Soccer training a doddle compared to Donegal workouts, says former Luton starlet Walsh
BEFORE the Ulster quarter-final against Derry, Jim McGuinness and his players boarded a bus and headed for a few days together at Enfield's Johnstown House.
The squad was put through some serious work on the trip, but there was a fun side to it too.
On one of the days at the 120- acre Meath venue -- which has been used by many teams, including Sunderland, Ireland and Leinster rugby -- the players were broken up for a game of soccer: north versus south. McGuinness took part himself -- and scored as the south won!
The mess-around offered David Walsh the chance to roll back the years a little. Had his life gone down a different path, he could well be living a professional life by now.
A cruciate knee injury ended what had been a promising spell at English League club Luton Town -- he won a place on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) at Kenilworth Road after impressing for Leicester City in a summer trip to Holland.
But once the knee went, the dream was over.
"I was on the YTS for a year and a half," he says. "I got a bad injury and came home. I never really took up soccer again after that. When I came home I played a bit of football for the club (Naomh Brid) and got called into the county team. I've been here ever since.
"I was very young to get the cruciate damaged like that. If it had gone a different way, I might not be sitting here chatting about catching a ball -- I could be chatting about heading one.
"There is a big, big difference in the intensity between the soccer training I was doing and Gaelic football training. All over, Gaelic football training is so intense and everyone has taken it up a level or two.
"With the soccer it was about getting through the 90-minute game, whereas the Gaelic football is all-out from the start.
"I don't regret it at all. I'm glad to be where I'm at now in chasing another Ulster medal. If we could bring another one of those back to Donegal, it would be absolutely amazing."
Gone are the days for the inter-county player of the twice-weekly training sessions and turning up on a Sunday an hour before throw-in.
Top-class Gaelic football is now serious business -- the demands on players have risen to a whole new level.
Of course, the stories can be exaggerated -- Joe Brolly recently announced that Donegal were doing 12 training sessions a week.
Invariably, too, if a story emerges about one county training at 7.0am, another surfaces about someone else having sessions at 6.0.
Yet, when the myths are peeled away, it's fair to say that the inter-county player of today is living a professional life.
Nothing can be done without diet, sleeping patterns or a training timetable being thought about. For many, personal lives are put on hold.
The latest tale in Donegal involved last Saturday's get-together in Letterkenny. Players arrived shortly after 9.0 in the morning. They departed the Mount Errigal Hotel not long before 6.0.
"We're probably the next best thing to professional athletes -- that goes for a lot of teams nowadays in the GAA," says Walsh.
"Really and truly -- we are professionals because you have to watch everything, from what you eat to how long you sleep.
"It has really moved on. It's tough, but when you're going for an Ulster title, you soon find the toughness disappearing."
A lot has changed for Walsh in the last 12 months. A year ago, he appeared for the last 10 minutes in the final against Derry, but he's now an integral part of McGuinness' plans -- and is poised to start Sunday's game against Down.
"I got a lot of opportunities to come in for the last 10 or 15 minutes," he says of last year's campaign. "The final was different because the last 10 minutes of an Ulster final are nothing like anything in any other game."
In the off-season, Walsh looked himself in the mirror and made a promise that he's kept.
He says: "It was hard and there were times I had to look at myself and wonder if I was working hard enough, if I had to put in more.
"I just decided that I'd work harder than ever to get into the team -- and I've done that now.
"Once you get in, you have to step it up again because there are so many men pushing on behind you, which is a really good thing for the squad."
Donegal learned a lot from last year -- and they've taken those lessons into the heat of championship battle again this year.
Walsh is at ease talking about the challenge of facing Down in Sunday's provincial final, but perhaps of more interest is his response to a question about the evolution of Donegal into genuine All-Ireland contenders.
"We're that extra year wiser now," he says. "We've bonded for another 12 months and we have come through so much as a group in the last year.
"I couldn't pick out one or two things that are different -- it's just that, overall, we're a tighter unit now than we were in the first year."