At the age of just 24, Harrogate Railway assistant manager Josh Walsh is one of the youngest coaches in the Toolstation Northern Counties East League.
Alongside Railway chief Mick O’Connell – a man he first met almost under the mistletoe – Walsh is helping to revive the famous Non League club who have fallen on hard times, despite two runs to the FA Cup second round proper in the last 20 years.
The experience of NCEL management is a further valuable insight into football for Walsh whose portfolio and CV for someone so young is huge. For the past five years, maybe more he has devoted himself to gaining the skills required to work in the professional game.
Walsh combines his Railway role with his full-time job with League Two newcomers Harrogate Town where he manages the under 17s and acts as a coach across various age groups in their ever-expanding youth section.
He hasn’t got to Town by accident either. He has ‘been out on the grass’ for seven days a week for several years and he’s had the right mentors.
“I got put through my early badges when I was at Leeds City College and I did my Level 1 and 2 before I was 18,” Walsh tells Non League Yorkshire.
“I picked up experience hours with friends’ teams and I landed on my feet and enjoyed it. When I first started I was picking up hours with under 11s teams and under 8s teams and I did quite a lot at Wetherby Athletic, Whitkirk.
“I had a part time job at 17 which became full-time at 18/19. The number of hours I was putting in meant having to leave work early to get to sessions. My boss at the time was a lad called Simon Brooker. He was also one of my managers for Sherburn WR and then Knaresborough. He was very accommodating because he knew how much I wanted to do it. If I left a couple of hours early one day I’d start earlier or finish later the next day. He also got me my first paid coaching job. He’s someone that I have a lot of respect for and someone’s opinion I value. He helped me a lot during my early stages of my coaching.
“I played for Rich Hairyes for the Leeds FA and I ended up getting involved with his team who were at Wortley and that was brilliant because he was a UEFA B and he’s now gone onto be the head of academy at Rotherham.
“To work under him for three years and see how he does everything, even in Sunday League, the standards he had were brilliant for me at a young age. I was only 17 or 18 at the time.
“I have fallen lucky with who have worked with and under. When I was at Farsley (on the Leeds City College course) I had Mark Jackson as my manager and he’s now the under 23s manager at Leeds.
“To see his sessions and how he ran things was brilliant. At the same time I had Rich who was unreal for me. I’d like to think those two have moulded my coaching style because they are both no-nonsense. They have old school values, but it is like time-keeping, efficiently, professionalism, I’ve had that coaching-wise since I was 17.
“Going into Town I was just a coach when I came in. I work closely with Dave Riley and the youth section wouldn’t be where it is today without him.”
Little needs to be said about his playing career. Short, but sweet sums it up. Clubs such as Sherburn White Rose, Whitkirk Wanderers, East End Park and Knaresborough Town enjoyed his services as a player, but he knew his playing career would never go far.
“I’ve got a dodgy back,” he says.
“I played at a half-decent level and I used to be a goalkeeper and I knew I was never going to be a pro. I realised that at 16 or 17.
“I knew I could play at a decent level of Non League. But when I got to 19 or 20 and not really looking after myself in terms of warming-up right or doing the right stretches, I ended up playing for Railway the year before last as a favour to help someone out, I couldn’t move for seven days after.
“It was when I was 19 or 20 when I thought I’m going to get further in coaching than I am playing. I wanted to be involved in football, I wanted to be involved in professional football as early as I can and I wasn’t going to get that as a player.
“So I had an opportunity to do that as a coach with the way I was going so I took that route.”
The arrival of Irving Weaver as Town owner in 2011 signalled the start of an unbelievable transformation of the one-time NCEL club into the most progressive in the region, bar Leeds United.
Historically Town never had a proper youth section. That drastically changed in the last nine years and Town now have a massive youth development programme which is consistently developing talented footballers.
They always say you need to be the right place at the right time and Walsh certainly was. But he’s had to work for his job – which you could say has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I kind of fell into the role of Knaresborough under 19s manager when I was actually 19,” he says.
“As an under 20 i jumped on as assistant manager to (now Yorkshire Amateur joint manager) Craig Ogilvie. He couldn’t do it and for the first month so I took it over and I ended up taking it on for two years.
“In the second year I had a lad called Lewis Riley play for me and he was at Town. His old man Dave is someone I work with now. Dave had just started PDC down at Town so he just approached me to see if I would help him do that. I ended up doing that and taking on the under 17s in the same year. I still do that now and it has just grown and grown.
“I was the assistant to the under 23s and under 21s in the last couple of years and I’m the head coach of the under 19s college side now. It is a very good club to be at, but you have to work hard to get to where you want. I’d like to think I have and I have been rewarded because of it.
“The people who know me and are close to me know how many hours I put in, but I’d never complain about it. I always say I couldn’t work in an office or be a labourer and I’m putting my time in doing something I love.
“The hours I have done since College; if I said it was in the tens of thousands it would be no exaggeration because since I was 19 and I’m now 24, I’m being coaching a minimum of five days a week, sometimes six or seven days a week.
“The missus (Jess) like to moan that I’m doing too many hours, but she knows the score and knows what she has got herself into. She accepts it though and very supportive and knows where I could be in ten years.”
Walsh has seen first hand the rise of Town from the National North to the Football League in the space of just a few years and he’s not shocked to see them riding high in League Two following their recent promotion.
“I feel massively privileged to be with Harrogate Town,” he says.
“I was lucky enough before lockdown to sit in with the first team for three months in the team meetings, the team analysis, team selection to see how Simon (Weaver) and (assistant manager) Thirs (Paul Thirkwell) work.
“It was a brilliant experience and it was a completely different level. The things I thought I knew about football and coaching, that blew it all away. I saw not just what then were a professional Non League team were doing, but a successful professional team.
“It is no surprise to see how well they are doing in League Two.”
While Town face teams like Salford City and Bolton Wanderers, Walsh plots to defeat sides like Skegness Town and Brigg Town in his Railway role. But it is something he wanted to get into and the seeds of the appointment were sown during a game played on an unusual day.
“I met him (Mick O’Connell) about three years ago when he was running Darlington’s under 16s and we ended up having a friendly between him and Harrogate Town’s under 17s on Christmas Eve,” he says.
“I know, it shows you just the type of idiots we are! Do you remember the Beast from the East (storm)? It was during that. We had quite a long lay-off from football so we had just come back. We were like ‘we need games’ and we had pitch availability at Harrogate and I got his number off someone.
“We played the game and it was really good. Something you see at Railway games is me and Mick are fairly vocal people and at under 16s/17s you’ll find people who are not so vocal and some who are.
“We were both vocal in the right way, but I got on with him straightaway. We had a couple of friendlies after that and he ended up getting involved at Railway last season.
“Railway were training at Harrogate Town and I was finishing pretty late with one of the youth teams and I saw him and we had a chat. I watched a few of their games as some of our (Harrogate Town youth) players were down there and we were talking about what was wrong with the team.
“They had some decent players, but we felt the mentality was wrong, the work rate was wrong. He was saying things and I was like fully agree. I was saying things and he was saying I fully agree. Mick then got offered the job and he rang me and it was something I wanted to get this year or next year because I felt getting involved at that level of football was my next step.
“We took it on and it is working really well at the minute.”
Go back to February and Railway were sinking. The task of keeping Railway in NCEL Division One looked too great for O’Connell. The lockdown and subsequent expunging of the campaign was perhaps the best thing that could have happened for the club.
O’Connell and Walsh have grasped the second chance and guided Railway to a decent start. The gloom has lifted and there is cause for optimism.
“It is good to see what is happening at Railway,” Walsh says.
“The feel good factor is coming back to the club. Since Billy Miller left the club has gone down and down in terms of the standard. There’s some brilliant people working at that club and they put so many hours in.
“The club is starting build itself up. It is fantastic that we are doing well on the pitch, but it was important to stabilise off-the-pitch and get the name back out there, get the sponsors back on board and get people back in the ground.
“We said in meetings with the committee that we’re not reinventing the wheel, that’s one of Mick’s sayings. We’ve not brought in a fantastic style of play and we’re not bringing ideas what clubs haven’t done at this level.
“We’ve just caught up. The fact we have caught up means we can start pushing on because we’re riding a wave. The changing room and the chemistry is the best it has been in a while and the changing room gets you 15 points a season.”
Both Town and Railway get an awful lot out of Walsh being the assistant manager at Station View. Railway have a port of call for Town’s star young players, while Town have a man following their progress extremely progress.
The relationships have already blossomed as demonstrated in the form of Kieran Greenway and others.
Walsh says: “We’ve always had a decent relationship with Harrogate Railway and if we have a player ripping it up in the under 23s and we go to the gaffer (Simon Weaver), the first thing he will say is ‘who’s he playing for on a Saturday’?
“The difference between youth football and men’s football is so big that you have got to be performing at a decent Saturday level.
“We have decent relationships with clubs and I have to credit Josh Falkingham as he took it on last year to sort out a couple of teams for the (youth) lads).
“It is great for us because we have lads going out and getting minutes and it is great for the Saturday teams like Railway who are getting these good young players. They know if they get them used to playing open aged football then they have a gem on their hands.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground and there’s one remaining question. What does the future hold?
“Working in the professional game has been my goal since I started,” he says.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in professional game and I’m getting the knowledge now. I’m working in a professional club now, a professional environment and I’m taking that into Railway.
“I want to do my UEFA B and in three or four years I want to do my UEFA A and then hopefully five years after that if the situation allows it, I want to be doing the Pro Licence.
“I want to get all that ticked off by the time I’m 35. I want to get all the badges and get the experience which you could say is more important.”
With all the experience and mentors he has, at just the age of 24, it is fair to say time is on his side.
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NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams. As we slowly return to ‘action’, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
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