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Ciarán Murphy: Family occasion the highlight in Galway as dull leagues run their course

Absence of a host of Galway’s big names diminished the double-bill at Pearse Stadium but league has never looked more like a secondary competition

I was walking down the prom in Salthill at around 12.30 last Saturday, gazing out at Galway Bay across to Clare as the grey perma-clouds scooted overhead, and thinking that this is a pretty picturesque walk to a GAA match. Nowlan Park and Thurles are nice grounds, but they don’t have the Atlantic Ocean at their doorstep.

Pearse Stadium can be a much-maligned spot, never more so than from Galway’s own home support. It’s in a traffic hotspot, of that there is little doubt. And when the wind blows, as it almost always does, the ground gets the full force of it.

The football fans might like to be in Tuam, and the hurling crowd would probably be more comfortable in Athenry, but it’s right too that the GAA has some kind of footprint in our fifth-biggest city. So Pearse Stadium it is, and I was there last weekend to see the Galway hurlers and footballers take on the All-Ireland champions in both codes.

I was also there because in the midst of kids, jobs, hurling training and soccer games, the only thing guaranteed to get my three brothers, my cousin and me in the same place at the same time was always going to be a GAA game (or two).

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We were celebrating my eldest brother’s 50th, and anyone who knows anything about meeting up past the age of 40 knows that a gathering like this doesn’t just happen. Whether it’s a music gig, or a soccer international, or a GAA match, the day has to have something to cohere around. Limerick and Dublin on the same bill seemed like an even better excuse than we needed.

The games themselves were of a piece with what we’ve seen this spring. The Galway hurlers were ambling in front until Limerick had Shane O’Brien sent off 25 minutes in. The stand roared briefly into life, and as the second half progressed, with Galway failing utterly to build on a half-time lead despite their extra man, it became a thing unto itself.

Limerick were already through to a semi-final, and if Galway had any interest in making the last four they had done a reasonable job of hiding it all campaign. Now, after the red card, it was a game divorced entirely from the wider picture – the rain and the wind and the underfoot conditions shrunk everyone’s field of vision down to the crowd they found themselves facing.

A draw was better for Limerick than it was for Galway then, and two points from play in an entire half of hurling was a fairly poor return from the home team. There would be no league semi-final, not that anyone seemed to care unduly.

It was at this juncture that we decided we’d break out the sandwiches we’d brought with us, a move which spoke even more eloquently of our descent into middle-age than the original purpose of our coming together. The alternative, we’d convinced ourselves, was a visit to the Supermacs van over to our left, which couldn’t have had a bigger crowd of Gaels surrounding it all day if David Clifford had been behind the counter.

Sandwiches duly despatched, as the PA man pleaded (successfully, as it turned out) with the kids not to come on the field and further plough up the surface between games, the thought dawned on us that the uninspiring draw might nevertheless be as good as the day got.

So it transpired. Dublin started six of their All-Ireland-winning team, and still won handily. But looking over the absentees on the Galway side, it struck us that if you drew up a list of the 10 most recognisable faces in Galway GAA, the hurlers and footballers were probably without seven or eight of them on Saturday.

Paul Conroy, David Burke and Conor Cooney might make such a top 10, but so too could Conor Whelan, Daithí Burke, Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Sean Kelly, Cillian McDaid, Matthew Tierney . . . all absent through injury or suspension.

It should have been a brilliant showcase of the best dual county in the country going up against the best in both codes, but those absentees, the weather, and the Irish rugby team’s exploits all probably served to dampen enthusiasm.

It should also be said that neither Galway team attacked this year’s league with much gusto. The footballers’ attitude to relegation from this Division 1 appears to be pretty matter-of-fact. If all their injuries clear up in time for the first round of the Super 16 group stages, relegation will have been a small price to pay. Having suffered with injury absentees last summer, Galway appear intent on not making the same mistake twice.

Salthill is always a problem if you’re leaving directly afterwards. If you’re hanging around for the evening, it’s a rather different story. After a stroll into town, with a few pit stops, we passed the rest of our evening picking, and then repicking the Galway senior football team, and taking our hats off to the mere notion that the five of us could be as happy and contented as we are, as our beloved leader (my phrase, not his) moves into his sixth decade.

The national leagues this year have annoyed me more than they’ve entertained me, as we’re forced once again to guess to what extent teams even want to win them. But they gave me last Saturday, and for that alone I should probably be grateful.