Galway's Rolls-Royce: 'He is so smart. He sees things happening before anyone else'

David Burke will take over at the top of the all-time Galway hurling championship appearance list today.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IN 2018 at a team commercial gig, David Burke was peppered with standard quickfire questions about himself and his Galway team-mates. Angriest team-mate? Pre-match meal? GAA hero growing up? 

He pondered and humoured every one of them, but had an immediate response to that last one.

“Henry Shefflin,” Burke stressed.

Little did he know that the Kilkenny great would soon become his fifth Galway manager. Burke is Galway’s glue. The captain led by example in 2017′s All-Ireland final. He stepped up with 19 possessions — more than any other player. Burke also scored four points and won three turnovers.

That season’s leadership group contained Burke, Joe Canning, Pádraic Mannion, Aidan Harte and Johnny Coen. Micheál Donoghue came up with the idea but initially, it wasn’t working. The dynamic wasn’t right, the group weren’t happy.

When Burke first joined the panel in 2010, he went on the record to say there was a bit of leadership lacking. Deep inside was a determination to avoid making the same mistake again. 

So he took the bull by the horns and changed it. Setting a new standard. He was their leader then and is their leader now. The midfielder’s injury-enforced absence from the starting team in the recent Leinster final was like the butterfly effect. A ripple that washed over the whole side. 

Their balance was upset. Cathal Mannion was moved to wing-forward as his ball use of a similar standard. But his engine is not comparable. Galway’s delivery was blunt when they had the ball and when they didn’t Kilkenny’s withdrawing half-forward line found too much freedom. The whole thing fell apart.

david-burke-and-joe-canning Source: James Crombie/INPHO

When he takes to Semple Stadium today, Burke will overtake Joe Canning as Galway’s most capped championship player. Both are currently on 62 appearances. The 32-year-old is set to break the record.  

“It’s about time for him,” says Canning. “He’s a huge player for Galway, there’s no doubt about that. I think he’s probably the best hurling brain I’ve played with. I think he’s so smart to see things happening before anybody else.

“He obviously looks after himself very well. He loves hurling, he absolutely loves it. But the one thing that I think he has is a brilliant hurling brain. When he’s on the ball, nine times out of 10 he’ll do the right thing with it. He sees things before they happen. And in midfield he can see danger happening before anybody else around him.

“He’s a very good communicator too. He’s played 99% of his hurling in midfield and he just looks after himself really well and I think because of his hurling brain he’s well able to look after himself on a hurling pitch as well.”

Burke won his first All-Star as a corner-forward in 2012, hitting 1-02 against Kilkenny to help Galway to their first ever Leinster title. He went on to win three All-Stars in a row from 2015 to 2017 in midfield, captaining the team to Liam MacCarthy glory.

In 2017, he stood on a stage in Clarinbridge alongside Donoghue. Burke hailed the manager as “a good friend.” He credited him with instilling confidence in the team and assembling an exceptional backroom ticket. 

By 2019, he was one of the two player representatives involved in the process to appoint a new boss. Their All-Ireland looked as if it pointed the way toward a stretch of sustained success. Suddenly they had to start again. Burke had a steadfast refusal to see their chance squandered. He couldn’t contemplate it.

david-burke-is-tackled-by-patrick-foley Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

They had to drive on. Any chance of that succeeding would require his presence at the heart of it. 

“I remember when David was young I said, ‘if we can get 20 more like him, we have a chance of going places. We were lucky enough that we did,’” says former St Thomas’ chairman Joe Larkin. Last December the club won their fourth Galway SHC title in a row. It was their sixth title in ten years.

John Burke managed St Thomas’ to their first county title in 2012 when six of his sons were on the team and the eldest of them, Kenneth, was in charge for their most recent victory. 

“I saw him as a lad, they’d a decent national school team,” Larkin recalls.

“He was the same then as he is now. Very upfront. An honest player. Gave it everything. Hurling is his life. I was involved in the U21 team for six years and David was there for a few of those.

“Even at that time, you could see things changing. Diet, attitude to training, preparation, David was at the forefront of that.

“One good thing that happened to us; we lost a few minor A finals. We got to five U21 A finals and only won two of them. I think that quietly said to the guys, you don’t win anything easy. Gort beat us twice at that stage.

“David was one of the guys who would use that I reckon. The ones they lost are in the back of their mind.”

Larkin saw him grow from acorn to tree. Years ago after a Galway county final, there was a gathering and he was selected as the designated driver. As he dropped home former Galway hurler Niall Healy, a native of rival club Craughwell, they passed the Burke household. 

They saw the familiar goal posts in the garden. Every time you passed, there was some combination of the family out in front with a hurl in hand and a Galway jersey on their back. Heally looked to Larkin and cursed. ‘They’ll be hard beat.’

Years later, when the St Thomas’ man won his first All-Star, Larkin still remembers the exhilaration as Burke arrived at the clubhouse the next day to coach an underage session. The club made him and he wanted to keep the wheel turning. 

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david-burke Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Burke has been a consistent thorn in Cork’s side. In their last championship meeting of 2015, he brought incredible energy to bear against the Rebels, running their midfield ragged. He finished with 0-2.  

In the 2016 league, Kieran Kingston gave a clear instruction in the dressing room: man-mark Burke. Follow him everywhere. His influence had to be curbed. That didn’t work either; they realised man-marking a midfielder is akin to playing with 14 men. That time, Burke took them for 0-3.

Under Galway’s previous manager Shane O’Neill, the former captain was sidelined. He made one championship appearance in 2021 from the bench. The writing seemed on the wall. When Shefflin arrived, it was inevitable that some of the 2017 crop would gradually be phased out. Instead, Burke became a lynchpin. 

Larkin references a quote from former Limerick manager TJ Ryan, who coached St Thomas previously. After Galway beat the All-Ireland champions in the league, Ryan pointed to Burke as a crucial in ensuring they progressed. 

“He is an unbelievable leader in the dressing room and has been for a long time. His influence around that Galway setup must be invaluable. That is why Henry would’ve been after him,” Ryan said. “He is just a Rolls Royce of a player.” 

 Larkin wholeheartedly agrees. 

“There was always great comfort in him. He just knows how to find the right man. Able to score, able to give the pass, able to look after himself. David is a lad who won’t be lashing out but no one got anything off him easy.” 

 They cherish his presence because they’ll feel it when he’s gone. 

“Look at Sarsfields or Athenry, all the great club teams have a serious spine. The Burkes are unique. First, because there were so many of them. You don’t have six in a family anymore. We’ve some good young fellas coming through but… the last few years have been unbelievable really. For us to win five out of six county titles.

“If you predicted that one time you’d be laughed at. Will it last? I’ve always said amalgamations are coming for country clubs if they want to stay at the top level. We’re depending on families here already, we don’t get the spillover from the city. People go to places like Clarinbridge to live there. We’d need another injection or lads to set up roots locally. 

“My big hope at the minute is David builds a house here!”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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