Sunday 22 April 2018

Walsh destined to scale heights

Victory over native Galway can springboard up-and-coming Sligo manager into big time

Kevin Walsh is congratulated by his former manager John O'Mahony after Sligo's victory against Galway earlier this month
Kevin Walsh is congratulated by his former manager John O'Mahony after Sligo's victory against Galway earlier this month
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

With the distance comes a clearer picture. Kevin Walsh's retirement after the 2004 championship season has left a void in the Galway midfield that has not been properly filled.

Thumb through the team for Sunday and once again there is an element of 'wing and a prayer' about the Galway midfield. It could work, but there is no guarantee, the same terms that have existed for the last six years now.

It's that uncertainty that has led the majority of the Galway public to engage in a little revisionism.

For all the class of Joyce and Fallon, for the dynamism of Donnellan and the warrior traits of Mannion, Kevin Walsh was the man, the most critical element of what can be commonly termed the 'O'Mahony era' in Galway, an era that hasn't been lived up to by any team since.

The brace of All-Ireland finals that they contested with Kerry provided the most compelling evidence of the depth of Walsh's importance to O'Mahony's team.

Injury -- a common companion during a staggered 15-year career with Galway -- dictated that he did not start the drawn game, but with his team in such trouble early on, they threw him in after just 17 minutes and he steadied them. For the replay he started, but the early departure of the anchor man had the predictable impact of Galway losing their way.

When they trade the kudos for the two All-Irelands that Galway did glean from that era, Padraic Joyce's contribution will rank highly, but it's what has happened post-Walsh that has elevated his contribution.

On Sunday he again finds himself in the not too uncommon position of plotting his own county's downfall as Sligo boss, a repeat of the corresponding fixture in Markievicz Park 12 months ago.

His management of Sligo has been quite remarkable, surprising many in the native county he leaves behind three times a week to head north.

Did they see this coming? Not if the decision to overlook him for interview for the Galway minor job -- a position he would privately have welcomed -- in late '08 is anything to go by.


In successive years Sligo have jumped from Division 4 to Division 2, landing the title on both occasions, but it's their impact in the championship which has stood out. Last July they came within a successful penalty-kick of dumping Kerry out of the championship and three weeks ago had the conviction to see off Mayo. Their football has a nice style about it too.

In the future he looks like the next Galway manager. For now though, Sligo are the project as he fulfils the capacity his former minor manager John Tobin always felt he had.

"Kevin is always affable and social. He brought intelligence to the game he played and I'm sure it's as well thought out on the line," says Tobin, for whom Walsh was a key influence when they landed the 1986 All-Ireland minor final, his two points from midfield changing the course of the final against Cork. By that stage his adult career with his club Kilanin, between Moycullen and Oughterard, was already three-years-old.

By thenhe had shed the 'basketballer' tag. A former schools international, he added substance to the correlation between talented basketball players who make good footballers. Where now there is Kieran Donaghy, there was once Liam McHale and Walsh.

"Basketball gave him the vision he had playing Gaelic football," says Tobin. "The awareness, the lightness of the feet for such a big man. There is many a Galway footballer who will tell you he is the best passer of a ball they've played with. He had great soft hands."

Essentially Walsh's Galway career at senior level can be split up into two distinct periods.

He spent almost a decade fighting injury from an inguinal hernia in his early days, that Tobin saw at first hand, to knee injuries that required surgery.

Walsh, a garda before he turned to property development, didn't broadcast those battles, preferring to keep quiet counsel instead. But it led to a suspicion in Galway that he didn't fancy training.

When John O'Mahony arrived in Galway for the 1998 season, he fixed restoring Walsh in his sights and didn't relent until he had him. The story goes that O'Mahony even insisted on waiting on after training one night so that Walsh could 'catch up' when he had commitments at a funeral.

Tobin saw it differently than much of the Galway public. "There used to be scepticism that he didn't like training, but I would never have subscribed to that. I genuinely believed that in the early part of his career, he just couldn't beat those injuries.


"He had this groin injury for at least two years. I remember playing him in one game against Dublin and regretting it. It took him a long time to get over it."

By '98 he was already heading for his 29th birthday, but for the next six seasons he finally made his great natural asset count on the national stage.

"Kevin and Ja Fallon were the two players John O'Mahony went after who weren't there in '97. When you think about it, they were two time bombs waiting to go off the following year," says Tobin.

In any era of great midfielders Walsh stood as tall as anyone. There were regular duels with his contemporaries of the day on either side of the millennium -- Anthony Tohill, Darragh O Se, John McDermott. Rarely did he come off second best.

Two All-Ireland medals and three All Stars later, Walsh bowed out at the end of '04 as injuries began to take hold again.

He was still going strong in '03 when others were losing their edge and kicked the equaliser in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal in Croke Park. They lost the replay in Castlebar, but Walsh was still magnificent.

"He had some last six or seven years to his career considering how the first 10 went," says Tobin.

His management career has taken him from physical trainer with the Galway ladies -- his wife Mary is involved at that level -- to manager of the Aran Islands, which reached the West Intermediate final in Galway two years ago.

A move into inter-county management was a leap of faith by the Sligo Board and he surrounded himself with a strong team of recent past players with whom he has struck up a strong alliance.

"I think the fact that he had so many injuries himself has given him a different perspective that will help him as a manager," says Tobin.

He has struck a chord in Sligo as a communicator, often seen before and during a game with his hand on the shoulder of one his players, deep in explanation.

Sligo looks like a stepping stone, beating Galway would be a springboard.

Irish Independent

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