It’s Race Week, and both the Galway senior football and hurling teams – as well as the minors in both codes – are still standing in their respective championships . . . success of sorts.
The Galway footballers will hope to prolong their summer into August and emulate the hurlers’ impressive quarter-final win over Cork in Thurles last Sunday, when they take on Donegal in round 4B of the All-Ireland Qualifiers at Croke Park on Saturday (6pm).
A quarter-final spot against Monaghan awaits Galway if they are successful – it would be a fourth championship meeting with a northern team this season. But if Sligo do the improbable and overcome Tyrone in the earlier match at Croke Park on Saturday, as well, then they would play Monaghan, and Galway would face Mayo for the second time in this campaign.
Like the horses round Ballybrit this week, Galway must face the hurdle in front of them before worrying about the next flight and in Donegal – the 2012 All-Ireland winners and last year’s runners-up – they face a formidable challenge.
Since the sides last met in championship, in 2009 in Sligo in round four of the Qualifiers, their fortunes have diverged considerably.
Donegal reinvented the game, with a blanket defensive system under Jim McGuinness that helped them enjoy unprecedented success, including three Ulster titles, and an All-Ireland in 2012.
Last year, Donegal did what most teams couldn’t – they beat Dublin at Croke Park in the championship, only to falter against Kerry in the final, having done the hard part in the semi-final.
While that defeat, and their loss in the Ulster final this season in which they kicked over a dozen wides, has wiped away some of the mystique that had built up around Donegal, they are still formidable opponents with realistic hopes of being contenders in September.
Since that 2009 one-point loss in Markievicz Park, Donegal evolved to win trophies and Galway got left behind a bit. The Tribesmen have won nothing; and went on a managerial merry-go-round (Liam Sammon was the fall-guy in 2009, Joe Kernan took the hit the following year and Tomás Ó Flatharta the year after) before some semblance of stability was restored under Alan Mulholland, a foundation that has been built on by the current management.
Based on league and recent championship form, Donegal are rightly favourites to advance but Kevin Walsh’s men are not without hope.
In Shane Walsh, who is returning from injury, and Damien Comer, Galway possess the natural talent to unfurl the Donegal blanket, and the entire team will have garnered untold confidence from beating two defensive Ulster outfits, Armagh and Derry, since losing to Mayo in the provincial championship.
In attack, Galway’s perceived strength, hasn’t exactly set the world alight . . . against Derry, Galway almost played the entire first half without a score from play and when it did come it was a defender, Gareth Bradshaw who landed it.
Gary Sice had a big bearing on the outcome of the Derry match and Danny Cummins was lively but there is obvious scope for improvement upfront.
The Galway backs have been ‘in the dock’ in the court of public opinion since the Mayo loss but in fairness they have answered all questions asked of them against Derry and Armagh, although Donegal will be more testing.
Galway’s defence appears to have tightened up since it was badly exposed by Aidan O’Shea, in particular, in the Connacht semi-final . . . but look at how the Breaffy beast destroyed Sligo in the final and Galway shouldn’t be too disheartened.
In Michael Murphy, Donegal has an Aidan O’Shea style of a forward – big, strong imposing in the air yet mobile and well able to find the target – that can do damage but he looked tired in the Ulster final loss to Monaghan in Clones a fortnight ago.
Murphy wasn’t alone in that respect, and Donegal, overall, had a tired look about them when losing by a point to in the provincial final. Ulster is notoriously competitive though and Donegal can regroup and still have a final say in the direction of Sam Maguire this year.
Now is certainly the time to meet them – beaten provincial finalists, Westmeath and Cork, have already come a cropper in the Qualifier immediately following their Leinster and Munster exits.
Sligo look like going that way, too, against Tyrone in the preceding game on Saturday (4pm) if the bookies are to be believed and why can’t Galway consign Donegal to a similar fate? Four-time All-Star and defensive talisman, Karl Lacey, has been ruled out of Saturday with a knee injury, according to manager Rory Gallagher, and Donegal might just be vulnerable, although Galway will probably have to play out of their skins to topple them.