Blown away by the West'
Walsh salutes attitude of minnows who dream big
WHEN you're a Kilkenny man who has scaled the summit, the demand for high standards is a given. No cutting corners, no sloppiness entertained. And yet Michael Walsh was "blown away" by his first few forays into the Westmeath dressing-room.
A two-time All-Ireland winning 'keeper from the '90s, Walsh agreed last winter to join the maroon revolution led by Michael Ryan. The ex-Waterford boss was on the lookout for a coach . . . enter the former Kilkenny U21 manager.
After two rounds of the Leinster SHC qualifying group, Westmeath are sitting pretty with a maximum four points and on the cusp of quarter-final qualification, be it as group winners against Offaly or runners-up against Wexford.
"I do the coaching on a Thursday night and give them a hand then on match days. I'm up watching it from a height, but the boys do all the hard work," Walsh insisted.
"When I came up here I saw the passion that was there with the management team. Michael himself and then you have John Kennedy and Eddie Casey and Pat Clancy, they're unbelievable.
"So it's easy to get sucked into that. And, as an inter-county set-up, it's fantastic. I know it's a long journey, but it's very easy to do it when you're getting the numbers and the attitude is very good."
Whatever about attitude, what about the talent pool?
"I've been involved with the shinty over the last six years," Walsh explained, "and I knew the calibre of the fellas from Westmeath that used to come up for the trials. So I knew that there was definitely something there, and I was absolutely blown away the first few nights.
"You know, it took a while to get the performances but this is Michael's first year with the lads, and I was saying to him there would be peaks and troughs - and there probably will be more as well."
The deepest trough came in the Division 2A final against Kerry, when they leaked five goals in an 18-minute first half horror spell and ended up losing 5-17 to 3-17. But sometimes you need those jolts and since then we have seen their "true" selves, according to Walsh.
Touching on the same theme, Ryan admitted: "We weren't happy with what happened against Kerry. We've done a good bit of work with our defence since to try and shore that up, because there's no point in scoring 24 or 25 points if you're conceding six or seven goals.
"We were hoping to get promotion, that didn't happen. The players took two weeks off, we sat down as a management team, had a couple of good meetings and thrashed a few things out . . . it was a setback, but the response of the players since has been fantastic."
The weekend just gone surely ranks as one of the greatest ever for Westmeath hurling. To beat a highly-touted Wexford minor team on enemy soil was a standout achievement; for the seniors to then demolish Antrim by 17 points iced the cake.
Quarter-final progress isn't fully guaranteed, but Ryan would love to land another scalp in Laois on Sunday week.
"The important thing about topping this group is confidence," the manager explained. "Just because you play Offaly or Wexford in a quarter-final doesn't make it any easier . . . but winning is a habit and if we can go down to Laois and get a result, it will give our guys even more confidence."