Walsh focused on the final and the future

Back on the line in Croke Park: Derek Walsh will be hoping Mayo can claim the Christy Ring Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

Back on the line in Croke Park: Derek Walsh will be hoping Mayo can claim the Christy Ring Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

The home dressing room in Adrian Freeman Park in Tooreen, where we sat down with Mayo manager Derek Walsh last Sunday, is somewhere he might not have been that welcome during his playing days, when he was going toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils for Ballyhaunis in the many classics they battled out in the club championship in Mayo.

But now it's a home from home for him, with many hours spent in there with the Mayo senior hurlers before and after training sessions over the past few years as their manager.

For the third year in a row, Walsh is leading Mayo to Croke Park to play in a national final. Following on from the Nickey Rackard Cup finals in 2020 and 2021 - this weekend it's the Christy Ring Cup final and there was very little time to think about the significance of it with the short turnaround from their win over Derry last weekend.

“It was brilliant for Mayo hurling, I didn’t even realise until afterwards that Mayo had never been in a Christy Ring Cup final before. It is a great achievement for the lads, we don’t even have time to rest on our laurels. Yesterday evening we were starting making plans and then today it was getting ready for Tuesday evening and Thursday evening and doing our analysis on Kildare and what way we want to set up against them."

Walsh soldiered on the field for Mayo for a long number of years and was part of a Mayo side that came very close to reaching the final of this competition in the past, no more so than in 2008 when they pushed Carlow right to the death in the final four.

"I was playing that day, we conceded a late goal, might have been captain - but when you look and see what Carlow have done since then and where they have gone to. But Christy Ring has been good to Mayo over the years, I think personally the tiered competitors have been good for the weaker counties; you are playing teams of your own level and the games are competitive and if you are good enough you will go up the next tier and it has been good to us so far."

After a couple of years in the Nickey Rackard Cup tier of the championship, reaching the final of the Christy Ring Cup at their first attempt back up at the level is a huge achievement, but this is the level Mayo should be playing at, he has always believed.

“The group since I was involved with them as manager, we always felt we were at Christy Ring level and that it was where we should be playing our hurling.

"It took us a while to get up to it - but look, we even felt last year when we won the Nickey Rackard Final we would have been very competitive at Christy Ring Cup level last year - but you have to win it to get up to it. We are delighted to get up to it.

“We know relegation in the league was not ideal but at the same time you can use it as a platform for younger fellas next year, but staying up in Christy Ring, that is the level where Mayo should be hurling at."

The league made for a tough Spring for Mayo, just picking up a draw in the league stages against Wicklow and then being relegated by the Garden County in a play-off, Walsh freely admits.

"It wasn’t enjoyable - but it was just trying to keep the thing going and the lads enthusiastic and get one or two back one week; then we had a few injuries and stuff like that - we never got a clean run at it any week and that is not making excuses, we just weren’t good enough in some of the games. We still felt we should have beaten Wicklow in the last game, but it is not the end of the world."

Kildare saw off Mayo in the opening round of the Christy Ring Cup, but even then Walsh felt he knew the team had what it took to drive on and be a success in the competition.

“Once we beat Wicklow, going over to London was a good bonding chance for us, again a second time we got to go over this year, we got to spend a bit more time with each other and we had a good bit of craic over there after the game and then we knew we had a week off to kind of get rest and recharge and get ready for the next block of three - which thankfully we’ve got to the third game."

Mayo lost a number of key players from their team that won the Rackard Cup last year and being able to bring in some fresh faces before the start of the championship was a big boost for them and has helped them massively, according to Walsh.

"It was great to get two or three lads in (Joe and Ger McManus and Joe Mooney ) because look, it is no secret we are missing a few lads from last year who haven’t come in for one reason or another; to get the three lads in was a huge boost for everyone coming into the championship. They fit in great, they are three lovely genuine fellas - they all know each other, the whole team and management team - it was a huge boost at the right time for us, we needed it."

Walsh is under no illusions that Mayo are going to be up against it on Saturday evening, but picking from a small pool of players shows just how well this side have done to not only hold their own at this level but to compete at it.

"It would be an unbelievable achievement, thankfully there is a few clubs in Mayo started up this year in their first or second year. Realistically we only have three senior teams this year in championship with Westport dropping down to Junior and I remember last year, when Tooreen played Naas, they had five adult teams alone in one club in Kildare. We are competing a level or two above where our club numbers are. But look we have quality hurlers and next week will be daunting but we are going to give it everything we have, we have nothing to lose at this stage.

"Any level you’re at is hard enough to get to a final - so credit to them they have got to three finals, so the occasion or the build up and any of that will be nothing new to us, we will be well used to it.

"I remember a meeting we had with the county board this year and we were trying to make that point to them. It is very important for the county team to be at as high a level as it can be for young fellas coming up to aspire to play for Mayo - look the higher the level that Mayo can stay at, the better.

"That is the most important thing, that once you go up you stay up and let lads bed in and find that level, because the levels when you go, up they are huge. Even the intensity of the Derry game the last day, the intensity that Kildare will bring, it is a step up from the Nickey Rackard - and look, it is great."


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