Cunningham issues goal warning as he seeks revenge for last summer - and a final rematch with Cody
YOU want to know why Galway hurlers are now in an All-Ireland semi-final instead of indulging in their perennial August pastime of dissecting another truncated campaign in pursuit of Liam MacCarthy?
Try this: in four SHC ties last year they leaked nine goals - including a dubious trilogy of hat-tricks against Kilkenny (twice) and Tipperary.
Now take a peek at the 2015 stats: five championship matches and just three goals conceded. An average of 0.6 goals per game. Some turnaround, especially for a full-back line that includes a pair of summer rookies in John Hanbury and Pádraig Mannion.
But Anthony Cunningham sounds a cautionary note ahead of Sunday's last-four date with Tipp. "The big test is the next day," he stresses.
"Tipperary have Seamus Callanan and 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer - two of the best inside forwards in the game. They are on a par with the best that Kilkenny have."
The Galway boss then alludes, inevitably, to the second half of last year's qualifier in Thurles. At one point his team led by six points; they were still five clear when Callanan pounced in the 53rd minute for his second goal. He later completed his hat-trick as Lazarus, dressed in blue and gold, coasted home by nine.
Galway actually raised more green flags - four - but Cunningham still maintains: "They beat us with goals last year, so we are very well aware of the threat that he (Callanan) poses and John O'Dwyer poses. It will come down to that: we have to keep goals out."
The frustration for Galway is that the winning post was in sight that night and they still faltered in the home straight.
It happened in 2010 too, without the same sense of implosion: Tipp landed the last three points of a thrilling quarter-final to edge home by 3-17 to 3-16 ... they would finish the year as champions, amplifying the mood of regret out west.
Will Galway use this frustration when renewing Premier battle on Sunday? "Absolutely," Cunningham concurs. "There is no doubt, we had the winning of the match last year but switched off in the last ten or 15 minutes. Had put ourselves in a super position."
Afterwards, though, his own position was deemed to be under threat. Cunningham had completed three years and still no Liam MacCarthy; worse, the graph had been heading south from the year-one high of a stunning Leinster title, a drawn All-Ireland rematch with Kilkenny and eventual replay defeat.
His original three-year term was up and he had to reapply for the position - something, he insists, that he did not find demeaning. "I understood that fully," he says. "That has always been the case."
Besides, he still wanted it. "I said that very early after the Tipp match," he points out. "A lot of it is work in progress. If you look at the team now, there are quite a lot of new players in there. Sadly there were some players that have given their all to Galway and we had to find a few more players."
Managing teams is what he loves doing - be it the Roscommon hurlers (his first senior inter-county gig) or the footballers of St Brigid's in Kiltoom or Garrycastle in Athlone, or the Galway U21s or now the seniors.
"Things like golf have gone," he reflects. "I used to play more of it when I was hurling ... you just change your life. It has become a way of life but it's something you come to really enjoy."
You have to enjoy it, he adds, because management entails a huge amount of work. But he relishes the buzz of working with players and "challenging yourself everyday you go out, every training session".
Even when the knives are being sharpened?
The local positive vibes that greeted Galway's recent demolition of Cork was in stark contrast to the mood that followed their league quarter-final exit to Waterford.
Former manager John McIntyre, wearing his journalistic cap, wasn't alone when he suggested afterwards that the squad had "lost their way completely" since the 2012 All-Ireland replay; he highlighted a "disturbing" lack of leadership when things go wrong and concluded that Cunningham "only has a couple of months to save his job".
Looking back on that eight-point Walsh Park defeat, the incumbent insists it did not affect the camp. "Probably the opposite really," he counters. "It kind of gave us a bit of jolt."
He believes some of the criticism that followed went overboard, arguing that Galway had "quite a good league until that match" while Waterford have since proven their worth.
"Others had looked at them as a Division 1B team coming up and how could you get beaten down there?" he muses.
"In hindsight it was very good as well, because there was a lot of questions asked of the players to really explain what happened against Waterford. But all of the teams, I think everybody had a bad day in one of the matches in the league and ours happened to be the worst day."
The subsequent recovery has even got the sceptics thinking twice before dismissing Galway from the All-Ireland picture. They may be the outside bet of the three teams remaining, but they are perceived as genuine dark horse contenders.
Not that Cunningham needed convincing: here is the man who saw his team finish seven points shy of Kilkenny in the Leinster final and yet tell Brian Cody afterwards that he'd see him again in the All-Ireland final.
"Some of it was in jest," he now suggests. "Every guy that you meet in the championship and who can still play in the qualifiers says that."
But only half in jest.
"We have massive belief in this team. We have fantastic hurlers. We wouldn't be where we are today, and wanting to win, if we didn't believe."