Denis Walsh on Cork: ‘Those young lads... nothing seems to faze them’

Denis Walsh’s life, so many ways, has been a weave of Cork and Waterford.

A native of Ballynoe, a former dual senior with Cork’s hurlers and footballers, he takes a pen lying on my notebook and sketches the lie of his land. “We are in Dungarvan,” he says.

Then he dots the places that count, fanning out back towards the River Blackwater.

“Probably the best way to put it is if we call it ‘the hypothetical parish’ or ‘the psychological parish’, if you like. 

“If we, in Ballynoe, were to pick our parish, the place where we meet together and socialise and hold our funerals and all the rest, where people are most related together, there’d be Ballynoe, Conna, Tallow, Ballyduff. There wouldn’t be much of a distinction between them.”

Then a much enjoyed punchline: “There just happens to be a boundary, a county boundary, in between!”

This weave is unmissable in the run up to Sunday’s All-
Ireland semi-final between the two counties. “I was coming through Conna this morning,” Walsh states. “Every second house had a different flag. I’m not joking… “Blue and white, red and white, Waterford, Cork. Every second house, genuinely. There isn’t really a divide like you have with other county borders.”

He swerves to specifics: “There are two lads who won an intermediate with me, hurling for St Catherine’s, who are living in Tallow now. I don’t know what colour flag they have up outside their houses! I wouldn’t like to guess… That’s the way it is round here.”

Cross pollination hung in the air from the start. Billy Walsh, his father, had a passionate attachment to hurling. Like so much of life around Ballynoe, this attachment went careless of county bounds.

“I would have grown up going to matches with him more so in Waterford than further back into East Cork,” his son recalls. “When I was growing up, the old tournament games were massive. The father would bring us down for them in Tallow and Ballyduff [Upper], and there’d be skin and hair flying…”

Those memories still please him: “Isn’t it a pity those tournament games are gone? The GAA is gone a certain way, I suppose. I know for a fact people in Cork have tried to run tournaments in recent years, but they couldn’t get permission off the Cork
County Board. It’s not even an insurance thing. It’s having the control…

“But it’s stagnating and sterilising the craic you still could have, if Ballynoe or Ballyduff put on a festival with hurling matches attached.” Denis Walsh laughs and provides a Tardis back to the 1980s: “I remember, during my own playing career, there was a festival in Ballyporeen, over into Tipperary. Ronnie Reagan was knocking around the place, you see.

“Anyhow, St Catherine’s used to be invited not because we were any good but because we’d bring a big crowd of supporters. The organisers of that festival knew we’d put a right lot of people drinking in their pubs and eating in their cafés.”

Tournament games were far from the only suit. Billy Walsh kept an equally keen eye on the inter-county scene.

“He had a real admiration for the Waterford team of the late 1950s into the early 1960s,” his son continues. “My father always spoke of that team, of all hurling teams, as the real thing.

“That was the phrase he would use. He said they had this unique polish to their hurling, a style all of their own. Won one All-Ireland, and might have won a couple more.

“He was very much a Ballynoe man, a Cork man, a massive Cork supporter. But that Waterford team was the one he mentioned most. I think they were sort of ahead of their time.”

St Catherine’s is not one of those clubs that funnels players into a Cork jersey as a matter of course. Yet Denis Walsh achieved this goal, on both fronts. He kicked football with Kildorrery, an association fostered when living there proved convenient during a period his wife had a business interest in Clonmel.

Walsh is too modest to utter a word on this front but his medal tally is impressive.

The list includes two hurling All-Irelands (1986 and 1990) and a football All-Ireland (1989). Although a sub for the footballers in 1990, he did not receive a Celtic Cross in one of those weird anomalies that sometimes occurs.

Along the way, there were two U21 football All-Irelands (1985-86) and two intermediate hurling titles with his beloved St Catherine’s (1994 and 2004). Walsh also took two senior football titles in Cork with Imokilly, his divisional side (1984 and 1986).

He won a Railway Cup as a hurler in 1992, before a Junior football All-Ireland in 1993 closed the inter-county curve.

“Probably getting to kick football with Cork, coming from Ballynoe, was the biggest achievement,” he says, enduringly modest.

Denis Walsh is not one of those former players who heads for the golf course. A highly respected manager for two decades, he served as Waterford’s football manager for 2001 and 2002. More recently, he led Ballygunner to successive senior titles in 2015 and 2016, further thickening the weave.

No let up, with this man. He remains busy and is currently training Kildorrey, who field at intermediate, in both codes. He also looks after the senior camogie players of St Catherine’s, for whom his daughter Maeve plays.

His sideline career amounts to one of the most intriguing seen in recent times. Denis Walsh became Cork senior manager in March 2009, after Gerald McCarthy resigned.

Prompted by heinous abuse and threats, McCarthy’s resignation was the culmination of Cork GAA’s darkest hour. Only an individual of serious calibre could have attempted to rescue so tangled and vicious a situation.

Walsh is likeably level and philosophical about the experience, which ended after the 2011 season: “I was only brought in as Cork manager by default. I mean, I should never really have got the job. Maybe brought in as Cork coach. Maybe…

“But I came into a ‘strike’ team. That was our problem. I was a neutral candidate, with no baggage. Nobody wanted me and nobody didn’t want me. The word on the ground was that I could take a training session, which I can. If I have a strength, that would be it. I like to train a team rather than just manage it. I was brought in because the Cork players wanted someone who could take a training session, top to bottom, and not just talk about it.”

He elaborates: “I knew at the time I wasn’t there to win anything, first and foremost, although we did our best. I was there to get Cork hurling out of a hole, which was a very big hole at the time. We did our honest best.”

This man remains thoughtful about the many-faceted challenges involved in intercounty management: “What I found out, when I was Cork manager, was the difficulty of going to watch a game to see a particular player. 19 to 20 games I went to during that period (and it’s not much different now) were a whitewash. One club went back out the gate after winning by four goals over the other club.

“So the good corner forward you were trying to get a look at either got no ball or got too much ball. You couldn’t make out whether he was the real deal or not. And there are a lot of players in Cork to look at… That caused me difficulty, and I think it must still be a difficulty for Kieran [Kingston].”

During his stint at the helm, Denis Walsh nevertheless oversaw one of this decade’s biggest upsets, when Cork toppled roasting favourites Tipperary in their Munster quarter-final of May 2010. Aisake Ó hAilpín’s aerial ability clobbered the previous season’s All-Ireland finalists. But that day, by and large, proved as good as it got so far as results went.

Results alone can be a blunt register. Diamonds are formed far underground, out of sight. Cork making 2013’s senior final, when they came as close as is possible to winning it without actually doing so, was rooted in difficult and vital work done between 2009

and 2011. Genuine Cork hurling people, in my experience, like to emphasise this factor.

For his part, Denis Walsh emphasises how work done in recent seasons at development squad level has transformed Cork’s situation. This man does not need to labour any point about how different the situation looks in 2017 than it did in 2009. Back then, development squads were what other counties did.

No need to labour an assessment when an obvious moral is there to be drawn: “The Cork senior management could go into Croke Park last weekend and see good 17-year-olds winning an All-Ireland. They can look at the Cork minors this weekend and see more promising lads coming on stream. The current management team knows at least some of those lads will be along to them at senior in the next couple of years.”

Walsh is confident that Cork hurling has found much better footing in this regard. Ongoing immersion in the game tells him so. This season, he accepted an invitation to do some coaching with St Colman’s College. They lost an excellent junior final to St Kieran’s College. He instances prospects on that school side and is confident a couple of these boys will progress to being Cork seniors.

Time enough for the future. Who will win on Sunday?

“To be honest, I think things have been stacking up for Waterford,” Walsh says.

“Back in June, they seemed a bit flat against Cork. They seemed to lack that bit of hunger and leadership.

“They will surely go better in this regard on Sunday.

“So Waterford should have an excellent chance. They definitely have more room to improve from the last day than Cork do.”

His main query concerns the possible rigidity of Waterford’s hurling. “They have a lot of really good players,” he stresses. “I saw this up close during my two years with
Ballygunner. Stephen O’Keeffe, the Mahonys, Barry Coughlan… Top class.

“But do Waterford hurl with the freedom you’d expect from a team of such talent?

Not often enough, maybe. There is an element in hurling of not being able to plan everything. You can’t train for every eventuality.

“I wonder is this why Waterford sometimes find it hard to close out games, like happened this year and last year against Kilkenny.”

Meanwhile Denis Walsh has been impressed by a certain insouciance in the Cork of 2017.

“You get the sense that the new players are off the leash. They have a bit of a licence to play each ball on its merits, to hurl it as they see it. They are in a nice groove at the minute.”

He concludes: “I look at those young lads and nothing seems to faze them. You get the impression they’re laidback in a good sense. No question matters much.

‘When is the match on?’

Sunday, at half three.

‘Where is it on?’

Croke Park.

‘Ah, grand. Is the ball white?’

Yes, it is.

“Off they go… A lot of our hurlers just seem to be going at it with a lovely amount of freedom.”


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