GAA - Gary Walsh hopes to see Ballylinan 'rise to the occasion' against Portlaoise this Sunday

Rory Delaney

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Rory Delaney

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rory@leinsterexpress.ie

GAA - Gary Walsh hopes to see Ballylinan 'rise to the occasion' against Portlaoise this Sunday

As they get ready to contest just a second ever Laois SFC final, those of us on the outside look at Ballylinan and wonder where this season has come from.

Little over the last two years, from a distance at least, pointed to this team contesting a county final. Two years ago they could have been relegated. Last year, they were beaten by thirteen points in a quarter-final.

We would like to look at this year and think we could pinpoint when it all changed for them, the Eureka! moment when the realisation of what was achievable struck them between the eyes.

If we had to pick such a moment, we'd probably say it was the league final, when they scored two points in injury time to beat Portarlington. Or in Round 2, when they went behind to St Joseph's in the second half, only to blitz them in the remainder of the game. Or in the quarter-final, when Killeshin had them on the rack and Jamie Farrell's sumptuous pass set Gary Walsh up for a crucial goal.

It would have to be one of those moments, right? Wrong.

When Gary Walsh is asked to pinpoint a moment which was the making of this team, his mind immediately jumps back to April. Ballylinan were playing Emo, at home, in the league. Having won five of their previous six games, life was good for Paul Julian's men, until Emo rocked up and took a four point lead at half time.

Walsh takes up the story from here. "That game was a changing point in our year. Most of our games before then, we had known we were going to win them, and then we came up against Emo and they were four points up at half time.
"We said in the dressing room 'the old Ballylinan would have crumbled', but we ended up winning the game by seven points, and from that day on we were a different team."

The steel needed to compete was being forged in Ballylinan throughout the early part of this year, but its roots go all the way back to that relegation playoff with O'Dempsey's in 2015. Their presence in the game saw the squad draw a line under their underachievement. "That year, we were very close to qualifying for a league final, I think we were beaten in our last match, and that was our downfall.

"We couldn't stop it after that, and the minute after the O'Dempsey's game, we said to ourselves, 'we're up now, and never coming back here again'. We made it the quarter-finals last year for the first time in a while, and Stradbally caught us on the hop. After it, everyone to a man felt they weren't that much better than us, and they went on to win a county final. This year, everyone has bought into it, and it has just taken off."

They have been boosted, of course, by the form of Walsh and his team mates in the forward line, who have scored freely in every game so far. And while Walsh is grateful to play in a side which doesn't list 'defending' as a forward's number one priority, it has been the development of his young team mates which has impressed him the most.

"These young lads, if you give them a month, you'll see them improve. If you look at Kevin Byrne, he has played every league and championship game for us this year. He wasn't involved with the Laois minors, maybe unluckily so, but he played 14 league games for us. Seamus Lacey, since he came back from the minors, has been improving with every game.

"The extra year of football has been important for them, it brings them on. It doesn't happen over night, and they have put in a lot of work."

Attention, of course, turns to the county final. Most of this Ballylinan team weren't born when they last contested one, back in 1987. The excitement in the village is, Walsh admits, "the best I've ever seen", as young and old wait for the big day to roll around. As captain, and as one of the older team members with big game experience, the onus falls on him to help the younger players through it.

In opposition stand a formidable Portlaoise outfit, a club Walsh admits are one of the top ten in Ireland. They have been blitzing teams early so far this year, and he knows he and his team mates have to be ready for what awaits them.

"The first 30 minutes are the biggest of our lives, and we have to make sure we are still in the game at half time. I think we'll be in a good position if we are in contention at half time, and I just hope we are in the mix and it is not one-sided. Portlaoise have been on top early in their games, that seems to be their tactic, so we will just have to rise to the occasion."

Another 'Emo' type challenge awaits. Another chance to show that the new Ballylinan don't crumble.