Walsh's inside knowledge gives Sligo hope against native Tribe
IT SPEAKS volumes about Kevin Walsh's place in the affection of Galway football folk that the minute the county's managerial seat became vacant again last summer his name was mentioned.
The Galway senior job was custom-made for another former county footballer, Alan Mulholland, who had managed the county's minors and U-21s to All-Irelands in 2007 and 2011 respectively.
Walsh couldn't have been a contender because he was only half-way through his second two-year term in charge of Sligo, but that still didn't stop the jungle drums beating.
Walsh's heroism as a two-time All-Ireland winning Galway midfielder means he's still held in high esteem and regarded as a future county senior manager.
But tonight, for the third time in four years, he finds himself on the opposite side of the championship fence from his own people.
When he got the Sligo job in 2009 Walsh quickly led the Yeats men to successive league titles, building momentum and hope by moving up from Division 4 to Division 2.
He was unlucky to draw Galway (losing 1-13 to 0-12) on his Connacht championship managerial debut, but Sligo then beat Tipperary and only lost to Kerry by a point that summer.
A year later, they started the summer with the sort of form that stirred memories of their 2007 Connacht title.
Yet mention the summer of 2010 now and the general response is "don't mention the war!"
Sligo got the draw from hell that summer yet sensationally ousted both Mayo and Joe Kernan's Galway (in a replay) to reach the provincial decider.
They had beaten Roscommon by seven points on the last day of the league to condemn their neighbours to Division 4 football and were odds-on favourites.
But the Rossies, led by their own local hero Fergal O'Donnell, handed them a heartbreaking one-point defeat in Castlebar, a late Donie Shine free providing the coup de grace.
Six days later, unable to lift themselves, Sligo were annihilated by Down (3-20 to 0-10), their summer over.
Morale took a further blow last year when they suffered relegation from Division 2 and then, despite home advantage, lost to Leitrim in their provincial opener and were dumped out of the qualifiers by Wicklow.
Walsh's back-room team includes Paul Taylor and Dessie Sloyan, part of a good U-21 team in the '90s, but Sligo struggle for numbers and success at underage level, leading to a low turnover rate in the senior side.
Ten of tonight's starters played championship in 2009 and, if Eamonn O'Hara and David Kelly were fully fit, that would probably increase to 12.
Kelly's repeated ankle problems have hampered the county's fortunes over the past two years but the word is he's finally ready to return.
However, a glance at Connacht's underage statistics shows the sort of obstacles Sligo face.
They have only ever won two Connacht minor titles (1949 and 1968) and last contested a minor final 13 years ago.
They have never won a provincial U-21 title, though, encouragingly, they have contested three of the last four finals -- centre-forward Pat Hughes and substitutes David Maye and Niall Murphy are three of this year's U-21s.
Of other recent U-21 talents, a leg break and his medical studies have stalled Stephen Gilmartin's progress but Keelan Cawley is still involved.
Shane McManus is a relative newcomer in midfield and partners Eugene Mullen, who is back after a cruciate injury.
Centre-back Mark Quinn was, like Maye, involved in the 2010 All-Ireland junior victory, while full-back Johnny Martyn looks to have been picked specifically to match Paul Conroy in the air.
Sligo retained their Division 3 status by winning their last three league games (against Tipp, Offaly and Roscommon) before emphatically beating New York and, with a place in the Connacht final up for grabs, Walsh will be hoping to use his inside knowledge to spring a surprise in Salthill tonight.