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Keith Raymond Feels Sligo Hurling Is Ready To Step Out Of The Shadows

Keith Raymond Feels Sligo Hurling Is Ready To Step Out Of The Shadows
By Arthur James O'Dea Updated

As this discussion with the Sligo hurler Keith Raymond drew to a close, only one suggestion was offered as to how this memorable year for Sligo hurling ought to be presented:

There have been a few articles written about me at this stage, but it isn't just all about me. When we speak about the county, and the young players coming up, the management ... there is a lot more to this than just me.

Since emerging on the inter-county scene as a 15-year-old as many years ago, the story of Sligo hurling, whenever it is told, has been the story of Keith Raymond.

An outstanding hurler who perhaps had the misfortune of being born in a county that prizes Gaelic football and soccer above all other sporting endeavours, the time for such lamenting has long since passed.

Not that Raymond ever appears to have cursed his fate to begin with; "Whether I'm in Sligo or any other county, it's the same passion. I love the sport and I love driving it, and nothing will ever change that. I know there are other people in Sligo the exact same as me, and it's irrelevant what people in the county generally think of the sport when you have that."

After captaining Sligo to a pair of narrow defeats in the 2015 and 2016 Lory Meagher Cup finals, in 2018 it was Sligo who prevailed. Walking up the steps of Croke Park to collect their trophy, one cannot escape the feeling that after years and years of hard work and near-misses, Keith Raymond believed Sligo hurling had been afforded the starting-point it required; the point of origin that would subsequently come to represent the moment everything changed - even if just a little bit at a time.

Revealing in an interview with Balls that he felt a "massive relief personally" in helping to right the wrongs of '15 and '16, there came a sense that this sensation was tied to the realisation that Sligo hurling would no longer be outwardly perceived as the Keith Raymond show.

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Familiar from a distance, most of us have little or no experience of the actual demands - both physically and mentally - highly-competitive sport exacts from its participants.

As David Foster Wallace wrote when profiling the relatively unknown tennis player Michael Joyce over 20 years ago; "We prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices that professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing."

While Keith Raymond is under no illusions, and understands that teams in the hunt for Liam MacCarthy carry out more rigorous training regimes than he, his teammates and many more besides would be used to on a regular basis, these same demands are inevitably lurking:

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Obviously when you win something it's a huge relief. You're training away for six or seven months, and we might not be training at the same level as the top teams in terms of intensity, but we definitely put in the same time.

Those days and weeks back in January when you're at it five or six nights a week, after all that work, getting over the line is a huge relief.

Such collective struggles only serve to highlight the nonsensical assessment that this could ever be a one-man-show. How such struggling has begun to manifest itself on the pitch for Sligo's hurlers is a far more compelling tale.

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With the Lory Meagher Cup secure, and a place in next year's Nicky Rackard Cup to look forward to, Raymond is of the opinion that hurling in Sligo is ready to take this next step:

I'm very excited for the next three or four years of hurling in Sligo.

The panel that was there this year, I'd say everyone is looking forward to getting back next year. There are a couple of U17s who have been very successful in recent years, so they're coming through as well.

From what I'm hearing, there's four or five excellent hurlers to come into the squad next year, and, as well as that, we've one or two who didn't commit this year for various reasons, and if we could get everyone to commit, and get together early in December, I think it could be another good year.

Crucially, such promise comes with a caveat; "I think if we get our act together, we'll definitely compete. If things are half-arsed, we're going to get a hiding, because it is definitely a step up in standard."

With stern opposition such as Mayo, Armagh and Monaghan, Raymond's do-or-die attitude nevertheless comes with an unshakable belief that Sligo "won't be going into the Cup just to show up at games."

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An admirable outlook for an unquestionably tough task, one cannot look too squarely at the possibilities without also considering the inevitable difficulties hurlers in a county such as Sligo must contend with.

Although most sportspeople, you suspect, inevitably suffer more heartbreak than not, for hurlers in a county such as Sligo, the low-points can feel very lonely indeed.

While this year's success brought about a "fairly positive" reaction, in GAA terms, the hurlers continue to play second fiddle:

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Obviously Sligo isn't a traditional hurling county, but I think in general people are happy to see us doing well. It would be great to see more people at the games, but the problem - compared to more traditional hurling counties -  is that the families aren't driving the sport.

So, if we take a family in Sligo with three kids, and the parents were always involved in Gaelic football, they don't know about hurling so they're not taking the kids to hurling.

In some of the county's hurling strongholds like Coolera, Calry, Tobercurry and Tourlestrane, the passion for the game would rival that of any town in Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary. Yet, even at an administrative level, Raymond is aware that Sligo's inter-county players must fight for everything they get; sometimes accepting that the support simply isn't there:

It's funny, at times you feel very well supported, and at other times you can feel very hard done by. In Sligo it is a battle to keep the game alive, and to constantly push for funding in terms of the senior team, and the younger teams coming through.

At times you would feel that the county board could offer more, there doesn't seem to be any expense spared when it comes to the football, but we're not complaining this year because we were well looked after, and we got what we asked for.

Forging stronger bonds between those pockets of 'hurling people' that the county does possess, such ties have been of incalculable worth to the growth of an exciting young team.

When Declan Marshall took up the opportunity of joining the Sligo hurlers in a physiotherapy capacity at the beginning of a season that would conclude in Croke Park, the Sligo native was firmly amongst those for whom hurling in the county had been something of an afterthought.

This outlook didn't last long; "I was mostly there for the physio aspect, but when you're with it for a while, you begin to learn the ins and outs, and what makes the game tick, and what makes a good team tick."

Although it took some getting used to how such a sport didn't throw up more "broken legs and arms," becoming immersed in this close-knit community had a profound effect:

I was there for all the training sessions, all the recovery sessions, all the matches - you know, the wet nights in Longford, the dark nights down in Cavan and Enniskillen ... and as they got into it, I could see them get better, and I felt part of the whole squad.

Taking immense pride in being part of a team that brought "an All-Ireland championship back to Sligo for the first time in a long time," it didn't take this new recruit long to realise what Raymond has understood for quite a while; "We just do it, because we love it."

Of their new physio, Raymond witnessed the kind of reaction he suspects many more in the county might share were they to embrace hurling in a similar fashion:

Declan really bought into the environment. It was clear to see after two or three months that he was absolutely loving it.

It only goes to show that it is such a shame that so many people in Sligo are missing out on that. You'll often find people in the county who get a grá for hurling, who'll fall in love with it, and they'll just wonder why they didn't get involved sooner.

For now, Keith Raymond is determined to drawing people in by example.

For recent initiates like Declan Marshall, it is immediately clear to see that although Sligo hurling is making great strides, this incredibly talented individual remains one of the key driving forces behind it all:

Keith is some player. ... The quality is there [but] he just has a great attitude. He is all about the team, and after each session, be it in the rain or the heat, he'll pull everyone aside and give them little things to be working on.

He is just very, very good.

If he has his way, one suspects Keith Raymond will be satisfied knowing that he has played his role in improving the lot of Sligo hurling. Yet, irrespective of whether the years to come deliver on the kind of promise he foresees, Keith Raymond has left that black jersey in a far greater condition for anyone who has aspirations of pulling it on next.

See Also: 'Back In Black' - How A Jersey Helped Resurrect Sligo Football's Fortunes


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