United provide successful connection between team, management and fans

On the sultry Saturday afternoon Galway United exited the FAI Cup, John Caulfield spotted a distraught and distressed young fan not yet fully versed in the harsh reality of the domestic game. Tears flowed, the pain of defeat hitting hard.

In front of the Comer Stand, Caulfield stopped to console the boy. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ was the phrase and message uttered by Caulfield. Spectators had packed into Eamonn Deacy Park for United’s clash with Bohemians, but as the last few left the ground, Caulfield remained stoic.

Bohemians did enough to earn a place in next month’s Aviva Stadium decider. Caulfield, who twice steered Cork City to cup glory at the Lansdowne Road venue, was aware that an opportunity had been missed. Those types of defeats never fully leave the system. Responding to setbacks, though, is simply part and parcel of being a manager, who must lead by example.

In a history-making campaign featuring 98 league goals, a flawless home first division record, Caulfield accomplished that mission.

It wasn’t so pretty on a harrowing night at the Markets Field on November 4, 2022 when United’s play-off promotion bid was terminated by Waterford FC. The scenes were unsavoury. Caulfield, ever the competitor, was aware that the upcoming campaign would be defining.

Supporters worried and wondered. There was no denying or shirking the issues which cost United dearly in the second half of 2022.

Ultimately the team didn’t cope adequately following teenager Alex Murphy’s departure to Newcastle United and an injury to Killian Brouder was a hugely significant factor. Drive and desire was in the squad, but was there sufficient depth?

Like most revivals, the rejuvenation process started in an unexpected setting. The Galway United Friends Co-op organised a questions and answers session with Caulfield on December 15 in the Connacht Hotel. It was a raw and revealing evening.

Nothing was off limits. Caulfield paced the top of the room in front of 50 or so diehards. Information was gleaned and decisions explained. For the first time in six weeks, the majority of United enthusiasts in attendance, had some hope back in the heart.

The previous day Ollie Horgan had joined as Caulfield’s assistant. It was a move that peppered the footballing conversations in the west. Caulfield referenced a friendship forged a couple of decades earlier so the United manager firmly believed in a new backroom ticket, which included the emerging coach Chris Collopy.

Danny Broderick, Gian Luca Ami, Robbie Crosbie, Richard Grier, and Robbie O’Sullivan would remain too. Horgan’s addition was notable. A teacher in St Eunan’s Letterkenny, Horgan, a Salthill native, had always turned out Finn Harps teams renowned for grit and defiance.

By the time Galway United reported for pre-season, United’s players knew that Horgan was about more than just passion. Standards were set and had to be met because the approach was thorough. Collopy was innovative and enthusiastic. There was chemistry.

What mattered were the characters in the new playing squad. Goalkeeper Brendan Clarke eventually ended the campaign with 20 first division clean sheets, playing all but five minutes of the overall action. Clarke’s guile and ability to control the tone and tempo of matches counted as much as the admirable shut-outs.

Former club captain Colm Horgan and Regan Donelon were premier division full backs now in the equation. Unfortunately, injuries curtailed their appearances, but the start of the season mattered so deeply for United. During that stint Horgan and Donelon excelled.

Brouder, signed midway through Alan Murphy’s under-appreciated DNA campaign when several youngsters were blooded, continues to make an impact for the club. When Brouder was hurt in 2022, United struggled.

Clareman Maurice Nugent, who progressed through the Mervue and Galway United ranks, made a welcome return from the UK. Rob Slevin’s solidity shouldn’t be underestimated in the Galway United story. The pre-season evidence suggested Slevin would be a shrewd recruit and that optimism wasn’t misplaced. Suddenly United had options forcing Caulfield and Horgan to make selection calls.

Those players arrived with proven League of Ireland pedigree. Vincent Borden’s attitude and application captured Caulfield’s attention in training. Borden earned a contract. Reflecting on 2022, Caulfield frequently highlighted the fact that the goalscoring burden had predominantly rested on Stephen Walsh’s shoulders.

Unsurprisingly Walsh, a true Galwegian, who has now represented the club on 299 occasions, didn’t shirk responsibility. Borden contributed 10, including a brace in the incessant rain when United chalked up a morale-boosting win away to Finn Harps to launch the season.

It is almost forgotten by many that David Hurley only made a brief cameo appearance in Ballybofey. By the end of the year, midfielder Hurley had netted 24 goals, 21 in the first division - a truly remarkable feat.

Similar to Hurley, this was a season in which Ed McCarthy’s industry embellished United’s displays. Always ready, willing, and able to work for the United cause, McCarthy grabbed nine league and cup goals too.

Francely Lomboto’s searing pace was a key feature in many matches. Introduced in the closing weeks of the Murphy era, Lomboto struck important goals back then. When United needed a late one in the RSC, Lomboto obliged with a strike celebrated furiously by staff and players. Conor O’Keeffe, on commentary duty the same night, even sang a song.

Before and after, the Mullingar native did plenty between the lines too, reliable and imparting wisdom in the Academy with underage United squads.

Ronan Manning supplied flashes of his considerable skill. Injuries hindered Darren Clarke’s season, but his wing craft and vital deflected effort against Longford Town helped to collect points.

Rob Manley’s opportunism was evident and his cameo in a draw in the Carlisle Grounds against Bray Wanderers was important. Reduced to 10 men early in the second half, Manley made a few late bursts at the seaside venue to help United earn a division of the spoils.

Summer additions Wassim Aouachria and Aodh Dervin enjoyed productive outings which bodes well for the future. Evan O’Connor and Oisín O’Reilly were diligent trainers, rewarded with minutes in key contests.

Young players such as Steven Healy, David Tarmey, Brian Cunningham, Aaron Neary, Adam O’Halloran, and Daire McCarthy will have benefited from the exposure to being part of an organised United set-up.

One of the main reasons that has been crafted is the purposeful leadership of captain Conor McCormack. For too long, and perhaps spanning the 27 years since a trophy was last hoisted by a United player, maroon outfits have lacked the necessary bite and bark.

Long before McCormack completed his Irish football medal collection with a first division triumph, it was clear United had attained a respected figure capable of assisting others.

United have failed too often in the past, especially in front of expectant Eamonn Deacy Park crowds. That wasn’t the case in 2023, the big matches and occasions were embraced.

A proper and meaningful connection has been forged between players, management, and supporters. The man the ground is named after would have approved.

 

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