Every club has a number of unsung heroes doing their bit in the background and for Dundalk FC, kit man Noel Walsh is definitely one of those.
Little did the Meath man think when he came on board at Oriel Park under the late Sean McCaffrey back in 2012 that he’d be preparing for multiple trips across Europe but ahead of this week’s Champions League double header with Riga FC, it’s fair to say he is now a veteran of such adventures.
It’s perhaps the biggest compliment that you can pay Noel that he so often goes under the radar.
There’s little doubt he plays his part though but even he admits he sometimes has to pinch himself at how far the club have come in the last seven years.
“One simple thing I remember in the first season on a wet Friday night, Peter Cherrie was looking for a towel and not alone had I not got one but there wasn’t even a towel in the shop. Now there’s towels everywhere,” he laughed.
“The first year, it was costing me money to do the job but I just did it because I knew Sean and because of my love of football.”
Noel was made full-time at the start of this year, partially to oversee the impressive new setup for the players at the YDC. While most of his day-to-day work now involves kitting the players out for matches and training, he also has a fine degree of footballing pedigree in his own right. He holds UEFA B licences for outfield coaching and goalkeeping coaching while he remains actively involved in the game as a coach for his local club Kentstown Rovers.
“Back in the 80s I started up my own club, Rossin Rovers over in Newgrange and they’re still going strong. I have nothing to do with them now but I always loved soccer. It was just a passion I always had and I’m lucky now that I’ve a full-time job in it.”
One of the most genuine people you could meet, Noel clearly appreciates what he does. He has accumulated many amazing memories in his time at Oriel Park but he said the night Dundalk beat BATE Borisov 3-0 in Tallaght Stadium stands out above all others.
“That’s a night I’ll never forget,” he said.
“UEFA had sent us three boxes of footballs and we had them in Tallaght but had we lost that night we had to give them to BATE to bring them home with them to Belarus. I wouldn’t let the boys open the boxes beforehand incase the balls went missing but after winning that match they got opened that night.
“The scenes in that dressing room is the one I’ll always remember. The boys were taking out the Champions League balls. They were ours and we had earned them.”
While the players and other members of the back room team are praised from time to time, Noel’s role is much more low key but he is happy for it to be that way and play a small part in the club’s success.
“The thing I always say, and it was probably from listening to Sean down through the years, is that the most important people are the players. I think if you have that mindset then it’s a big help.
“They might look for things that they don’t really want or need but maybe in their head they want them. I’ve been involved in football all my life but it was the psychological end of football that I really got my eyes opened to when I went to Dundalk and what it took to mentally prepare to go on to the pitch.
“It’s amazing the little things that can trip players up so I suppose I’m there to help ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Usually the first to arrive at a ground and the last to leave, Noel detailed some of the match day tasks he has to carry out that often go under the radar.
“I’d usually be in the ground between 4pm and 5pm on match day. If it’s a home match I’d have stuff prepared the day before but if it’s an away match you’d do your homework to decide what colours you’re wearing. That helps particularly when you’re going to the likes of small dressing rooms in Finn Harps and places like that.
“There’s not much room when you’ve 30 lads in a small 12×12 space so if you can have your stuff organised so that you’re not bringing in stuff you don’t need it’s a big help but you’d always have to have it in the van just incase you do need it.
“Basically on a match day the players get their jerseys, shorts and socks, a training t-shirt, a training jumper and a rain jacket if they want it. There’d also be skinny tight pants for anyone who wants them and white ankle socks because a lot of them like to warm up in ankle socks and then play in the other ones.
“I’d speak to the referees when they come to check that they’re happy with what we’re playing in and what bibs we have for the bench.
“In Europe then it’s slightly different. In the League of Ireland, they’ll never ask you to change your shorts but in Europe nine times out of 10 they’ll do so if they’re the same colour as the opposition. The one that I’ll always remember is when we beat Hajduk Split away, we played in the yellow jersey with the blue sleeves on it and black shorts because they wouldn’t let us wear the blue shorts to match it because the opposition was in all blue.
“There’s so much stuff that can trip a kit man up like tape. When we played the EA Sports Cup match against Pat’s with the purple jerseys for Temple Street they only came a few days before. No one else thought of it but I said what about tape for the socks because you can’t go into a shop and just buy that tape but luckily enough I had some purple tape from 2016 when Gary wore the purple goalkeeper’s jersey.
“I think I got that tape from China and it was week’s coming but I’m already planning for our next match in it because I’ve ordered 10 or 12 rolls of it so I have that ready. You’re always thinking ahead on stuff like that,” said Noel.
Travelling for Europe, like Dundalk will do next week to Riga, also presents its own different challenges.
“I’d be carrying between 160 and 180kgs to the European matches and that would be all your training gear, match day gear and you’d have two of each colours and maybe three sets of shorts. Then the medical staff would have a load of stuff that they’d have to take as well, Harry Taaffe would have his video camera etc.
“It’s the same routine every time. You go to the airport and you’d have three boxes weighing maybe 60kg each and at the desk they’ll tell you they’re too heavy so you’re hanging around then waiting on a phone call back to say they’re allowed down. It’s the same every time.
“It is easier when it’s a chartered flight. When we go to a training camp, it’s a standard flight and you have to carry maybe 10 or 12 bags whereas on the chartered flight you’ll have the three boxes and maybe one bag so from that end of it then it’s far easier.”
Noel is also heavily involved in the pre-match meetings before Europe games.
“On the match day there’s always a meeting at half 10 that morning in the ground and both clubs would have two or three representatives at that. There’d also be security and first-aid staff, police and fire officers and they go through every detail from what time they teams will leave their hotels and arrive at the ground, how many turnstiles will be open for the away fans and the UEFA rep has to be supplied with all these sort of answers but everything is detailed.
“Going back to our first European match, I had to bring the goalkeeper’s gloves to the meeting as well as a sample of the playing kit. I thought it would be because of the colours of the goalkeeper’s gloves but it’s all to do with sponsorship. You can only have so many sponsors on your gloves. In some of the big matches in the Europa League I was covering up different sponsorships on the gloves because you’re only allowed two.”
This year clubs will be able to play in their domestic league jerseys for the first two rounds of Europe having previously had to have special European editions with particular fonts for names and numbers. However, Noel revealed there are many more hurdles to overcome.
“When you get to the play-off stage it’s very strict and even your under armour has to be the same make as the kit sponsors.
“When we played in St Petersburg in 2016 it was cold over there and the under armours we got from CX+ had a HW on the neck for Horseware but all of those had to be covered up with tape.
“Everything is checked. Even the water bottles, the labels have to be taken off them. The cones can’t have sponsors and even the free kick men, ours have Precision Timing on them, but they have to wear CX+ Sport bibs so that they don’t show any branding.
“It’s far from a holiday when you go away but it’s a great experience.
“I could be down in Oriel for 10 hours on getting ready before we go away. People will say I’ll help you pack but you can’t let anyone help you because you’ll be lying in bed at night thinking was such and such a thing put in the box.
“Touch wood though I’ve never gone away without anything.”
The first to arrive and the last to leave, Noel will be busy again this week playing a small but important role in Dundalk preparing for Riga. He’ll take no plaudits but should Vinny Perth’s side get the result they want, there’ll be few with a bigger grin.
Walsh is an undoubted unsung hero but, within the Dundalk dressing room at least, his efforts are very much appreciated.