League hints at rise of Galway hurling as Dubs seek solace
Conal Keaney remembers a time when he loved playing Galway. Why? Because, deep down, he expected to beat them.
His Dublin days are now all in the rear-view mirror, having retired from inter-county hurling 12 months ago, but Keaney senses that Galway have taken a leap forward since he was tearing into Tribesmen.
As a reflection of this, you can cite Galway's admittedly circuitous advance to this Sunday's Allianz League Division 1 final against Tipperary.
Taken in tandem with last August - when they pushed Tipp, the eventual All-Ireland champions, closer than anyone else - it all points to a Galway team gearing up for another big summer.
A summer that will start against the Dubs in Tullamore on May 28.
Suffice to say, Ger Cunningham will be keeping a close watching brief on weekend events in the Gaelic Grounds, craving signs of weakness that Dublin might exploit in their Leinster SHC quarter-final.
But, as Keaney admits, Galway are in a healthier place right now compared to opponents who will enter the championship cauldron on the back of relegation from the league's top flight.
"Galway have progressed," he says. "They've played in a couple of All-Ireland finals (2012 and '15), they're back in a league final now - albeit they were in 1B. And I think that's a huge benefit to Galway coming into the championship this year.
"They were only just about getting going earlier on in the year … and now is the time that you really want to be hurling.
"No matter what happens to Galway in the league final, they're going to be getting great confidence from the last couple of games … while Dublin are on the other side of it. The atmosphere mightn't be great because, when you get demoted, it's hard to get that out of your head and they're in a totally different place to where Galway are."
Keaney himself "never feared playing Galway." As for where this confidence stemmed from, he says: "It started when (Anthony) Daly came in. To a degree it was there beforehand … we actually liked playing Galway because we always got the better of them."
On closer inspection, Daly's league record against Galway was poor enough: five defeats, one draw and just one victory, a 12-point Donnycarney demolition in his first year, 2009.
They invariably struggled in Pearse Stadium, losing three on the spin. Their most significant spring collision - a see-sawing relegation play-off in 2012 - ended level after extra-time in Tullamore before Galway eventually romped home in a Portlaoise replay.
But when it mattered most, in championship, Dublin and Daly had Galway's number. Back in June 2011, on the day of their Leinster semi-final, Keaney replied to a good luck tweet from Bernard Brogan by saying: "Thanks man, they won't live with us."
That evening in Tullamore, Dublin overcame an early cruciate injury to Tomás Brady and a fourth-quarter red card for Ryan O'Dwyer to run out emphatic 0-19 to 2-7 winners.
"Coming into that championship game," Keaney recounts, "we were all on the one sheet there and Daly was preaching it all the time - 'Nothing to fear, we were actually a better team than they were, we just had to produce it on the day'. Which was the case."
Two years later, a Dublin team running on momentum and oozing confidence after a famous replay win over Kilkenny met Galway in the Leinster final - and blitzed them, 2-25 to 2-13.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game but it wasn't an issue for us, we were just going there to win the Leinster final and that was it," Keaney recalls.
"Playing Galway was just another little bonus for us. We always would have prided ourselves (on getting) a good performance every time we played them, and I think they were getting it in their heads that they couldn't beat us, in that short time period.
"Nobody had any doubt, any time we played them, we were going to win. Now, I think things have maybe changed slightly."
Again, another curiosity: Ger Cunningham has won both of his league head-to-heads with Galway, each in Parnell Park, by margins of six and seven points.
Yet their 2015 Leinster quarter-final in Croke Park - ending in stalemate before Galway destroyed them in the opening 20 minutes of their O'Connor Pak replay - can be viewed as a watershed.
Since then, Galway have grown into a serious championship force whereas Dublin have struggled for any consistent summer traction.
Keaney was then in his swansong campaign. "We should have beaten them that day, realistically," he says. "And then they obviously beat us well in the replay in Tullamore, but there were probably loads of factors going on behind the scenes that were not helping the situation. It wasn't the same atmosphere coming into those games that we had previously, but that's all history now."
As for the here-and-now of Sunday's league final, Keaney believes Tipp will prevail but cannot see them inflicting any lasting psychological damage.
"There's big history between Galway and Tipperary," he points out. "Tipp certainly won't have it all their own way, because you could see there are flaws in the Tipperary game, as Wexford tried to exploit at the weekend … they were there or thereabouts with 15 minutes to go.
"Galway are probably a little bit ahead of Wexford and they probably have better quality forwards than Wexford, and play a more attacking kind of a style.
"Obviously they want to win the game, but it's all positive for Galway as far as I can see at the moment," he concludes.