Sligo's Keith Raymond born to hurl
By John Harrington
Keith Raymond’s introduction to senior inter-county Championship hurling with Sligo was remarkable for a couple of different reasons.
Firstly, because he was only 15 years and 5 months of age when he made his debut in an Allianz Hurling League Division 3 semi-final against Tyrone. And secondly, because he was then subsequently caught in the eye of a storm that made national headlines at the time, but is probably remembered by very few now.
Raymond was one of six minors who started for the Sligo seniors that day against Tyrone which prompted the then Sligo County Board youth officer to draft a letter of complaint to the Sligo hurling team manager Paudie Fitzmaurice and the Sligo Hurling Board. It was suggested that Raymond was too young to be exposed to senior hurling, and former Limerick hurler and All-Star Fitzmaurice subsequently resigned in protest after receiving the letter.
“He quit the post and moved back to Limerick,” recalled Raymond at a press event in Croke Park on Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s Lory Meagher Cup Final against Louth. “That was it. It was all over the papers. Unreal. You can't blame him to be honest.”
Raymond wasn’t started for the subsequent League Final against Mayo and Sligo lost by a point. When he talks about it all these years later, his voice is still heavy with regret. Many would surely have sympathy for the sentiment that a 15-year-old has no business playing senior inter-county hurling, but back in 2003 the then teenage Raymond relished the opportunity given him by Fitzmaurice.
“It was great, I loved it, I lapped it up,” he says. “I was a big fella for my age so I was well able to handle myself. And, again, the skill element comes into it. If you have the skill you'll be able to get yourself out of trouble. It was great, I couldn't wait to get out there as a young fella.”
Hurling on the biggest stage possible had been his ambition long before then. His mother Margaret’s family are from Killenaule in Tipperary, and so Raymond was steeped in the game from a very young age. Margaret was his first hurling coach, and his love for the game was intensified by regular trips to Tipp.
“Yeah, definitely,” says Raymond. “Mum was the one to bring me out the back garden and start off with me. I suppose any time I traveled down to Tipperary to visit the family it was all hurling, hurling, hurling and going to club games down in Tipperary and watching the Shellys. When I was a young fella they would have been the stars of the time.
“John Leahy from Mullinahone as well, I got to see all of those guys at club level and the rivalries down in Tipperary. So I suppose that helped to foster my interest in it. And I was delighted then to be able to play away up in Sligo.”
Raymond showed such an aptitude for the game that his extended family were keen for him to move to Tipperary and declare for the county, and for a while he seriously considered it.
“Yeah my uncle was the goalkeeper for Killenaule at the time and he would have had a good input into the club. He always paid my membership, funnily enough! I was a member of Killenaule and Calry for a number of years for the All-Ireland ticket draw down in the Tipperary.
“Definitely I was tempted and there was a lot of talk of it when I was 14 or 15 to move down with my relations and try to aim for the Tipperary minor team. But I'm a fella who likes to be at home, to be honest. And when I passed my Leaving Cert then I was meant to go to Waterford IT, but, again, I decided to stay at home and ended up going to Sligo IT.
“The opportunity was there, but I chose not to go in the end. And I'm very happy with what we've achieved up in Sligo and the way things have gone for me personally.”
It helped too that he grew up in a part of Sligo where hurling was anchored by strong roots. His club Calry St. Joseph’s put a lot of effort into underage coaching, and so Raymond didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else in search of a hothouse environment to hasten his growth as a hurler.
“When I was a young fella, when Mum started me off, there was a great underage set-up in our club,” he says. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, five o'clock after school, that's when hurling was on. There was a great bunch of us going out there training as young fellas. And I suppose we've been very successful as a senior club in Sligo and in Connacht over the past nine or ten years. It's from that underage coaching structure that was there 10 or 15 years ago, that's where the current Calry panel is coming from.
“We’ve won five county titles in a row. And nine in total now. We've won three Connacht Junior Championships as well. We're still aiming to get back up here (Croke Park) with the club, that's still on our radar, and we'll give it a right lash this year.”
Raymond has been the best hurler in Sligo for most of his career, but is more than just a big fish in a small pond. When he was called up to the Connacht team for the 2009 inter-provincials he proved it was far from a token gesture by starring at midfield on his debut in their semi-final win over Munster.
“It was a huge call up for me,” says Raymond. “It's something I had in my sights when I was a young fella, to play for Connacht, and I was delighted to get the call. I was surprised to be picked at midfield for the semi-final against Munster to be honest, but I actually managed to play ok. I fitted in grand and it was a great experience to play at that level.
“I suppose I'm a great believer in that it doesn't matter what county you're from, it's all how a player minds himself, develops his skill and fitness and his mind as well. Like, whether you're from Kilkenny or whether you're from Sligo, you can still develop the same skills, but it's completely up to yourself. The lesson I took from it was that the higher standard teams just take it so much more seriously. The players are of a higher standard, they look after themselves better, and they do everything at a faster pace. They move the ball really well and it's all about a high level of skill at that standard.”
Raymond has experienced many ups and downs during his 14 years playing senior inter-county hurling for Sligo. The obvious highlight was the county’s 2008 Nicky Rackard Cup Final success, but in the years that followed their fortunes slumped. Now he senses they are on the rise again, and is looking forward to proving that in Saturday’s Meagher Cup Final against Louth.
“There’s a few lads on the panel that I would have coached four or five years ago in a hurling development panel,” he says. “So they're all hurling with me now and as well as that there's three or four lads in under the permit rule who are living and working in Sligo. We've a couple of lads from Wexford who are hurling with us too and they really bring the extra strength and depth to the panel and the standard goes up at training.
“There's a good squad this year. Compared to last year as well we have three or four home-based lads that didn't hurl last year for various reasons, but they're back in the squad this year. So there's a great unit there together now. We're looking forward to Saturday anyway, we'll see how it goes.”