Tuesday 11 December 2018

'Second chance' energising Walsh

County star feared he'd play no part in historic club campaign with Laois finalists Ballylinan

Ballylinan captain Gary Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile
Ballylinan captain Gary Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile

Jackie Cahill

For captain Gary Walsh, Ballylinan's march to a first Laois senior football final in 30 years was almost over before it began.

On the Tuesday after the county team was knocked out of the All-Ireland qualifiers by Clare in July, Walsh was back training with his club.

It was 20 minutes in, he remembers, when he felt something go in his knee.

Walsh feared that he'd sustained cruciate knee ligament damage but a trip to the Santry Sports Clinic in Dublin brought some good news.

Walsh recalls: "I was fearing the worst. The cruciate was supposed to be gone but touch wood, the scans came back with a burst blood vessel and a tendon rupture."

Walsh has been an ever-present in Ballylinan's memorable run and his confidence has grown game by game, in tandem with the club's.

He says: "It was definitely a second chance that I was going to take, and I pushed harder this year for the club.

"That's not saying I slacked off in any other year but this was a second chance.

"Ray Moran (specialist in Santry) wasn't too happy that I was going to try and get back for the championship and I ended up stopping going to physio.

"I went off on my own tangent and trusted my own body.

"In the first game, I probably shouldn't have played but the way the Laois Championship is, if you don't win the first one, it snowballs, as it did two years ago."

In 2015, Ballylinan were sucked into a relegation battle, but beat O'Dempsey's to preserve senior status.

Two years later, they're back in the big time, and it's been a rollercoaster ride for a village just a 25-minute drive from Portlaoise.

Ballylinan beat Mountmellick, St Joseph's, Killeshin and Portarlington to set up a clash with Portlaoise, who won nine titles in a row before they were caught by Stradbally last year.

The semi-final against Portarlington was "the craziest match of all time," Walsh says.

Ballylinan opened up a nine-point lead in the first half but were behind at the break.

They were excellent in the second half, however, and ran out five-point winners.

Paul Julian is the senior team manager. In 1987, he was nine years old, at a time when his father, Pat, was chairman of the club.

"Born, reared and brought up in it," he smiles.

"Played for a good many years.

"We're not that big a club. A lot of fellas that would have played that day would have sons coming along now, nephews and stuff like that.

"I remember going over that day, and the hype around the village.

"I don't remember too much about the match, only a chap at the time, but we're well focused in this time."

Julian's assisted by Pat Cuddy, from Castletown, and Kieran Kelly, who was captain of the Laois minor team that won the All-Ireland title 20 years ago.

Eamon Lacey is another selector and 30 years ago, he played at half-back on the Ballylinan team. His son, Seamus, will fulfil a similar role tomorrow.

It was Stradbally who stopped Ballylinan at the quarter-final stage last year, before they went on to win the county title.

It was a chastening lesson, but Walsh reasoned that if Stradbally could do it, why not Ballylinan?

It just so happens that his grandfather, Michael 'Slippy' Walsh, is club president this year, which makes it all the sweeter.

Gary smiles: "I've never seen anything like it in my life, after the semi-final - kids running onto the field like we'd won the All-Ireland.

"In the pub after, nobody was going mad but everybody was just so happy.

"That was the most satisfying thing about it - everybody had a pep in their step.

"My grandfather is 82, and that's what it's all about.

"I'd say he thought he'd never see another county final with Ballylinan.

"And he did say that he knew early in the year, during the league, that there was something different about Ballylinan.

"We've always had talented players but it's the work-rate this year.

"The most talented lads on the field aren't always the lads that work hard but this year, everyone put their shoulder to the wheel."

A village waits with bated breath.

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