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'The nearly team' so many times, but there's something different about Galway now

The Tribe, captained by Tracey Leonard, are contesting a first All-Ireland final since 2005 this afternoon.

tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-championship-finals-2019-captains-day Galway captain Tracey Leonard. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

‘THE NEARLY TEAM.’ 

It’s a tag that’s been thrown at Galway time and time again over the past few years.

But here they are, in a first All-Ireland final since 2005 [throw-in 4pm, live on TG4].

***

The Tribe have fallen at the final hurdle so often in recent times, but there’s something different about them this year. Perhaps, we could look to 2018 as when they really established themselves as contenders to the crown.

They were the only side to beat Dublin in competitive action last season, the win coming in their Division 1 league round-robin clash at Abbotstown in March. A major scalp earned, a confidence boost, more than anything after gunning down the All-Ireland champions. 

Many argued that it was early days and so many of Mick Bohan’s players were just returning from the TG4 All-Star Tour in Bangkok as opposed to Galway’s one representative, but a win is a win. You have to beat the best to be the best.

The sides locked horns again later in the campaign, in the league semi-final but a late Nicole Owens goal broke Galway hearts. Stephen Glennon’s Tribe hit the ground running and led for the 60 minutes of normal time, but Owens’ crucial delivery sent Dublin into the decider where they lifted their first-ever Division 1 crown.

A late Galway free tailed just wide, meaning no extra time. The nearly team yet again.

They went about their business in Connacht, a sixth title captured in seven years against Mayo, before they successfully navigated the All-Ireland stages of the competition, booking a semi-final date with who else but Dublin.

This one wasn’t just a close of a contest, however, the Dubs 4-8 to 1-10 winners at Dr Hyde Park.

The curtain came down on their 2018 in disappointing fashion, but after unearthing some impressive youth it was one Glennon and his management team could look back on as a positive year overall. Getting ever closer and closer.

Then, came the changing of the guard. Glennon stepped down after two years in charge, during which he laid some solid foundations. 

“I am unable to give the role – and these magnificent bunch of players – the 100% commitment and dedication they deserve in 2019,” he wrote upon departing, while one of his selectors, Tim Rabbitt, stepped up to take the reins. 

From day one in the top job, the Oranmore/Maree clubman meant business. His professionalism towards life both on and off the pitch shines through, and that became clear through Galway’s performances and new structure.

He oversaw a pretty successful start to life as Galway manager, with six wins from seven outings under their belt in the league — the only defeat coming against back-to-back All-Ireland champions Dublin.

That March day in Moycullen saw the only unbeaten record in the league come to an end, as goals from Sinead Aherne and Siobhan Woods helped the then-champions grind out a three-point win.

tim-rabbitt Galway manager Tim Rabbitt. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Galway had already sealed their semi-final spot, and bounced back to progress to a first Division 1 league final since 2015. So many times the nearly team, just getting over the line and into a national showpiece was huge. At the top table with silverware up for grabs after so much talk of 11-time All-Ireland champions Cork and Dublin dominating the ladies football landscape over the past few years.

The Tribeswomen had been competitive, but a gap remained to be seen. That was again the case that day as the Rebels were 1-12 to 2-7 winners en route to collecting a 12th league crown. 

Again, though, there was something different about this Galway team. They controlled the game for periods and confidently dominated. A missed penalty was another big turning point, but Cork just had too much in the end. 

Summer silverware followed against Mayo in Connacht once again, albeit after a replay. Following a gap in competitive action, Galway may have been rusty the first day out in Castlebar but they showed their true colours the next time, clinical in their approach as captain Tracey Leonard hit 2-3 in the 3-7 to 0-9 victory.

A segue of sorts, but the Corofin star’s incredible recovery from a devastating cruciate injury sustained in 2016 perhaps epitomises the character of her Galway team.

“It was a huge turning point for me, on the mental side of things,” she said earlier this week. “Mentally, I’ve improved, I’m a lot tougher. 

“If you look back to 2016, and if I’d been told that three years later you’d be turning around in an All-Ireland final, you definitely would have taken it.

“It’s these days you dream of. When you go through injuries like that, it’s these days that drive you on.”

Routine wins over Kerry and Westmeath followed in the All-Ireland SFC group stages, before a five-point quarter-final victory over Waterford in horrendous conditions saw Galway set up a repeat of the provincial decider in the Croke Park semi-final.

There, they used the hurt of past defeats to bridge that gap and ground out a dramatic one-point win over Mayo. It came right down to the wire, but Galway weren’t letting this one slip.

A huge barrier broken down, the All-Ireland final drought ended.

“A lot has been written about Galway, I know we’ve been there or thereabouts and haven’t got over the line,” as Leonard notes.

“Semi-final day, we proved we’re no longer this nearly team. The grit, character and determination of our girls got us over the line that day.

tracey-leonard-and-orla-murphy-celebrate-the-final-whistle Leonard celebrates that semi-final win with Orla Murphy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I think in years gone by, we’d have got to that stage where we were level up to the last kick of the ball and we may have fizzled out. I think it just shows the character of the girls that are there, we’ve been learning over the last two or three years.

“The cliché goes that you have to lose some to win some and I think that probably we’re at the stage now where we’ve bottled a lot in the past and we’ve learned from hard mistakes.” 

That will surely stand to them later today as they go in search of the ultimate prize.

With invaluable Croke Park experience under their belt, ‘the million dollar question’ is how will they beat Dublin. Control the controllables, Leonard insists. Work rate, attitude and performance is all her side can manage themselves.

Just off the back of the Tribe’s All-Ireland camogie win and O’Duffy Cup lift last Sunday, they’ll look to repeat the feat and let the double settle in the West through the winter.

What Cathal Murray’s side did, Rabbitt’s can too.

“We’ve drawn great inspiration and motivation from what the camogie team did at the weekend,” Leonard assures. “It’s a huge thing for Galway ladies, the way they came into that game, as underdogs, and really drove it home. 

“The tag has been thrown around for them as well; ‘the nearly team’, being there or thereabouts. Look what they came out with.

“If you’re willing to come with the right work rate and attitude, anything can happen on the day. We know we’re going in as underdogs but I have full faith in our girls and our management that if we bring the performance we’re able to, the rest will take care of itself.”

That, it will.

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Emma Duffy

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