Galway finding their way again under Kevin Walsh

Manager has led young side to Connacht Senior Football Championship final once again

 Galway manager Kevin Walsh celebrates with Gareth Bradshaw after winning the Connacht Senior Football Championship final replay against Roscommon last year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Galway manager Kevin Walsh celebrates with Gareth Bradshaw after winning the Connacht Senior Football Championship final replay against Roscommon last year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It is one of the more surreal juxtapositions in GAA history, the sort of thing you wouldn’t swear on a stack of bibles actually took place except the eternal ether keeps video evidence.

Minutes after the 1998 All-Ireland final, Kevin Walsh is being interviewed by Marty Morrissey, steam still wisping up from his colossal frame. Walsh has Seán Ó Domhnaill to his right, midfield partner and fellow Connemara man, and the pair of them are in bullish, almost cranky form.

“We’re delighted that there were so many critics all year because it took the pressure off us,” says Walsh. “We came up here – I’m a betting man, Marty, and I couldn’t tempt fate but I certainly put a few bob on us here today.”

Even allowing for the belligerence of victory hard-won, it strikes a slightly discordant note. Galway were indeed underdogs for the final, available at 9/4 on the day.

But the notion that they were sticking it to the critics was a nonsense – few teams have been as popular beyond county bounds as that Galway side of Donnellan, Joyce, Fallon and De Paor. And Walsh himself, an empire state of a midfielder, back when the mid-numbers decided the ebb and flow of every game.

Whatever about that, what came next was just bizarre. Marty, obviously with a producer buzzing in his ear, drags in from off-camera a special guest, ushering him into shot and getting Walsh and Ó Domhnaill to shift over and make room.

“And joining us now, the British minister for sport, Tony Banks. ”

Tony Banks! Now, there’s a name to conjure with. Chelsea supporter, Tory-baiter extraordinaire. Once said of John Major that he was “so unpopular, if he became a funeral director people would stop dying”. And there he was, out of thin air, chatting to the great Marty M in the wake of Galway’s day of days.

The management team in place did not equip us. The two under-21 teams that came through weren’t given the tools to live at senior and Kevin has now given it to them

“I’m very privileged to be here, Marty. A fantastic match. Galway really were worthy winners and I thought Kevin here was undoubtedly the man of the match. Fantastic atmosphere, good, good game. I thought Galway were good at the beginning of the match and I know they were underdogs but on the day they were undoubtedly the best team.”

Meanwhile in the back of the shot, you can see Walsh looking off into the distance and eventually losing interest and walking away, Sam Maguire in hand. Compliments from the future Baron Stratford are all fine and dandy. But there’s a time and a place, all right Tone?

You only ever had to watch Kevin Walsh the footballer from the stands to get a fair idea that he’d be Kevin Walsh the manager in time. He ran Galway’s on-pitch business like a hands-dirty CEO. He was constantly orchestrating and cajoling those around him and when it came time to teach some manners, he was front and centre for that too.

Kevin Walsh during his playing days for Galway. Photo: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
Kevin Walsh during his playing days for Galway. Photo: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

“He was one of the few married lads in the squad, we were young lads,” says John Divilly, the 1998 team’s 21-year-old centre-back. “But he was great fun. While he might have that outwards seriousness about him, I would say young lads in the Galway set-up now really love him and look up to him.

“He was a father figure to us, a real leader. He wouldn’t impose himself on you but he’d lead towards a solution, a kind of, ‘We might try it this way – what do you think?’ He was coaching us on the field in effect. It was how he said it, not just what he said that mattered.

“He was tough too. Never lost a throw-in that I can remember. That’s one thing I always saw with him. He’d either catch it or tap it down but he always had a way of getting to it first and taking control of the situation. That was him all over as a player. He was so strong, he’d get one hand up there and hold off the opposition with the other. Nobody messed with him. He was well able to mix it if it got rough.”

Throughout the slough of despond that followed the break-up of the Galway team from the turn of the century, civilisations fell and rose again in the time it took anyone to make a coherent diagnosis of the problem. It was only last winter, in a lost interview published in Christmas week, that Corofin forward Gary Sice said some things that had been generally unsayable in the county.

“I think we had three-year period of management there, where even as a management they were jumpy, they weren’t in any way organised, they weren’t in any way building something, they were just kind of hoping Galway football would take off, that’s not what happens. They didn’t give the tools needed to deal with a Mayo that were grinding out results and developing a machine.

“And they did develop a machine over a five-year period, they dominated Connacht completely through organisation, through ruthlessness, through what I could only describe as bully tactics. They really played senior football.

“The management team in place did not equip us. The two under-21 teams that came through weren’t given the tools to live at senior and Kevin has now given it to them. He’s given them a set of tools to play senior, and lo and behold they’ve turned around and beaten Mayo.

“It’s not rocket science really, is it? But it takes someone to come in and do that and do the rough work and do the dirty work and get it right and he has done that and I think he’s on to something good.”

Essentially, there was a lack of Kevin Walshness about the place for a long time and Galway lost their way. In the years they didn’t go out of the championship to the first good team they met, they went out to the first half-middling one. After Walsh retired in 2004 they went out to Kerry, Cork, Donegal and Meath twice and Westmeath, Wexford, Antrim and Tipperary once.

The steel is coming out in them. From his basketball days, he was always very tactically aware

For an idea of the standard that lowered their standard, consider that apart from Kerry in 2008 and 2014 and Meath in 2007, none of the rest of those teams won their next game. In fact, the other nine teams got routinely hockeyed next day out, losing by an average of 7.44 points. Only the 2014 Kerry team went on to win an All-Ireland. Sligo went from beating them once in 60 years to three victories in five. Galway had no hard luck stories to tell.

Put it this way. Walsh is a couple of years short of his 50th birthday and he’s still their most recent All Star. Since he was chosen alongside a young Seán Cavanagh in midfield in 2003, 17 different counties have seen one of their players walk to the stage on All Star night. But not Galway. Nobody has been crying robbery on their behalf either.

While it may be early yet to say definitively that things have turned around, the volume is rising. Galway are back in Division One, they’ve beaten Mayo two years in a row, they have a shot on Sunday at back-to-back Connacht titles for the first time since 2002/’03. They won the Division Two title by packing their defence and hitting Kildare on the break, a ruse that Cian O’Neill has since admitted wrong-footed them.

Most of all, the flightiness that defined Galway teams since Walsh the player left the stage has been absent in 2017. At least so far.

“His personality is reflected in them,” says Divilly. “The steel is coming out in them. From his basketball days, he was always very tactically aware. He had brilliant vision on the pitch and trying to create that spatial awareness in players is difficult. But you can see improvements in them as they go along – he really is trying to coach them.

“You can spot his traits coming through on the lads. The current Galway boys, although they’re coming to the fore, they were clearly in need of a bit of steeliness to bring them up to where the top teams are. What Kevin has done is he has imposed that bit of steel on them again.

“You can see it. They’re very purposeful now. There’s a difference between playing for the jersey and playing to get a jersey. Over the past decade, there were too many Galway players who were good players but whose main ambition was to get a county jersey and be seen to get one. This bunch that Kevin has are plying for the jersey, looking to make something of it and do something with it. Supporters can see that. They appreciate that there’s an honesty about them now that wasn’t there before.”

How far that can bring them is another matter. Win on Sunday and the draw looks to be their friend, keeping Kerry out of sight until an All-Ireland semi-final and nothing more fearsome than Clare, Meath or Donegal to beat to get there. With a young enough team and Division One football coming next year, the roadmap is laid out in front of them.

And the driver knows the terrain.

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