Kevin Walsh leading a quiet revolution in Galway
Galway’s league form is making Walsh’s side very hard to ignore in the football league
Galway manager Kevin Walsh: ”What you are asking is about style or system. And you are right: it doesn’t bother me what people say about it.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
In March of 1998, Kevin Walsh found himself trying to make it home from a league game against Kilkenny in Freshford in time for his father’s seventieth birthday party that night. He was half surprised to still find himself as a member of the Galway squad. By then, a football career that began when he won an All-Ireland minor medal at the age of 16 in 1986 had taken a toll on both body and soul.
When he sat down to meet John O’Mahony the previous autumn, he had a litany of reasons as to why he was convinced it was time to say so-long. To begin with, he had been a man-child on the Gaelic football field, a basketball phenomenon on the outskirts of Connemara playing intermediate football with Killanin at the age of 13 - a 6’4” boy making his way through a man’s world. “It was madness, really,” he laughs now.
“There was no allowance made but at the same time I was big - I remember playing a West final against Moycullen in 1985 and Richie Lee, Galway’s midfielder was there waiting. But by then, I was two years in.”
That precocity meant that by 1998 he had lost count of the number of injuries he had weathered and had kept track of six knee operations - three on each - and the increasing sense that the wear and tear of all that jumping was beginning to catch up on him.
Other considerations: he had gotten married two years earlier, had somehow inveigled himself into taking on the role of player-manager with the club - “I didn’t really expect to be playing” and other players of his generation were beginning to leave. O’Mahony listened to all of this with patience and empathy. Then they decided he would stay on. For the first time, Walsh had a discussion about how to manage his injuries and his training programme was built around it.
When he did retire in 2004, he had two All-Ireland senior medals to match the minor and won the last of his three All-Stars in 2003. His was the definition of a golden autumn and although he is not a nostalgic, when he does think about that 1998 All-Ireland he is struck by the happenstance of it. Walsh and Tomas Mannion were the only members off the 1986 minor team still involved.
He feels that his generation were lucky that the celebrated kids of that era - Michael Donnellan and Padraig Joyce and Declan Meehan - came through when they did. “And they were probably lucky that we were still about. But if those generations were just another four years apart, say, then it might never have happened.”
He talks about this on a snowy Thursday in Galway city. The shops are closing and the pubs just opening and there’s the sense of a sleepy, Artic morning brewing up to a giddy night of snowballs and hot ciders around the city. Walsh’s team was due to host Monaghan in Pearse Stadium on Sunday afternoon: before lunch word that all weekend GAA fixtures were postponed. After a few years on the edge of the national football conversation, Galway have been opening eyes in Division One.
In a quiet way, Walsh has excelled as a league manager. He guided Sligo to Division Four and Division Three titles and Galway to the Division Two one last year. Galway are traditionally lukewarm about the league: four titles altogether and the most recent coming in 1981, just before the last great Irish snow storm.
Now, they are in the hunt for this year’s silverware. Their first three wins were significant for different reasons. Dogged on a dismal afternoon against Tyrone, daring a week later in Donegal and almost insolent in the way they took the fight to neighbours Mayo. But coming out of Kerry with a win is a feat that has eluded all Galway teams since 2000. That fourth league victory made people pay attention.
Anyone who has watched Galway in recent seasons knows that they have been developing a strong cohesive defence and a blistering counter-attack which suits speed-and-skill merchants like Shane Walsh, Eoin Brannigan and Damien Comer. But there has been a re-evaluation in recent weeks. After the Tralee game, Micheál Quirke said that Galway reminded him of Donegal in 2012. Tomás Ó Sé said that he was impressed by the visitors and even suggested that Kerry might need to adapt a similar structure if they are to thrive at this level.
On television, Colm O’Rourke said that Galway had gone a “little bit ugly” in their approach. Walsh has never been a man easily moved by public opinion and isn’t unduly bothered by the fact that people are beginning to take more notice of what his team are up to right now.
“What you are asking is about style or system. And you are right: it doesn’t bother me what people say about it. Some people don’t even see the match. Sometimes we conceded high enough in the league last year, but there are certain games you go with what the opposition is like. Sometimes you are going to concede more and sometimes you are going to score (more). If you feel there is a shootout, then you have a shootout. If there are games in which you need to protect, you do that. We aren’t just trying to develop one system.
“We are still learning what is out there, so we have to get to a point where we are adaptable to play the different kind of opposition we might face. And whether people from outside see it as a counter-attacking or an ugly style or whatever - people will see what they want to see. We just have to get the best out of our players.”
Walsh believes that Gaelic football has changed immeasurably in the years since he finished up. It’s no longer simply about talented individuals loosely fitting into a team concept.
“Even when we were playing, the full forward rarely came to centre forward and corner forwards just ran in straight lines and tried to beat their man for pace. A player can go anywhere now - provided they are clear on their role. There is a lot of preparation that goes into it so to become part of that system, you need to be there.”
By ‘there’ he means at the training sessions they conduct all through the season. He is a coaching enthusiast and a firm believer in the small, almost invisible fundamentals that can make the world of difference in the high-octane seconds of a championship match. Footwork, not lunging in, peripheral vision on the field, even how a player positions his body when he receives the ball.
“All of these bad habits that are maybe allowed go through academies earlier on. And if that is going to come against your team, you can’t afford to miss too much time.”
He received an early lesson in rigorous coaching as a teenager going to school in Oughterard. Walsh had never really seen a basketball until Mary Nihill arrived to teach in the school the same autumn as he started in first year. He wandered down to the first training sessions out of curiosity and didn’t really have a chance to look back.
“She was a basketball fanatic. And looking back at it now, a serious coach. Three evenings a week. She came with a structure and a plan and brilliant coaching and I suppose she was lucky enough, then, that the horses were there to run it.”
St Mary’s Oughterard school had 120 boys but from 1985 to 1987 contested a series of All-Ireland finals against monolithic rivals like North Mon and St Malachy’s and Colaiste Caoimhin. Walsh was on Irish basketball teams all through his school years and had opportunities to take up college scholarships in America. “But no. I was a home bird. Wasn’t interested.”
Anyhow, he was fast tracked through to the Galway senior football squad as soon as he was out of minor grade. After school, he lost touch with the other basketball players he had played with for Ireland but never quite left the game. He still makes time to coach the Corrib U-14 side on which his son Dara plays and his older boy Cathal won an All-Ireland with the Oughterard last week. The values that Nihill imparted on the locality have stayed.
He is convinced that Galway football - and any inter-county scene - has its best chance of improvement by putting in place a programme that enables the overall group to flourish. It rules out what happens in 1998: a combination of experience and irrepressible youth overlapping for a few seasons by pure chance.
“The big thing for me was and is to make the team more competitive and leave Galway football in a better place,” he says. “Including the overall structures. It would be lovely to see academies being driven, with top class coaching involved looking at player development at a young age. There is much more pressure now on kids at 14-16. They are busier and they have more distractions. So they have to value whatever they are doing - which means that it should be enjoyable and they know they are learning from it.”
Last season saw Galway learn how to be consistent again. Between the league and the thorny Connacht semi-final win over Mayo last summer, they won six games on the trot. A blip in performance followed in the provincial final against Roscommon but they responded to that setback in front of a disappointed Salthill with a startlingly slick and focussed demolition of Donegal on a sunny evening in Markievicz Park. They were humming.
Promotion and a championship quarter-final against Kerry represented significant progress for the season. The only complaint levelled at them afterwards was that they had been inhibited in their approach to that Kerry match.
“Well, it wasn’t meant to be cautious,” Walsh says. “Our intensity levels weren’t as high as we would have liked but I think we were closer than what people thought. Whether that was down to inexperience of playing in Croke Park, it is hard to know. Maybe it is one of those games you go through as a team as you are learning.”
The recent inflammatory derby against Mayo in Salthill has whetted the appetite for the real thing, when the counties meet in the championship on May 13th. Galway’s physical keenness was remarked on afterwards. But they have only ever had three red cards under Walsh’s tenure: discipline is paramount to what they are trying to bring to their game. Now that they have made themselves safe in Division One, Walsh and his squad can begin to think about the Mayo assignment more clearly.
“Mayo has been in one corner of our thoughts - it has been since the draw. Is it make or break for this year? I don’t think it is that. But I think that for either team, because of the back door and the Super 8s, that both teams will be going to win that game regardless. We would see ourselves as the inexperienced team compared to Mayo. So of course we are there to win that game when it comes around. But we have to look after our league situation first.”
He’s making no grand claims or predictions: just four games in, the returns have been pleasing. With the Dubs - that other Beast from the East - due to visit the city in mid-March, each month brings thrilling new tests for a young side taking shape. So it has taken an historic weather event has put a halt to Galway’s spring gallop. Nobody was predicting that in January.