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Time is now for Canning-less Galway to prove their worth

The devastating loss of their talisman means Galway must start getting the best out of their talented array of forwards.

Watching Galway drift sedately through Division 1B of the League for the last three years, that sense of tension so integral to all great sporting events has been noticeably absent from their games. Once it had been established that 1B was as useful a base for launching an All-Ireland bid as any other, well there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about. With results relatively inconsequential, you find yourself looking for other areas to fill the void. If you’re a glass half empty person (guilty), then you start thinking of what’s the worst thing that could happen?

Lose the match. No big deal.

Lose Joe. Big deal.

When the Galway County Board confirmed the severity of the injury suffered by Joe Canning in this year’s League semi-final, a classic (is there any other kind?) episode of Father Ted came to mind. This one signalled the end of Season 2 and found a plane load of priests travelling back to Ireland from the fictional holy site of Kilnettle (the holiest shrine in the world!) with Ted in full ‘imagining the worst’ mode. Ted cut a nervous figure as his fear of flying was made immediately apparent with Dougal proving a constant source of reassurance uttering immortal lines such as ‘Imagine Ted if the floor just disappeared and you fell out. You’d fall for ages and ages’.

When disaster struck and the plane began to lose fuel rapidly, it was Ted who proved the cool head in a crisis, climbing onto the plane’s wing and repairing the fuel reserve line.

“Dougal, I love all this. When everything’s ok I imagine terrible things happening and now that one has actually happened, it’s just a rush.”

On March 24th, the floor fell from Galway’s season with Canning’s injury and for Galway now, it’s Micháel Donoghue who will need a cool head to safely navigate Galway through a Leinster round robin series that now appears fraught with danger for them.

Canning’s injury and the late reintroduction to the panel of Johnny Glynn and Joseph Cooney leaves Galway in a precarious position but despite doomsday proclamations about their prospects from some, Galway will still be a competitive force in this year’s Leinster campaign. Joe’s recovery will be a high priority for Galway’s backroom team and every effort will be made to have him available for the All-Ireland series but for now, the big question for Micháel Donoghue is how this loss will affect his team set up and strategy in the coming weeks?

Last season, Galway devolved from a team who could grievously injure opposition from a variety of different places – they had seven different scorers in the opening quarter of the 2017 final – to a team dependent on a route one approach. This approach could have been an effective weapon in Galway’s arsenal if used sparingly and as part of a varied attacking approach. It wasn’t and Galway have now spent the spring in evolution.

Limerick have made the middle third a war zone and Galway used their league campaign this year preparing Conor Whelan and Canning for battle. Both have come deep throughout the league regularly mining possession from the rucks that have continually developed. Both have embraced their changed roles in an effective manner but Canning’s increased workload and the negative impact this change has had on Whelan’s scoring return has to be a worry for Donoghue.

Canning has been both Galway’s main source of possession in the air and on the ground while also expected to be their primary creative influence. This was a questionable role for Joe in any event as he has thrived in recent years when freed of the responsibility of securing primary possession and instead working in tandem with specialised ball winners like the aforementioned Glynn and Cooney.

Asking Mozart to push his piano on stage prior to a rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in 19th century Vienna would have been unwise. Canning as artisan equally so.

It was Glynn’s introduction to the fray against Tipperary in the 2017 semi-final and his move to the half forward line in last year’s final that finally gave Canning the freedom in both games to operate as a purely creative influence. The suspicion is that something similar would have been in Donoghues mind for this year’s championship when Glynn returns.

In addition to having Canning and Whelan operating in a deeper capacity, Galway have toyed with a 3-3-2 front eight at times during the league. Against Waterford, this involved Johnny Coen lining out at wing forward but operating alongside Cathal Mannion and Kevin Hussey in the middle third allowing Niall Burke and Davy Glennon to play as an inside two with Brian Concannon falling out to the half forward line.

Donoghue now has to decide whether or not to stick with the system changes he has worked on and begun implementing without a key component of the change. The likelihood is that he will and Galway will be less predictable opposition than they were for large parts of 2018. While the returning Glynn can, fitness permitting, effectively fill Canning’s role as a combative ball winning presence and the big Ardrahan man will revel in being more involved in the action than the isolated figure he cut in the first half of last year’s All-Ireland when Limerick effectively cut his supply line, the loss of Canning’s creativity and leadership will be a harder role to fill.

Much of his creative work will now fall on the shoulders of Cathal Mannion and the returning Cooney but possibly the most intriguing aspect of Galway’s forced reshuffle is what it will mean for the mercurial Jason Flynn. Even allowing for the paucity of his recent form not just for county but for club also, he is likely to find the responsibility of free taking being thrust upon him and a massively talented player who was nominated for an All-Star in 2015 is at a stage in his career quite similar to Seamus Callanan in the early years of this decade where the time has surely come to deliver on his undoubted ability. The opportunity is now and a similar role of responsibility may not present itself again. Only he can grasp it.

Life is full of curve balls and unexpected events with unpredictable consequences.

I sat down to write this story one Sunday morning as I digested Canning’s loss to Galway’s Leinster campaign and its implications for the teams championship set up. One frazzled car journey later, I finished it off on a Monday morning in the maternity ward of Galway University Hospital with my wife and our new daughter asleep beside me. This little lady wasn’t supposed to be here for quite a while yet but she surprised us all and here she is thriving.

Maybe Galway, Flynn, Glynn and co will do the same.

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