Ten years ago Galway were the high kings of inter-county football.
Gary Fahey captained the side that beat Meath in the 2001 All-Ireland final with exceptionally fine footballers, such as Kevin Walsh, Padraic Joyce, Ja Fallon, Declan Meehan, Tomás Mannion, Seán Óg De Paor, Paul Clancy, Derek Savage and Kieran Fitzgerald leading the charge.
It was the team’s second All-Ireland title, and third final appearance in four years. Pulling on the county jersey was an honour and a privilege. When they wore the maroon and white they believed they would be successful. They believed.
Ten years later and the county appears to be in freefall. Are we witnessing the ongoing and rapid fragmentation of Gaelic football in a once proud county?
Last season, under the jettisoned Joe Kernan, the county was defeated in the Connacht championship by Sligo, and another all-time low was reached when the side went out of the qualifiers in Pearse Stadium to Wexford. It was a performance and defeat that left supporters and players demoralised and dejected. A lot of soul searching went on after that result.
In the past few days, two of the county’s established players, Kieran Fitzgerald and Niall Coleman, have decided to walk away from inter-county football, citing injury and work commitments respectively.
Both are totally legitimate reasons to leave the county gear bag down. Fitzgerald, one of the appointed team captains for 2011, has been hampered by injury in recent times. He has suffered regularly from hamstring trouble and the side affects of constantly taking anti-inflammatory drugs are not good for the body.
Coleman’s work priority is also completely understandable and, with the country in the state it is, nobody could criticise someone for putting his livelihood first. That he is based in Dublin only adds credence to his decision.
Their joint departure may be no more than coincidental, but it is reasonable to say the mood in the training camp could be better.
The two lads join the recently retired Declan Meehan, and the view by many aficionados in the county is that neither Damien Burke nor Nicky Joyce will be rejoining the panel for the coming season.
Continuous defeat and lack of tangible progress affects morale. Departures affect morale and performance, leading to more defeats. Where does the cycle end?
Fitzgerald represents a perfect case study of how the county and its footballing fortunes have crumbled in the past decade. In his debut season on the starting team he collected an All Star and an All-Ireland medal. Since then he has not had one victory in the maroon jersey in Croke Park.
Who now is willing to put up their hands and ask the hard questions?
What is Galway’s underage structure producing? What is going on in the key feeder schools? Why has the county not won a Connacht minor title since 2007? What development plan, if any, was put in place for the All-Ireland winning minor team from 2007? Is the policy of continually opting for high profile outside managers the correct one?
Four of Galway’s last five county managers have been from outside the county. Why is there no succession planning for young Galway managers to come from the minor or u-21 ranks? Surely to God there have to be some young and ambitious Galway men who can be groomed to take over in the future.
Let’s be realistic and fair minded here. An outside manager has only one real interest, and that is to get the best out of the senior team during his reign.Why should he be worried about what is happening at club level, Sigerson level or schools level?
They have been headhunted, interviewed and given a mandate by the county board to do what is necessary for senior success. It is not their fault, but in the long term is it only a short-sighted strategy. Do they do it in Kerry or Cork football, Tipperary or Kilkenny hurling?
Surely it is fair, reasonable and legitimate to ask how our county has gone from one of the top senior sides in the country 120 months ago to being outside the top dozen nationally now, and perhaps not even in the top three in Connacht.
Running off and grabbing a high profile outside county manager is a quick fix.
I get absolutely no satisfaction from writing this, but the problems facing Galway football run far deeper than that type of short-term resolution. Unless they are addressed with fresh eyes and proactive approaches quickly, who knows where the county will find itself in another 10 years?