Al­ways tak­ing the next step

Heaney’s role in Gal­way ma­chine has grad­u­ally grown as team has ma­tured and pro­gressed

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - CHAMPIONSHIP 2018 FOOTBALL - Keith Dug­gan

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.

Tainted

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.”

Ex­pe­ri­ence

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.

Mas­sively dif­fer­ent

“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”

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