Always taking the next step
Heaney’s role in Galway machine has gradually grown as team has matured and progressed
Johnny Heaney thinks his way through what he wants to say about Mayo with the precision and care of a bomb disposal expert who knows a stray move could have huge repercussions. It’s a sleepy lunchtime in the French room in Glenlo Abbey: what awaits him in MacHale Park in Castlebar seems to belong to a different planet.
“Mayo are . . . a brilliant side,” he says carefully, ignoring the mutual insolence and aggravation that defined the most recent league meeting of Connacht’s perpetual rivalry.
“They could and maybe should have won two All-Irelands in the last two years. It was just one kick of a ball. We know we have a massive task. A lot of their players are coming into the championship having sat out through the league. They are going to be very fresh. We aren’t looking past that game. We know what Mayo can do. We need to be at the top, top level to beat them.”
When he finishes, the roof is still sitting on the old place. Everything that Heaney says is true and respectful of Mayo while also stubbornly close to the idea that the Galway team will travel up the crowded N17 this Sunday morning convinced that they have the stuff to beat their neighbours for the third championship summer on the trot. It is a bold proposition.
Heaney has been central to Galway’s subtle return to football prominence over the past four years, emerging as an athletic and exceptionally versatile wing-man who has a habit of popping up in crucial moments. He has worn numbers seven and 10 with equal felicity: the differences between defensive wing-forward and attacking wing-back can be negligible.
Galway won a Connacht title in 2016, beat Mayo again last year and memorably demolished Donegal on a broiling Saturday in Markievicz Park, in which Heaney fired 2-2. They have been quarter-finalists for the past two years, clear progress that was slightly tainted by their performances in both of those Croke Park encounters. Tipperary shocked them in the summer of 2016 while last year, they seemed overly cautious in their game against Kerry in a game which finished 1-18 to 0-13.
“We could have given them more,” he concedes. “We didn’t take chances that were given to us. We had a couple of goal chances before half-time and when you don’t take those against a big team you will pay for it. But we don’t go out to stand off any team. When Kerry had their chances they finished them. We are learning every single game we go out.”
His senior experience has, he says, been one of constant learning. Heaney made his debut in the 2015 championship during a period when Mayo were almost thoughtlessly swatting Galway aside in championship meetings. He is from the same club as Kevin Walsh but didn’t really get to experience his coaching until he was invited on to the senior squad.
“There has been a lot of coaching under Kevin, whether in basketball gyms in the winter and then transferring that from the halls onto the pitch has been another task in its own right. It is great because you are always learning something new and improving on the small things – footwork, for instance. Having your feet in the right position if a man is running at you. Instead of diving in, you bring him down a line or whatever. Knowing how to tackle. It takes a long time. He is here four years and we are still learning. You do make mistakes along the way. But you also see the improvements as you go and that makes it easier.”
When he was a teenager, he played on decent Killanin teams and made minor and U-21 football for Galway in his last year of eligibility at each grade.
“The first year I went for minor, I didn’t make it. And I understood why. I was young, I had a year in hand. It was fine. I just went for experience. Then I failed with U-21 for two years in a row and made it in my last year. It’s not easy and there are times you are wondering is it worth it. But you are just hot, I suppose, and you are upset. And after a while you see that it is worth it: you learn from these mistakes and if you are not ready, you are not ready. And the fact that I was let go made me stronger. I think they made me more committed to it.”
He was fast but, he soon understood, too light for the older grades and he worked voraciously on trying to bulk up. Galway had spent springtime after springtime in the shade, coming close but ultimately missing out on league promotion while teams like Donegal and Tyrone popped up and down between the divisions. Heaney says it was frustrating, “a horrible place to be”.
But they kept improving, catching everyone unaware in winning the 2016 Connacht title. Their conspicuous disappointment came in last year’s Connacht final against Roscommon, for which they were favourites and playing in Salthill.
“I don’t know what happened . . . it is something I have asked myself and you come up with this and that. You do make mistakes and just never got out of the trap. But it just didn’t work for us and Roscommon took their chance.”
Significantly, when the GAA All-Star nominations were announced last autumn, Galway had no players included despite featuring in a provincial final and an All-Ireland quarter-final. It seemed symbolic of their season. They had been flickeringly excellent but inconsistent. That was why the public was dubious about their potential in Division One this year.
“As a team we took no notice of that,” Heaney says. “I wasn’t shocked that we were winning games. We always believe we can. It is just about getting a performance in and sticking to our process.”
They kept their heads down and left it to others to take notice of what they were at. That Galway had style was never in question but there was something in their defensive robustness and appetite and most of all their attitude of never back down that caused a stir.
2017 had been the year of years for Galway hurling. Now the public responded to the football team. It felt good: being on a roll, playing the top teams again, finding their feet. When Dublin came to Salthill, Galway had already qualified for the league final but there was a cracking atmosphere that day as the home team set about extending their winning record. In the end, the All-Ireland champions squeezed them and it fell to Heaney to strike an injury-time point through a crowd to earn them a draw.
“It is just never giving up. I think they went one ahead. And they are a great side and it was unreal to have them in Salthill. I suppose that was the first time Galway played Dublin in a long time. But I don’t think it was massively different in terms of intensity to the other games. We didn’t just say: ah, we’ve done well here. We were unhappy. We gave away our lead. I am not going to say we were delighted to get the draw because we slipped up. Thankfully, the ball went over the bar. If you are in the shooting area and get the chance you need to be scoring that.”
Heaney didn’t blink and the grim forecasts that Dublin would serve up a lesson in the league final didn’t materialise. The newcomers had their chances to win a first league title for Galway since 1981 but finished up with an even clearer understanding of the economy of finishing which Dublin bring to their game.
Sunday is the latest in a season of tests for Galway. Heaney’s father is from Mayo but he laughs at the idea of conflicted loyalty. “I was always Galway through and through.” Several of their league regulars have yet to play a minute of championship whereas Mayo’s starting 15 will be filled with decorated veterans. In his fourth campaign, Heaney has become a senior figure in a team that has the potential to make a big noise. He doesn’t care where he is asked to play – just that he’s contributing.
“I don’t have a preference. You are always up and down working. I don’t have a preference. I suppose that is the thing with Kevin. A lot of players have been asked to play different roles and do different things. Whatever number you are wearing you need to adapt.”
We had a couple of goal chances before half-time and when you don’t take those against a big team you will pay for it. But we don’t go out to stand off any team . . . we are learning every game we go out”