Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Friday 13 July 2012
Long before this, he was known as the resurrection man and there were plenty of good reasons.
Before being introduced to orthotics, Kevin Walsh found his knees facing inwards from too many kickouts claimed. He missed out in 1997 because he felt too many days had been spent at “number 14 with a bandage” and thought his career was over.
In January 2000 he tore a groin ligament clean from his stomach and the bone in his leg, leaving part of his midriff ink black and him unable to lift his limb for weeks. By that September he’d turned the All Ireland final and when his kneecap gave way in the replay he tried to take painkillers to come on again after the restart.
By the end of his playing days, his Galway teammates reckoned he’d be wheeled out for the jubilee teams in the future and when he finally told his work colleagues he was giving it all up in March of 2005, they dubbed the day Black Monday.
Of that retirement Walsh noted, “It’s probably best to quit now, rather than going around in five years’ time in a golf buggy. I’ve possibly run the body to the bone. Already things like stairs, you feel it on the knees all the time.”
But if his latest tale isn’t quite as body intensive, it’s almost as impressive and getting Sligo back to a Connacht final is yet another reason the resurrection man tag should stick.
Such heroic tales travel and when Walsh arrived into intercounty management, the Sligo players were well aware of what they were dealing with and the respect it demanded.
Having starred in the minor All Ireland of 1986, Walsh hung around the Galway centrefield until 2005 and picked up a couple of All Irelands, three All Stars (the last of those in 2003 was remarkably Galway’s last and he achieved it at 34 and with four of his five children already in the world) and a reputation as one of the greats.
Perhaps it was all that which convinced the Sligo players that it couldn’t end with 2011 as the final chapter. They were better than that. And their manager deserved better than that.
Granted, we didn’t see it coming. They lost to Antrim and Cavan and Longford in their first four league games this year but behind the scenes Walsh had a plan. Across those opening months of the season he wanted to discover new players. Across the remaining games in the league he wanted to build momentum to take into the Connacht championship.
Beating Tipperary, Roscommon and Offaly gave him and his side that and while they missed out on promotion by a couple of points, Walsh said that would have been merely “a bonus” and was never overly concerned.
But even that doesn’t explain the Galway game. After all, this was largely the same group that were expected to disband after 2010 and when they didn’t, a two-and-out championship against Leitrim and Wicklow in 2011 should have told many of them it was time to go. But the coach in Walsh knew they were better than that.
After all, he showed a good eye for a player throughout his managerial career. In his season out from Galway in 1997, he took charge of his club Killanin and took them to a county semi-final where they rattled eventual All Ireland winners Corofin. He took charge of the Galway ladies’ team too and in 2008 he managed Oileain Arann to a Galway West Junior football final.
But ever since the shocking Connacht final defeat in 2010, something else had been missing from Sligo's game and it wasn’t physical. Walsh this year enlisted the help of a sports psychologist and after the Galway win and in the build up to this Mayo game, all the talk from players has been about performance and how results will follow.
You can’t help but think if they had that attitude two years ago, that defeat to Roscommon would never have happened and they’d never have had to endure what went on between then and now. But at least this was getting them back to their best and there were other visible psychological tools in the win against Galway.
All the players had personalised messages written on their wrists, and coming out of the dressing room that day was black tape stuck to the ground and the motto of leaving no man on the other side of that line and no man standing alone was ingrained in the team.
Some might call it gimmicky but it worked and when Sligo drew level in the semi-final, you sensed there was no way they were going to lose. There was a huge maturity to that performance that wasn’t there before Walsh came along.
Just four year's ago, talking to a contact about the end of the Tommy Jordan era in the county, he had this to say about many of these same players. “You wouldn't see it in most top counties. Let me tell you what happened there when it came to training. All guys had to do was bring their boots. The rest of the gear was brought in for them in baskets and at the end of the night, they just threw all the dirty stuff back in the baskets.
“It was like kids bringing home their laundry for the mother to wash and giving out about her afterwards. They became soft and while it wasn’t all of them, some got above themselves. And they’d try and influence other guys on the panel, younger guys and get them to speak out.
“The Tuesday after they went out of Connacht, at training less than 20 togged out. There were others on the line watching on because of injuries and whatever else. That's not unusual for an intercounty team but what was was that some of those were trying to get rid of the manager and influence people in the county board. Real cloak and dagger stuff. Wouldn't play under the manager again, that kind of thing.
“Then some guys started to think they were too big for the Tommy Murphy Cup. One Connacht title in a generation and they are turning their noses up at a competition they had never won before but had a real chance to win there and then.”
Just look at Adrian Marren for a further sign of evolution rather than revolution. Footballer of the Month for June and already surely an All Star nominated after a brilliant league without David Kelly beside him, it was only a handful of years ago that he was taken off against Roscommon, took off his jersey and threw it away.
It’s not so long ago either since he received a ban just short of a year for an altercation with a referee. But now he’s as responsible as he is good. And David Kelly is as committed as he is good, taking injections in his ankle just so he can play and postponing an inevitable operation just so Sligo can drain every last drop of this campaign.
As for Sunday, perhaps it’s too far but Sligo have always fancied being the underdog, and they are a damn good underdog. If they can perform they'll go close and Charlie Harrison has said he's never been part of a better-prepared team.
But even if it doesn’t happen for them, just as in Galway not so long ago, in Sligo they can call their manager the resurrection man too. A few short months ago they were down and out. Now they are one of the stories of the summer.
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