Wednesday 28 September 2016

Kevin Walsh: A returning icon ready to restore glory days

'Guy everybody wanted' quickly restoring Galway’s fortunes from the dugout after inspiring them to two All-Irelands in his playing days

Christy O'Connor

Published 31/07/2015 | 02:30

Kevin Walsh and his Galway team have been impressive since being knocked out of the Connacht championship
Kevin Walsh and his Galway team have been impressive since being knocked out of the Connacht championship

In the lead-up to last year's Galway intermediate football final, Moycullen got word that Killanin were up to something. There was speculation that Kevin Walsh was going to be part of the Killanin management for the game.

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Then the rumour went out that he was going to play. Moycullen struggled to see where that was coming from. Walsh hadn't played in years. He was 45. He was crocked with knee injuries.

When Moycullen heard that Walsh might start at full-forward, it looked like a clever spin strategy from a neighbouring club aimed at disrupting their mindset before such a big derby.

On the day, Walsh was listed in the match programme but he didn't sit in the dugout in Tuam Stadium. Killanin were ahead by two points at half-time but they had played with the aid of a strong breeze.

The game was still in the melting pot at 0-9 each with six minutes remaining when Killanin midfielder Eamon McDonagh went down injured. There was movement in the stand.

"Guess who has come down to the sideline, taken off a black cap and is about to come into the county final?" said Galway Bay FM commentator Ollie Turner. "You won't believe this. . ."

Unzipping

The script was being prepared. Walsh began unzipping his tracksuit. With number 20 on his back, Walsh ran onto the pitch.

"The crowd went mental," recalls Moycullen manager Michael Donnellan. "When the guy on the PA announced Kevin's name, the roof lifted off the stand."

The next play was a Moycullen kickout. The keeper drove it down the middle of the field. Walsh rose above everyone else, won the kickout and was fouled for a free. "The crowd went mental again," says Donnellan.

The script was already written. Killanin had got momentum at the perfect time and Walsh was central to turning it. Twenty-nine years after he played against Moycullen in a west board intermediate final, he helped Killanin to a three-point win, the Connemara club's first ever adult county title.

"Kevin was only on the pitch for six or seven minutes but he had a huge influence on the game during that time," says Donnellan. "He was so cute and clever on the ball. Kevin was such a steadying influence for Killanin when they needed it."

For years, Galway had been waiting for Walsh to provide that same steadying hand. During his five years as Sligo manager - which coincided with an extension of Galway's lost years - they had beaten the Tribesmen twice, further adding to his stock.

Galway had four managers during that five-year period. Two of them only lasted one season. Walsh's name was always in the background. The next manager-in-waiting. When Alan Mulholland stepped down last summer, Walsh was available for the first time.

"There was a huge groundswell of support for Kevin to become Galway manager," says former All-Ireland winning captain Ray Silke. "He ticked a lot of boxes with his experience from Sligo and he was also unbelievably respected by the current squad.

"He was the obvious and best choice for Galway manager. He was the guy everybody wanted."

He has already made an impact. In recent years, most of the top counties have had managers who galvanised their county in their first season in charge: Jim McGuinness, James Horan, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Conor Counihan, Malachy O'Rourke, even Kieran McGeeney in Kildare.

Galway had a similar profile to what most of those counties had before a new manager propelled them onto the next level. Walsh seemed ideally suited to provide that injection, but could he?

After failing to gain promotion in this year's League, or beat Mayo in the Connacht Championship, Walsh and Galway needed to do something to show that they were different under him. They have.

Beating Armagh in Armagh was the first big statement. Taking down Derry in atrocious conditions was the second. Those were significant victories: it was the first time in five years that a county from beyond the northern province had successfully knocked two Ulster counties out of the qualifiers in one summer.

"If you're going to battle, or trying to win an All-Ireland, Kevin Walsh is a good guy to have leading you," says Silke. "He is a very hard worker. He has a terrific work-ethic. Kevin just gets things done."

That has always been Walsh's way. Before he became Sligo manager in 2009, his managerial experience was limited to a period coaching in Galway's ladies football, before taking over the Aran Islands and guiding them to a West Galway intermediate final.

Stark

By the time he arrived in Sligo, the county's fall from grace had been stark. After a breakthrough and emotional provincial Championship win in 2007, they were relegated to Division 4 in 2008. After a heavy Championship defeat to Mayo, they were sent tumbling into the Tommy Murphy Cup.

"Things had slipped but Kevin was a huge appointment for us," says former Sligo goalkeeper Philip Greene. "He was a huge presence. He's a big strong man anyway but his achievements added to that reputation.

"He was a great character. He had a nice way about him. He was very modest. He never talked about what he had won, even though we often wanted him to.

"There are only a handful of guys out there who have the X-factor as manager and Kevin definitely had it. In 2009-10, he really had us playing as a unit. He had this ability to make players want to play for him. Under him, you felt you could do anything."

In 2009, a Diarmuid Murphy penalty save from David Kelly denied Sligo a famous win in Tralee, and Kerry went on to win the All-Ireland.

In 2010, Sligo defeated Mayo and Galway. They went into the Connacht final as raging favourites but lost to Roscommon by one point.

In 2012, they defeated Galway but lost to Mayo in the provincial decider, again by one point. The momentum was lost and Sligo never got it back again under Walsh.

His fifth and final season in 2013 ended disastrously. Relegation to Division 4 was followed by a defeat to London and a first-round qualifier exit. On the night they lost to London, former player Eamonn O'Hara rounded on Walsh on 'The Sunday Game'.

"The year was a disaster from start to finish," says Greene. "Maybe Kevin stayed a year too long. There was an element of staleness but that was inevitable too after five years because the player turnover in Sligo is always so small.

"It was a pity the way it ended because Kevin had done so much. The set-up was completely professional. He was totally genuine, totally committed to the cause while he was there. That showed in the effort and the planning he put into in beating his own county twice."

That pain was harder for Galway supporters to take, given Walsh's iconic status in the county. He ended his playing career in 2005 as one of the most honoured midfielders of his generation: two All-Irelands, three All Stars and five Connacht medals.

His haul was all the more impressive given that all he had to show for the first ten years of his career was a single provincial medal.

"It has often been talked about who was Galway's most influential player over the last 40 years and a lot of people would say Kevin Walsh," says Silke.

"He might not have had the scoring power of Padraic Joyce, or the flair or flamboyance of Ja Fallon, but I'd say the first name down on John O'Mahony's team-sheet - every day - was Kevin Walsh."

He was, provided he was fit. Walsh's knees were such a mess that he underwent three operations on each one. Two weeks after coming on and turning the drawn 2000 All-Ireland final, Walsh's kneecap gave way minutes into the replay. He took a painkiller to come on again at half-time but he was crocked by then.

After another operation, a specialist told Walsh that if he wanted to play inter-county football again, he'd have to take eight weeks off work to undergo full-time rehab. Walsh couldn't. Instead, he went to a physio twice a day and worked relentlessly hard on a gym bike.

He returned to play in the last five games of the year in 2001, winning his second All-Ireland and second All Star.

"In 1998 and 2001, he was untouchable," says Silke. "People couldn't compete with him. "Between 1998-2003, Kevin was one of the best midfielders in Ireland.

Stripped

"In hindsight I'd say John O'Mahony regretted not starting him in that 2000 drawn game. When Kevin was on the field, you always won ball. When he got possession, he kept it. Nobody ever stripped the ball off him.

"We never saw a fully fit Kevin Walsh against Darragh O Sé but it would have been some battle."

Injuries were a contributing factor to a lack of mobility compared to other great midfielders, but Walsh still had a huge range to his game. He was such an exceptional underage basketball player that Oughterard joined the National League to show off his talents.

"He was one of these guys you wouldn't like to play against," says former Kerry player Jack O'Shea. "He had huge natural strength, a huge presence and physique. He had football in his heart. Kevin Walsh was definitely one of the best midfielders Galway ever produced."

One of Walsh's last great acts on the big stage was to shake off a number of Donegal hits late on in the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final and bomb over the equalising point. At the time, he was 34. He then had four young kids but he ended that season as an All Star.

Walsh was Galway's last All Star but his goal now is to try and return Galway to the top table, to make the county serious contenders again. That process has already begun.

And a win tomorrow against Donegal would be one of Walsh's biggest statements yet.

Irish Independent

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