tribe talk

'When you do go out on the pitch, you never know if it is your last time'

Aidan Harte and Galway finally scaled the mountain in 2017. Now they want to stay there.

Aidan Harte takes to the field James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

WHEN AIDAN HARTE sits back and reflects on 2017 over Christmas, it will be a mostly positive experience.

Harte was a mainstay in the Tribe defence in a campaign where they played 14 competitive games and won 13. After they were upset by Wexford on 19 February, Galway rattled off 11 victories on the bounce to deliver league, Leinster and All-Ireland honours.

Their first Liam MacCarthy success since 1988 was tinged with emotion in the wake of Tony Keady’s death.

Harte won’t ever forget meeting his father in the stand after final whistle crowned them champions, and ended a 29-year famine. It was a moment they’d been dreaming of for decades.

“He was just at the steps of the Hogan (after the match ended),” Harte says. “It’s very surreal because we’d be huge hurling people at home.

“We have a huge hurling community in Galway. It’s everything you ever did from four or five years of age and you picked your career around it, so it was very surreal.

Aidan Harte celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy cup Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“It was huge for him and he had a huge bearing on my career and he loves the game and is just as passionate about it as I am. Brilliant. It’s probably something that hasn’t sunk in yet.”

The 29-year-old experienced the pain of a county final defeat when his club Gort went down to Liam Mellows in October, but 2017 will surely go down as the highlight of his hurling career.

There were small margins at play too. Harte only had to look as far as David Collins to feel grateful an All-Ireland success has come his way. Former Galway skipper Collins retired from inter-county action last winter after 12 years spent soldering for the cause and narrowly missed out on a Celtic Cross.

“David Collins, the Liam Mellows captain has been a great person for Galway hurling and a huge influence for all of us that are still on the panel. He set the tone and set standards for years and the rest of us just followed.”

When Galway opened up their Leinster championship campaign in Tullamore back in May, Harte started at wing-back with Paul Killeen behind him in the corner. Just 26 minutes into the summer, Killeen went down holding his knee after a seemingly innocuous challenge from a Dublin player.

Paul Killeen down injured Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

A scan confirmed Killeen’s worst fears. His cruciate was gone and his season was over. Though he remained a key voice in the dressing room, Killeen missed out on the chance to win an All-Ireland on the field of play with his teammates.

“12 months ago Paul was slogging out on the pitch,” Harte says. “He was running laps and doing extra running. I was like ‘Jesus, we’re here now pucking balls, this is great’ and your man is running around the pitch. You’d have been gutted for him in May.

“When you do go out on the pitch you never know if it is your last time, you never know how long it’s going to go on and like that Paul did get an injury. He’s a great person and a great guy to have around the panel. He’s so positive.

“Galway hurling and Galway winning is everything to him and he really did drive lads on over the summer, giving young lads confidence. Especially to us lads as backs after games he might come and speak to you and tell you what you did wrong and what you could do better. He has a great knowledge of the game in fairness to him.”

Aidan Harte James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

One turning point in Galway’s season came before the championship even started.

In the second-half of the Division 1 league quarter-final, Micheal Donoghue’s men found themselves nine points down to Waterford’s second string. They looked dead and buried, but 1-10 from Joe Canning completed a sensational comeback.

“It kicked on from there but you couldn’t say back in April in Pearse Stadium after coming back from nine down at one stage against Waterford that it was definitely our year.

“It was always game by game at that stage. Having the big win in the league final then the Leinster final after the year before against Kilkenny – we were going well for 50 minutes and after that we just fell asunder.

“We did gather a bit of momentum and it’s hard to explain but every game is just such a battle. You’ve to believe in yourself going out on the pitch because if you don’t believe in yourself going out there. (you won’t win). But you do need that slice of luck sometimes and we had it this year.”

Aidan Harte James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

From that point, Galway appeared to be on an inevitable march towards September glory. Their 18-point mauling of Tipperary in the league final not only filled the Galway squad with confidence, but it derailed the Premier’s season for a couple of months.

“We have been consistent which is good and that’s something management always speaks about. Having a team that supporters are proud of and happy to go and watch give their all.

“You do really believe that the rub of the green sometimes but we’ve been lucky the last three years. We have been consistent.”

Part of Galway’s consistency was down to Donoghue. He picked key players in their best positions and allowed them to flourish there. Gearoid McInerney dominated at centre-back, while David Burke and Joe Canning sparked up a brilliant partnership in the middle third.

Often times Canning would drop deep from 11 into midfield, leaving an ocean of space for Burke to attack. The latter dispatched four points from centre-field in a stunning All-Ireland final performance.

Then you had the attacking riches of Conor Whelan, Joseph Cooney, Conor Cooney. On any given day, at least one of the trio would catch fire and ease the scoring burden on Canning, who Galway traditionally looked to to carry the can. Cathal Mannion and Niall Burke were brilliant accomplices up front.

But the positioning of Harte as the team’s sweeper was an overlooked part of Galway’s success. Incidentally, Harte made his senior debut for the county as a corner-forward, before spending time at midfield. Donoghue oversaw his switch to corner-back and Harte was employed Galway’s spare defender when opponents only played with five forwards.

Aidan Harte and Adrian Tuohy with Shane Bennett Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

It was a role that needed some getting used to, but Harte enjoyed the responsibility.

“Sometimes you can say, ‘Jaysus, I’m standing up here on my own.’ But if you have a man to focus on you can continuously focus on him. Sometimes you’re standing up on your own and you don’t get on ball for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s all about staying focused and putting yourself to use.

“If I’m standing up on my own why not be telling the lads (what to do) because you’re the eyes of the team really. It’s hugely important when you do get the ball to put it to good use because they’ll be saying, ‘Oh Jesus, he’s only a sweeper he’s just standing up on his own there’ and any wasteful ball would be criticised for sure.

“That’s the way it has gone and the game has developed hugely that way and that’s something you work on in training. Keeping the ball, getting the head up and moving forward and trying to make it easier for the forwards and we’re lucky we have some good guys up there.”

Galway reached the pinnacle of the hurling world this year, but soon enough Harte will be looking to the new year and the defence of their crown.

“Every day is a new day and you go training and you’re still trying to improve yourself. For me anyway in two or three years time I’ll probably hit the end of the road so how can you get better? How can you get better all the time? You’re always trying to get better.

Aidan Harte lifts the Liam McCarthy cup James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“Mentally, more than anything, you need a break. What I find is you need a break. You’re so long going out doing the same ball drills and you’re really striving for perfection and when something goes wrong you get up on your own back and you get very disappointed with yourself.

“You’re thinking that I’m 10 or 11 months at this, why don’t I have it absolutely perfected. It’s all just mentally you need a break more than physically because the way the inter-county game is gone, amateur or not the guys are training professional. Even at this time of the year guys are watching what they’re eating and still getting their gym work done so it’s a continuous process at the moment.

“The way I view it, and all players are the sane, you go back in January now and try to get as fit as possibly you can be and try to get as sharp as possibly you can with the ball and that’s it, you take it game by game. The first day for us will be the 29th of January against Antrim and we’ll have to be ready than that. No more than last year, our first objective will be to try get out of Division 1B.”

It won’t be long before he’s back to the grind and he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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