county team be expected to be going well?