Christy O'Connor: What will Kevin Walsh bring to the Cork footballers?

Former Galway and Sligo manager has joined John Cleary's backroom for 2023
Christy O'Connor: What will Kevin Walsh bring to the Cork footballers?

Former Galway senior football manager Kevin Walsh is now on Leeside. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

IN his book ‘ The Invisible Game’, Kevin Walsh outlines in detail his contribution to Galway after being introduced as a substitute in the 2000 drawn All-Ireland final against Kerry.

Walsh caught three kick-outs, broke two more restarts to his teammates, while he scored a point, gave the last pass for a point and played a part in another score. Walsh also found a teammate with 11 of 13 passes.

With 15 possessions, Walsh had possession of the ball for 40 seconds. He was one of the greatest midfielders of his generation but it was those kind of experiences in big games which made Walsh so aware of the invisible game.

“Shackling the Kerry boys wasn’t just about physical pressure,” wrote Walsh. “It was what you did away from the contest, the invisible stuff.

“Taking their space, under the ball of course, but also denying room for a run, clogging up the passing lanes. Our full-back line had been under too much pressure. I took it upon myself to provide a shield. I always took it upon myself to provide that shield.” 

That appreciation of the invisible stuff informed his own playing style, while it formed and framed the cornerstone of Walsh’s coaching philosophy. 

Given how little time players have on the ball, Walsh could never understand the madness of not coaching players for all that time when they did not have possession.

In one chapter in the book Walsh expands on the various kind of pressures players can put on opponents when they don’t have the ball. Walsh even categorises those different kinds of pressure under various headings; Nil Pressure; still pressure; coaxing pressure; closing pressure; chasing pressure; physical pressure.

OVER-COACHED

There were plenty of times though, during Walsh’s five years in charge of Galway between 2015-’19 when his side were accused of being over-coached or focusing too much on technical, tactical and defensive detail, which often portrayed Walsh and his players as being unfaithful to the best traditions of Galway football and the sport itself.

At one point in the book, Walsh equated the way Galway would drop back to create space for Shane Walsh, Ian Burke, and Damien Comer upfront to how Roberto Firmino played deep to create gaps for Mo Salah and Sadio Mané when they were all at Liverpool.

“Taking players deep isn’t always about having a defensive mindset,” wrote Walsh. “No matter what the sport is, space is king.” 

That appreciation was one of the reasons Walsh brought Paddy Tally on board with Galway for the 2018 season when they reached the league final and All-Ireland semi-final. Galway also beat Kerry in the Super 8s, which torpedoed Kerry’s season.

Tally’s appointment though, fed the frenzy of the team becoming even more defensive, which wasn’t an accurate reflection of what Tally brought to Galway. They were harder to beat in 2018, but Galway’s transition play from defence to attack was far better than it had been in previous years.

That thinking framed a huge part of the reasoning behind Jack O’Connor’s recruitment of Tally with Kerry in 2022. O’Connor was fully aware of how Tally’s role as defence coach in the set-up would be portrayed, especially when Tally had earned a reputation as a proponent of ultra-defensive football in Ulster.

Yet Kerry clearly needed something different, especially after being hammered by Tyrone last year on turnovers. Kerry’s redesigned structural organisation this year rectified that risk but the All-Ireland final also showed how devastating Kerry could be off opposition turnovers, mining 0-8 from that source.

Kerry never had a history of bringing in outside coaches but O’Connor showed the humility to seek help in an area where Kerry needed it. And the county board showed the bravery in backing that move.

John Cleary and the Cork County Board made a similar brave move a couple of weeks back by bringing in Walsh as coach for the 2023 season. 

Cork have had outside coaches in recent years in Billy Sheehan and Cian O’Neill but Walsh’s status as a double All-Ireland winner with Galway as a player does elevate his profile now in Cork.

Kevin Walsh of Galway goes past the challenge of Michael McCarthy of Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kevin Walsh of Galway goes past the challenge of Michael McCarthy of Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland final. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

After Ronan McCarthy stepped away in 2021, Cork invited managerial applications from outside the county for the first time ever. The Cork football job has always looked ideally suited for an outsider with no agendas to come in and tear up the script. A few applied, but the big-name candidates the board were looking for didn’t bite. The board did still speak to some of those big names but nothing materialised.

Walsh didn’t apply while he wasn’t one of those names contacted by the board. The huge distance between Cork and Galway would have always made it difficult for Walsh to manage Cork but a coaching role does not present the same workload.

Walsh spent 11 years managing Sligo and Galway in a 12-year period between 2008-2019, but Walsh is in a different place now.

“I’d love to go back coaching,” he said to Kieran Shannon in an interview in the Irish Examiner in February 2021. “I’ve probably enough of management at this stage. But I still feel I have an awful lot to offer in coaching because all that I’ve learned.

“I’ve coached in all four (league) divisions. I’d be very happy at this point to go in as a number two to help a new number one and be a sounding board for him.” 

Walsh has now firmly taken that plunge with Cork. Cleary and the players will certainly benefit from his huge wealth of experience both as a player and manager, along with his technical and tactical coaching acumen and knowledge.

And Walsh’s grasp of the invisible game.

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