According to many armchair fans, management is as easy as A, B, C. However, schoolteacher and Galway United record goalscorer Alan Murphy knows this is far from the case.
Having cut his teeth managing the Under 17s as well as the Connacht Schoolboys over the past five years, Murphy – along with his trusty backroom staff of brother Kevin and Keith McTigue- was well aware of the challenges facing League of Ireland managers when he took over the reins at Éamonn Deacy Park following Shane Keegan’s departure last summer.
The new management team guided the Maroon Army to four wins and a draw in their first six games- the only loss being a 2-0 reverse at the hands of league champions in waiting UCD. As such, hopes were high for the 2019 season, despite the loss of promising striker Conor Layng to a long term knee injury.
The vision for the new campaign was set out with the ambitious launch of Project DNA in December 2018. The concept laid out was that promising footballers from the region would get the chance to prove themselves at First Division level.
Amongst 15 key tenets were the values of developing links with the local area and ensuring that time was given to player development, including the promotion of players from the Underage Academy.
Standout goalscoring midfielder Conor Barry was quickly signed up for the season, along with the homecoming of promising goalkeeper Kevin Horgan. Conor Melody, Stephen Walsh and Marc Ludden, utility man Maurice Nugent as well as Colin Kelly, Donal Higgins, Wilson Waweru, Adam Rooney, Dara Costelloe, Matthew Barrett and Chris Horgan from the club’s Academy cemented the local connections while the experienced Iarfhlaith Davoren returned from the USA, with Shane Doherty making the journey from the States too.
Sligo native Mark Hannon swapped Finn Harps for the Tribesmen, Limerickman Jeff McGowan signed following a period at Dundalk in 2018, Clare's Joe Collins and Cork’s Cian Murphy were both recruited from junior clubs with German Andreas Werner and Argentinian Ivan Gamarra signing up following open trials. With the return of free scoring frontman Vinny Faherty to the country, the squad had a little more experience but remained inexperienced at First Division level.
The path to success rarely runs smoothly and so it proved this season. Operating on one of the lowest budgets in the league, and with just two professional players, Galway United were relying on their new signings, many of whom had never played in the league before, to provide the difference to a club which had finished in 6th place in 2018.
They began the 2019 season in dramatic fashion with 17-year-old Colin Kelly and Vinny Faherty putting Murphy’s men 2-0 up against a Shelbourne side packed with Premier Division experience. The second half introduction of winger Conan Byrne saw the Dubliners record a 3-2 win, courtesy of a brace from another former FAI Cup and Premier Division winner in the shape of Ciarán Kilduff.
For a team containing five teenagers (Kelly, Waweru, Rooney, Chris Horgan and Barrett) and only three over the age of 23 (Ludden, Walsh and Faherty) it was an impressive first half performance only to be defeated by a side containing nine starters and two substitutes with recent Premier Division experience.
Their second game of the season saw a 4-0 win away to Wexford, however an injury to marquee signing Kevin Horgan saw the keeper out for a significant period of the season. His replacement Werner had never played in Ireland while 3rd choice James Tierney was signed from junior football after coming through the Galway United Underage system. A second win arrived courtesy of an extra time winner from Vinny Faherty away to Athlone in the League Cup. However, the next three games saw single goal defeats against Bray, Drogheda and Cabinteely – all preventable strikes – in positive displays.
A number of players were unavailable due to work commitments and injury, thus Murphy had to name himself amongst 5 subs for an away League Cup defeat to Premier Division Waterford. Returning to Eamonn Deacy Park saw another couple of narrow league defeats, before three wins in four games ended that run.
Another win looked to be on the cards as they took a one nil lead into half time against Bray Wanderers before conceding a brace of headed goals to Hugh Douglas – the latter in the final moments. Their third game in seven days saw a three nil defeat to promotion chasing Drogheda United and despite the scoreline there were positives to take for the Academy structure with sixteen year old Dara Costello starting and six of the seven named substitutes having spent time with Galway United Underage sides.
A 0-0 draw against Cabinteely steadied the ship and, while a trio of 2-1 away defeats – to Longford, Limerick and Cobh respectively – did nothing to improve the league position, in terms of the overall development plan Shane Doherty was really starting to find his feet – netting twice.
The second half of the season saw the Tribesmen begin with a 1-1 draw against Athlone- a penalty for the Midlanders cancelling out a strike from the aforementioned Academy product Waweru. The game also saw a home debut for defender Jack Lynch, signed from junior football in Limerick and was the penultimate game to feature Doherty who returned to the United States following his father’s illness.
A 3-0 defeat to champions-in-waiting Shelbourne was followed by a 0-0 draw away to Wexford – a game in which Kevin Horgan recorded his third consecutive clean sheet against the Slaneysiders in 2019. It was another draw in the following league game as United recovered from conceding an early unlucky own goal to earn a 2-2 draw against promotion candidates Bray Wanderers thanks to goals from stalwarts Conor Barry and Maurice Nugent – both of whom have represented Ireland while at the club.
Two more promotion heavy hitters were next on the agenda with Longford Town and Drogheda United recording victories over Alan Murphy’s side, 4-0 and 3-1 respectively. However, despite the score-lines, there were a number of positive developments in terms of player progression with Under 19 goalkeeper Cian Mulryan stepping up to the bench after the departure of James Tierney, Conor Layng making his first start after almost a year out injured, 20 year old Killian Brouder joining from Limerick and another young signing in the shape of Stephen Christopher from Cobh.
Drawn away to Collinstown Utd in the FAI Cup, there was pressure on the side to earn a result to keep some excitement and interest in the season. Conor Barry, unfortunate with injuries during the early part of the campaign, repaid the faith shown in him by the management team at the start of the season by making him one of their first signings for 2019, by scoring a brace in a 2-1 victory and subsequently netting the winner against Cabinteely in a 1-0 victory five days later.
Cork City visited in the FAI Cup the following Friday and were dispatched on a similar scoreline thanks to a strike from 22 year old Conor Melody- another of the Underage graduates, having lined out for the club’s Under-19 team in the 2014/2015 season.
That victory over Cork set up a clash against Shamrock Rovers and The Hoops, who spent the opening period of the season top of the Premier Division, prevailed 2-1 courtesy of a very late goal from former United centre back Lee Grace and an equaliser scored by another former Tribesman Aaron Greene.
Buoyed by their recent displays, Galway thumped Cobh Ramblers 7-1 having been 1-0 down at the break and continued to display a determination in grinding out late results by scoring in injury time against Limerick to win 3-2 and against Athlone to draw 2-2, in a game which saw Mulryan make his debut, and end the season with 5 wins and a draw in their final seven games.
So Project DNA, was it an overwhelming success this season? On the basis of final league position of 8th in the First Division, a run of six consecutive defeats and another of 12 without a win and periods of quite rudimentary football at times and the easy answer is no.
However, contrast that with the fact that the squad lost four of their initial squad due to non footballing reasons, they used 29 different players (of which 16 came through their Underage ranks) with an average age of 22 years and one month old and 17 players were handed debuts (Avg age 21 years 1 month) then you have to take a different viewpoint.
Add in the fact that, with the exception of Shelbourne and Drogheda (1st and 2nd in the league) no other team outclassed Galway – Longford's 4-0 win was goalless after an hour – and the side beat Cork City and matched Shamrock Rovers up to the final minute and the future looks bright.
The young squad assembled by Alan and Kevin Murphy along with Keith McTigue has shown plenty of promise in patches throughout the season, with the emergence of Jack Lynch and Donal Higgins particularly eye catching.
Consistency comes with experience so this season can be seen as the first step on the journey towards returning Galway Utd to the Premier Division- foundations were laid down and a hope has been awakened for 2020.