Pádraic Joyce’s epic playing career started in a blaze of glory before the honours dried up, Galway’s ageing talisman no longer able to arrest their collective slide.
et, when he finally retired in 2012, he exited safe in the knowledge that he had beaten Mayo more often than not in championship combat.
Between 1998 and 2011 he faced the enemy 11 times in Connacht battle. Mayo won five times, Galway six. Joyce started and scored in every contest, 2-28 in total.
How Joyce the manager would crave even a 50-50 split, right now, with the green-and-red.
The greatest Galway footballer of the modern era goes to Castlebar tomorrow hoping to stave off an unenviable hat-trick: three years of SFC suppression by Mayo.
“It’s a big game for Pádraic and it’s a big game for Galway,” says Kieran Fitzgerald, his former county colleague. “It’s three year of Pádraic and he’ll definitely want to be making inroads into that Connacht championship now . . . he would have had great success against Mayo down through the years. He doesn’t like losing, and he certainly wouldn’t like losing to Mayo.”
Yet, since becoming manager, that has been Joyce’s lot. Two contrasting Connacht finals have yielded back-to-back defeats: by 0-14 to 0-13 in Salthill (November 2020) and by 2-14 to 2-8 in Croke Park (last July). The latter stemmed from a horror show second half which they lost by 11 points, Galway’s timorous response confined to three late Matthew Tierney frees.
“I can’t remember a Galway team doing that for a long, long time, not scoring from play in the second half,” Joyce later lamented.
Yet even that wasn’t his worst half-hour in the sideline company of James Horan. After the first marathon Covid lockdown ended, and inter-county activity resumed in October 2020, a previously high-flying Galway hosted Mayo in Tuam.
Mayo’s first-half blitzkrieg took the breath away, but the token resistance was shocking. Even as the visitors eased off the pedal, they still cantered home by 15 points, 3-23 to 0-17. “Probably the most embarrassing day of my career,” Joyce admitted. “I am 43 years of age and I have never seen a performance as bad, to tell you the truth.”
Joyce took full responsibility as manager and would not “throw the lads under the bus” . . . but in his typically candid/blunt way, he also spoke of “men against boys”, players who at half-time had “not broken sweat”.
“When you are playing your fiercest rivals, if you need to motivate lads they are in the wrong game,” he concluded.
On Sunday, with the losers facing fresh doubts and a qualifier detour full of landmines, motivation surely won’t be a problem.
Two-and-a-half years in, Joyce’s reign has been a strange mishmash of electrifying promise and alarming power cuts. He arrived as the attack-minded antidote to five years of hard-nosed pragmatism overseen by Kevin Walsh. And, to begin with, Galway glistened: when Covid struck in March 2020, they led Division 1 with eight points after five games.
Who do you blame – the pandemic or ‘PJ’ – for Galway’s subsequent steep fall? From October ’20 to July ’21 they played nine league and championship matches, losing seven, their solitary wins coming against Roscommon (twice last summer).
This is not the stuff of Sam Maguire contenders and Joyce, the owner of two Celtic Crosses, has never been shy about his ambitions in that respect. “Our aim is to win another All-Ireland – simple as that. Anything less will be seen as an underachievement,” he told ‘Galway Bay FM’ soon after his appointment.
The deflation of last season – yielding another league meltdown (to Kerry), top-flight relegation and that Connacht final collapse – prompted weeks of speculation over Joyce’s future. A high player turnover, with several high-profile names not involved last year, was another source of animated local discussion about the team’s direction.
On the flip side, Joyce’s first two years had been hamstrung by Covid, without even the chance of ‘back door’ redemption.
After a two-year review, it was confirmed last October that he would see out his third year – with Cian O’Neill, the much-travelled coach and ex-Kildare boss, bolstering his backroom.
Six league matches later, Galway were the only team across all four divisions boasting a 100pc record, their rout of promotion-rivals Derry sealing an immediate return to Division 1 with a game to spare.
If the mood music was orchestral on the bus home from Owenbeg, it has all gone a bit flat since then. Losing to Roscommon with a weakened team was one thing; losing to the Rossies again, with a Division 2 title on offer in Croker, has rekindled several awkward questions, especially about the Galway defence.
Fitzgerald, a rookie All-Star corner-back in 2001 in the year Joyce lay waste to Meath at the other end, expects to see a more pragmatic set-up this weekend.
There was, he surmises, an element of “phoney war” about both league finals three weeks ago, even if Mayo scarcely wanted to get such a tanking from Kerry in the Division 1 decider.
“I’d say PJ got his number one objective anyway,” Fitzgerald reckons. “If he really wanted to go hard for that game you would have seen Shane Walsh on that pitch (from the start).
“Next Sunday I don’t think the full-back line will be as exposed. I’d say the wing-forwards will be dropping back . . . I just don’t think that Galway will be as attacking the next day. From Pádraic’s point of view, what he’ll want to avoid is conceding goals early because if we’re chasing the game and we’re taking risks, we could get caught on the counter by Mayo and it could open the floodgates.”
When John O’Mahony vacated his Tribal throne in 2004, the Mayo man left a rich legacy of four Connacht titles in seven seasons – and two All-Irelands. Over the next 17 years, Galway have accumulated just four more provincial titles and only once reached an All-Ireland semi-final, under Walsh four years ago.
Joyce is the seventh Galway manager since O’Mahony; only Peter Ford (’05), Liam Sammon (’08) and Walsh (twice, in ’16 and ’18) have conquered Connacht.
That sporadic level of success is not “what Galway football would expect,” Fitzgerald concedes. In that same 17-year window, Galway teams have won four All-Ireland U-21/20 titles and five All-Ireland clubs (four of those by Fitzgerald’s own Corofin). Different grades, admittedly, and frequently not comparable; but those stats reinforce the sense of a county failing to maximise resources.
Year three is often a watershed season for a manager chasing silverware. “Pádraic would put a lot of pressure on himself to get success for Galway,” he stresses.
Working across the Mayo border as a Garda and filling a coaching brief with Garrymore, Fitzgerald has seen first-hand how the entire county is “stone mad” for football, far more so than Galway with its multiple sporting and other attractions.
But you won’t find a prouder Galway man than Joyce, he reckons. “I would be very surprised if Galway don’t rattle them big time the next day; I’d be disappointed if they don’t and I’d say Pádraic will be devastated,” Fitzgerald expands.
“He had all the talent in the world, and probably the best footballer I would have played with. But coupled with ability, he was one determined man. I don’t know how long his reign with Galway is going to last, but he will want titles.
“And he will want this win on Sunday. He will go hard for that game . . . and if the players can match that determination that he’s going to bring, we won’t be far away.”