Finian Hanley goes back to the future
By Cian O'Connell
As emerging footballers poured out from Ben Kelly’s car those gathered at the Prairie would quickly scan what type of a team Highfield would be fielding that day in the Salthill-Knockncarra Parish Leagues.
When Finian Hanley was in the blood red and white jersey Highfield’s defence was sorted and for a stint Stephen O’Donnell, the Dundalk captain and talisman, was stationed at the opposite end as a forward, still classically described, with a roving commission.
Kelly’s grandfather served as GAA President in 1889 and he gave tremendous service, quiet and unstinting, to the city club.
Watching Hanley win three Connacht titles with Galway brought pleasure and joy while always offering a reminder of the infinite possibilities which exist in sport.
Mary and the sadly deceased Michael Hanley produced a full back who served the Salthill-Knockncarra, Galway, and Ireland causes with distinction, but this January feels a bit surreal.
Finian Hanley, who took his first steps with Galway seniors in 2004, hasn’t returned to the fold. “I won't lie, it is a little bit different going to the gym, having to motivate yourself,” Hanley says.
“Normally there is someone shouting at you, doing your fitness tests or whatever so it is definitely a little bit different.
“But when you are busy at work and with a young two year old you are fairly able to kill the hours. After a significant period of time January was a bit of a comedown after Christmas, but you will get used to it.”
The past couple of weeks have been spent reflecting on the journey. Some glorious days out west, other occasions still hurt too. That is the way it is. “You look back and for me my time playing was all about getting on the pitch, to be fit and available,” Hanley states.
“Fortunately and unfortunately in a way I didn't have too many massive injuries in my career, but I did tear my cruciate last year.
"Up to that I always had injuries that I was able to play through, I don't know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. I didn't have anything significant, I played a lot of games, maybe around 120 League and Championship games for Galway, I started a lot of them which was a success being able to do that.
“On the downside we played in five or six Connacht finals in a row, we lost four by a point so I look back with a big of regret on those days.
"Three Connacht titles could have been five or six, we didn't win enough with the players that we had, especially in the early part of my career.
“We didn't win enough so that is probably a bit of a regret. Listen I enjoyed a lot of it so I can't really have any complaints.”
Hanley acknowledges that the western landscape shifted in 2011 when James Horan arrived as Mayo manager. While others waited and wondered, the Green and Red evolved - it is only now that Galway and Roscommon are back seriously competing in Connacht.
“Definitely, in 2011 when James Horan came in,” Hanley acknowledges about Mayo’s considerable improvement. “We had the measure of Mayo up until then, in the 2000s the lads were used to beating Mayo.
“It had been a bit up and down, you'd win one year and lose the next, but in 2011 when they found the Aidan O'Sheas and the Lee Keegans and don't forget they were lucky to get out of Ruislip in James Horan's first year, I think a guy hit the crossbar with a chance to put London three up. Who knows what would have happened then confidence wise?
“It just steamrolled from then for them and I think it is fair to say they are the best Mayo team of all time, we just happened to come up against them. In that period we didn't have our ducks in a row, we had no real identity.
“The thing in Galway was always about free flowing football, what we played in the 90s and 60s and 80s, but the game changed. Galway didn't change enough or quick enough. When we tried to change in one season or for one match it didn't suit us.
“We were in no man's lands and we weren't competing whereas Mayo did. They had an identity, they knew what they were about, tackling and ferocious work rate and things like that.
“Our guys just didn't work as hard as that and maybe we didn't have the players either. Unfortunately that is what happened. Mayo haven't won an All Ireland, but they are still a great team, there is a lot of aspects to it.”
Under Kevin Walsh Galway have secured a Connacht title and an Allianz Football League Division Two crown. Hanley praises Walsh’s efforts with the maroon team believing that Galway are now more competitive and consistent.
“Yeah, since Kevin came in the first thing was to set us up a lot more defensively which he has done and I know in his first year he was singled out, but in the last two years specifically he set it up defensively with a lot of bodies behind the ball which is something that wouldn't be associated with Galway,” Hanley says.
“He had to take a bit of grief from supporters at times, but there is ways and means of doing these things. That is the way we had to go in the last couple of years, to try to keep the score down and see if you have the forwards then.
“Where you lose then it is that your really good starting forwards that Galway are known for are doing a lot of the donkey work, falling back into their own half where they are not as dangerous. It is a catch 22 situation, you have to try to get the balance right, but Kevin has tried to do that.
“You are moving with the times and football is opening up a bit now again. That might allow Galway to revert back to type to play a game that suits them a lot more.
“Hopefully that will happen, to allow Galway to compete a lot more. Defensive football mightn't be something that suits Galway, but is needed to be done at this stage.”
During his two decades involved with Galway Hanley is adamant that the game has altered dramatically. “It definitely has changed,” is Hanley’s verdict. “I came in under John O'Mahony in 2004 and there was a lot more of three inside forwards where you would have one v one, where you'd mark your man with corner backs beside you.
“You would have a fuller defence of maybe five players on five players. Now you could be one on one with nobody else near you with players up the pitch if the opposition were falling back. If you press up you can get done on the counter attack.
“There is a lot more counter attacking now. There is no real fullback and my own position has become nearly null and void because teams might be playing one inside or two inside. You don't really need a full back or a tall full back now.
“I just don't see it, positions are changing. The traditional full back and centre back has all changed, that is where the game has really changed, I think. Everyone is playing in different positions, corner backs are going up the pitch and corner forwards are coming back playing corner back.
“You have to be a lot more able to move around positions, whereas when I first came in you were full back, you'd win your ball and lay it off to whoever, that was it, that was your job done. It is a bit different now.”
Hanley will busy himself in Salthill-Knocknacarra activities in 2018. A stint as a selector with a promising Under 21 team has been worthwhile.
"Sean Armstrong continues to wear the maroon and white, and Hanley is encouraged that Evan Wynne, John Maher, Evan Murphy, and Robert Finnerty have sampled Connacht FBD League action.
“I think similarities exist between Galway and Salthill,” Hanley states. “There are a lot of players in Salthill especially, we have the biggest club in the west of Ireland.
“Keeping them interested and keeping guys playing, getting them to work at it and commit to it. That has all changed. Lads will commit for so long, but if there is any bit of adversity they will just throw their hat at it, walk off to do something else.
“Obviously with the club situation and fixtures it needs to be nailed down to give guys a target by saying we will play this game on this day or whatever it is.
“There is great potential in Salthill, don't get me wrong. We have a massive underage system, but we are really finding it hard to get from 18 to senior. I tried to do a little bit with the Under 21s to try to bridge that gap. Hopefully we will see a few more coming through.
“We have a couple of lads in the county panel at the minute, three or four and then Sean is still there. The more you have in that professional environment, to bring it back to the club, it will bring their friends on, it will make them get better.
“We haven't had too many county senior footballers in the club, so hopefully we can get two or three more in to lift the whole thing.” Helping them realise their potential is Hanley’s brief now. Having arrived with the Highfield brigade it is fitting that Hanley attention remains on bettering Salthill-Knocknacarra and Galway’s fortunes.