Brick Walsh’s character and presence will be infectious

Picture: Matt Browne

“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air”

- John Quincy Adams

Michael Walsh’s appearance in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2017 was, including replays, his 12th on that stage.

He played his first semi-final in 2002 and his last thus far in 2017. His win percentage ahead of that game stood at a measly 9%, having only been victorious in 2008.

Despite knowing how he hated any form of self-indulgence or attention, we decided to roll the dice in terms of motivation and selection. 

We honed in on the importance of Brick to our unit in a dangerously open and transparent manner within our dressing room. 

This was, after all, a pivotal moment for us all. 

Losing a third consecutive All-Ireland semi-final just would not be tolerated and the emotions were deepened by the grave injustice we felt was dealt to Tadhg de Búrca at the DRA hearing the previous evening.

In the team talk on the Friday night, Dan Shanahan focused in on the perseverance of Brick, the courage he had shown, the traits he possessed, from inherent humility to a relentless commitment to improvement. 

An obsession with getting to the final for, and with, our two main men became the catalyst for the subsequent performance.

The selection of Michael at 10 saw him match up directly with Mark Coleman, Cork’s dominating half-back of that 2017 campaign. 

Earlier that summer, we had picked Michael not on his normal wing but at 12 with the feeling that perhaps Chris Joyce would be a more advantageous match-up. 

By not playing him on Coleman we mistrusted him, we underestimated his cunning, his guile, his ability to create. 

Taking Coleman into an area closer to Anthony Nash’s goal was his brief, supporting Shane Bennett and Jake Dillon in a two-man full-forward line and turning up in goalscoring positions. 

This he carried out to a tee, scoring a first-half goal and demonstrating that he is the epitome of perseverance, courage, and selflessness.

Brick’s long overdue return to the Waterford selection on Sunday should act as a catalyst for others to flourish. 

This is the influence players of real substance can have. After we had been promoted from Division 1B in 2015, Michael addressed the group in White’s Hotel of Wexford where he spoke of his delight to be involved with a team laced with humility and character. 

“A team of workers,” were his actual words. A perfect hybrid engine of decency and craft.

Like many other unsung heroes, Brick’s significance to the team and its balance is only felt in his absence. 

Presence is an immeasurable ability to create a mood and provide that key dynamic to how a team operates. 

He has what Brother Killian, a famed De la Salle brother, a sprightly 92-year-old walking the corridors of our school, calls ‘it’.

Brick’s return follows the untimely news that Philip Mahony will be ruled out for a number of weeks and prompted me to think of the importance of the word ‘character’. 

By ‘character’ I mean someone who knows the true meaning of courage not someone whose attitude or performances are linked to results. 

A person who is all in. Philip Mahony fits that description. 

When down over a ball he’ll invariably win the ruck and handpass in his own inimitable way to a waiting teammate. 

Never one to shirk responsibility, his clever interaction with referees echoes that of Sam Warburton and Rory Best, a mixture of steel and subtlety. 

However, Philip’s character is also laced with goodness and integrity.

On December 6, 2009, one of Philip’s best friends, Gary Murphy, died in tragic circumstances. 

Gary was a beautiful young man, proudly reared by doting parents Liam and Geraldine and loved by his sister Laura. 

Gary attended De la Salle College and was an integral part of our All-Ireland winning panel of 2007/2008. 

Philip and all the lads loved him dearly. Philip declared his admiration for ‘Smurf’ one day to me in the bowels of the college, commenting that he was the type of friend we all needed. 

Gary was loyal, trusting, caring, and fun. Just like Philip. At times during our Waterford journey I would remind Philip that Smurf was with us on our shoulder steering us through good and bad times.

A memory of some beauty caught my attention at the end of the Munster Club final this year when Geraldine and Liam, Gary’s parents, embraced Philip in Semple Stadium following their victory over Na Piarsaigh.

 

TG4 mightn’t have realised the significance of their pictorial edit but the tears flowed uncontrollably from my eyes. 

The true extent of Philip’s character was conveyed that Christmas when he arrived at the Murphys’ door with a framed picture of the moment. 

A memory created. A character responsible.

Characters like Philip and Brick are sprinkled throughout the various teams in action over the last few weeks and this weekend. 

At the kernel of their being are sacrifice and commitment. They follow the John Wooden adage that “character is what you really are while reputation is merely what others think you are”.

For Wooden, “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching”. Philip can rest easy knowing Smurf was watching.

When I think of the unseen, often misinterpreted, characters of hurling teams, I think of John Hoyne’s role in the 2000 All-Ireland final. 

Aware of the potential threat of Brian Whelahan, he completely nullified the Birr maestro with a competent physical display. He brought much more to it also.

In the same category, there is Bill Cooper’s significance to the Cork team. Two weeks ago, the Rebels were aghast with the news that Cooper had broken down in the warm-up. 

A change of tune for the majority of Corkonians, many of whom have been roundly critical of Cooper’s role.

Aware completely of what he brings to the team, his colleagues malfunctioned and felt his loss. Bill provides the balance in terms of character.

Ahead of our relegation match with Cork last year, I told Jamie Barron to abandon Bill and concentrate on getting on as much ball as possible. 

The theory being that Darragh Fitzgibbon was more likely to do us damage and that Bill would probably sit near his deep centre-back. 

The bould Bill of course hits us for four points from the middle of the field in a tour de force.

People now begin to see his and others’ worth as talismen, leaders and more. 

I have never met Cooper or Joey Holden or Cathal Malone or Bonner Maher, but I feel people are beginning to see the inherent traits within these players are decency, ambition, mental resilience, and defiance. 

The ultimate traits that convey the difference between character and reputation.

Perhaps blind loyalty has led to my overriding emotive sense that Waterford will produce the performance of the championship this weekend. 

In fact I sat last night with pen and paper and factored that Waterford would end up on four points, taking Cork out on the head to head, with Tipperary and Clare both on six points. 

Unparalleled optimism perhaps but maybe a modicum of truth. Why?

All the elements that were missing during the opening encounter will be evident on Sunday. 

Better planning, a more engaged home crowd, real intensity, and the crucial merger of depleted expectancy and the probable presence of Brick. 

It makes me firmly believe that Waterford can look ahead to tomorrow week with something really tangible to play for.

These lads will bring everything to Sunday. Paraic has probably toyed with the idea of playing Austin at five but the possible availability of Darragh Fives may alter his thinking here. 

He also surely noted how Eoin Cadogan’s physical and aggressive approach with Aaron Gillane resulted in him getting the upper hand. 

Gillane’s aerial prowess was negated by the Douglas man and Conor Prunty may well mirror this template on Sunday.

Brick’s presence, possibly even in a two-man full-forward line, should ensure that the direct approach can bear fruit, particularly in Walsh Park. 

With the presence of an extra midfielder in the condensed minefield of that middle third, there should be less ambiguity about Tadhg’s role, allowing the Clashmore supremo to put his inimitable stamp on the championship by dictating play from no further forward than 45 yards.

What Brick’s presence and what characters like Cooper induce from others is infectious. They demand maximum effort and effective execution from themselves and others at all times.

They will never quit. If Brick was cute he might have contemplated retiring on the back of winning an All-Star in 2017 but he doesn’t think like that. 

The other players are drawn to Brick and Cooper, drawn to their fortitude, their strength of character, their decency. 

Their character transforms those around them in a profound way. Again they fit the Wooden mould of “having character rather than being a character”. 

You go nowhere without it. With Brick we have a chance to go somewhere.

Limerick have characters too, none more so than the man on the line, John Kiely.

Seething from their performance in the Gaelic Grounds, Kiely will look for and expect a reaction from the All-Ireland champions. 

In Rasmus Ankersen’s brilliant book Hunger in Paradise, he looks at the notion that success acts as a catalyst for a set of cognitive biases that potentially prevent individuals and teams from repeating their previous success.

He calls it “the flipside of human nature”. As a prerequisite to follow-up success, he recommends: “Never trust success, to burn your trophies.”

One of the biases he forewarns about is “the end of history illusion”, one of the biggest threats to a successful company or team.

The evidence thus far has insinuated that this is not the case with Limerick. A dignified and humble backroom team, a grounded bunch of players.

But sometimes there is subconscious presence whispering the words of foreboding: “We have found the recipe…we have seen it all…we know it all”. It is nobody’s fault, but it can cause cracks to appear.

As Ankersen rightly points out, “once this mindset settles in and starts infecting the culture, it is the beginning of the end”.

Talk of an expected Limerick backlash has dominated the build-up. 

But Waterford can streak ahead early, hit the net at least twice, and hold off a Limerick third-quarter resurgence by outworking them all over our proud home patch.

One might scoff at the correlation between the Champions League final and the events of Walsh Park the following day. 

Perseverance, character, and particularly emotion will envelop proceedings in Madrid. The emotional explosion that manifests itself in Waterford will have similar quake-like tremors. 

Milner, Henderson, Robertson, Sissoko, and Vertonghen share the endearing traits of Cooper, Mahony, Brick, and the Morrisseys.

As a lifelong Evertonian, and my eldest son an avid Spurs fan, it seems a tad unusual to leave the final lines to Jurgen Klopp ahead of the weekend’s games. 

But in Raphael Honigstein’s biography of the charismatic German, he deduces succinctly that: “It’s all about the reaction. That’s how it is. In football (hurling) and in life.”

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