A HAPPY HURLING panel is a productive hurling panel, or so they say. Not all inter-county managers take same holistic approach as Anthony Cunningham does, but in his first season in charge out west, the Galway boss seems to have struck the right chord.
After all, under the new man’s watch the Tribesmen are Leinster champions for the first time in the county’s history. Now they’re now lining up their first shot at the Liam McCarthy Cup since 2005. Not bad considering Cunningham spent most of the winter and spring juggling his old job and new, simultaneously trying to get settled in the volatile Galway hotseat while leading Garrycastle’s footballers in their quest for an All-Ireland club crown.
It sounds exhausting.
“Yeah, it was tough,” Cunningham says to no one’s surprise as he meets the media for the first of what he hopes will be many All-Ireland final press nights. “It was six or seven nights a week, and that time of the year is tough.
“I had two gear bags,” he laughs, “because you can’t arrive at one training session with club gear on! It was a bit different from when we were playing. A lot of these lads now are big into gear and that you wear all the colours at training … so the hardest thing in the winter training is your gear gets so wet and mucky, and you just had two full-time gear bags on the go.
Even on a Saturday, we’d train probably with Galway early Saturday morning and Garrycastle in the evening time, and vice versa. That’s a thing you might have picked up, as you went on – it was nearly easier to do a double session of a Saturday and you might have one evening off then during the week.
Despite the stress of keeping the right knicks and socks in the right bag, Cunningham makes no attempt to paint himself as workhorse going it alone. Neither the success with Galway so far, nor with Garrycastle in reaching the club final, were solo efforts.
“The help we have and the systems we have; it’s easy when you’re trying to win a Leinster with a club or you’re trying to get started with a county team. The enthusiasm that was there was second to none on both sets, so it was easy.”
He adds: “It was totally enjoyable. You’d like to say I’d like to do this every night of the year, 365 days of the year, and this you’d like to be your job because it’s your hobby. But unfortunately the nearest you probably can get to that is to be a writer.”
The importance of enjoying work is something that Cunningham holds dear and has been keen to impart to the young Galway squad he is building around him to great success. On the pitch he’s the manager but off it, his role takes on many different forms, he explains.
Our lads are so young you’ve a lot of CVs that you’d be helping guys write, and they’ve a system in place for guys coming out of college — this is how you do interviews and get jobs.
In addition to training, there’s a lot of support systems that every county has in place. And you’d be looking out, because employment is so tough.
“As a manager and a management team, you’d always take a personal interest in that lads get looked after,” he continues, “that they’re following the right courses and they’re not dropping out of college. And that has happened: one guy was unhappy with this course, he was in the completely wrong one, and we got him some help and put him into another one. So that stuff goes on.”
It’s a style and strategy that appears to have paid dividends so far this summer, not least when Galway roared out of the blocks and blitzed Kilkenny to win a Leinster final that was as unforgettable for those who watched it as it was for those who played in it.
Beating Brian Cody’s men once in a championship summer is a task that has been beyond some great hurling sides in the modern era. Now Galway are being asked to do it twice in a matter of months.
“I had said that Kilkenny were the team to beat and whoever beat them would win the All-Ireland. But having said that, look at the players they have. They are fantastic players.
“The other thing that Kilkenny bring to it is that they are sportsmen. You never hear a Kilkenny player say I’m this or I’m that. They’re so humble and right. Through our own days of playing, you never met a Kilkenny player who thought he was above his station. And they would never be allowed that by their supporters or within the county. That’s the kind of players they are.”
Humble, yes, but also hungry, not least when they come up against a side which has turned them over in the past. If Galway are stave off the Cats’ bloodlust and turn the unthinkable into reality, Cunningham knows that that they will need to match — and improve upon — their explosive Leinster final start.
“I think if you don’t match them you’re not going to beat them. Any team that you get, I think we’ve seen that in the last four or five years now, that the first five or 10 minutes in the hurling finals have been crunching tackles and we saw that last year and the year before by Tipperary, so that’s going to be no different the next day.”