Saturday afternoon on St Kilda’s bustling, bohemian Acland St and Walsh has taken a stool in Chocolateria San Churro. The veritable dentist’s heaven and diabetic’s nightmare. Macaroons to the left of him, syrupy speciality coffee to the right, he opts to bypass them for a glass of water. See, Walsh is already back in training.
For Kerins O’Rahillys and, he hopes, Kerry.
He’s returned to the home of his first AFL club to catch up with friends from his two years here as well as his oldest mate, David Moran, who’s in Melbourne as part of the International Rules squad. The week after next, he will begin his journey home. After a few days in Dubai, he’ll land in Ireland and reacquaint himself with what he left behind just over five years ago. The jetlag will be the only thing he’ll have to negotiate, he insists. He’s prepared himself for the weather and the search for a job.
St Kilda and Sydney’s Coogee may have Tralee on some counts, but they were never home. “I probably never settled here,” he admits. “I always had it in my mind that I was going to go home at some stage so I didn’t really settle. Moving to Sydney as well broke it up another bit. I was always going to go back and this never became home for me.”
Injury, the most painful kind (his hamstring completely tore off the bone in June last year), ravaged his chances of making an impact in the AFL and contributed a lot to him making just five appearances. But did the sense he was always just passing through in Australia affect his performances? “I don’t think it did. In my time here, I put everything into it. I trained as hard as I could, I played as hard as I could. I put everything into it because it was something I wanted to succeed at. I don’t think that affected me at all that I was always going home.
“You come here to play and if you don’t play you’re disappointed, but everybody has injuries. I came out and played for two competitive teams. In those four or five years those teams got to four Grand Finals. That’s where I wanted to be, with a team that was competing. I gave myself the chance to be a part of all of that. I wasn’t but that’s sport. I didn’t play as many games I would have liked, at times I was unlucky not to play more but that’s just the way it is. I don’t have any grudges or regrets going back.”
His philosophical outlook on his time in Melbourne and Sydney is testament to the life experience he gained here, something so substantial he can’t quantify. “Before, I was going to college in Limerick and playing for Kerry at the weekend. I was in a bit of a bubble. Coming here opened my eyes and it showed me there’s a bigger world out there. Apart from the professional lifestyle, I got to live in two great cities and met a lot of brilliant people. I grew up as a person here, I had to because you had no other choice. You don’t have the support network you would have of friends and family at home, your club or your county. I didn’t have that here. The first year was a lot of growing up.”
Earlier this month, Walsh’s buddy Moran spoke of the gloomier side of the professional life he avoided when he wasn’t picked up by St Kilda along with Walsh in 2009. He based that on his conversations between the pair. “I’d be talking to Tommy every day or every second day and it’s not always as good as it cracked up to be. It’s a very tough environment and like a lot of things, when it’s going great it’s great, and when it’s not going well it can be a very tough place to be.”
Those two cruciate operations and then an eye problem last year made life hell for Moran. Walsh’s injury problems were that bit more stressful by being so far away from home not to mention that they prevented him doing his job. “When things are going well, you’re on top of the world but because it’s not just a sport you’re playing, but your profession, there are lows. I know David doesn’t regret getting the opportunity out here. If you see what he’s done over the last five years — and coming back from the injuries this year — with his studies, he’s now a serious qualification behind him as a chartered accountant. It’s all worked out so well. He’s an All-Ireland winner and now playing for his country. Apart from the injuries, if he went back I don’t think he’d change a thing.
“I wouldn’t change what happened. I suppose it’s natural to compare because we’re friends, we came out here together but I don’t think we would change what has happened. We’d be talking and there would have been times when things were going well for him in Kerry but not for me here and vice versa. That’s how things fell for us.”
During the Championship this year, Walsh and a gang of Ballybunion lads based in Sydney would come together in one house and take in Kerry’s games on Channel 7Mate. “Towards the end of the year it was live but earlier in the Championship they weren’t and you’d have to turn off your phone!”
Watching Moran put in that mammoth display against Mayo in Limerick filled him with pride. “It would be easy to jump on his bandwagon now but he’d a lot of low points and with the injuries, it was a very lonely place for him. You could see what it meant to his mother and father, his brother and sister. They experienced the low points with him. The determination of the man to fight back and win an All-Ireland was incredible.”
Those photographs of Moran embracing his father Ogie and wife Ann at the end of the final are arguably the most demonstrative of Kerry’s emotional roller-coaster in 2014. Ogie was just as emotional afterwards in the Gaelic Grounds as the team boarded the bus. Close by, his old comrade Sean Walsh beamed a smile that had trajectory. Walsh and Moran mightn’t have licked it off a stone but they had shadows to emerge from. They chose to harness their heritage rather than hide from it.
“I suppose it only affects you if you let it,” argues Walsh. “I was always very proud to be called the son of Sean Walsh and David is the same with Ogie. I just latched onto it really and I grew up with Ogie and Bomber being around. You’d be in bars after games in their company and listening to their stories. Both David and myself would have taken a lot away from that. It showed me the Kerry tradition, having that insight into what it meant to wear the jersey.
“My dad obviously had a big influence on me and my career. After games, often he was the last person I wanted to see because I knew if I didn’t play well , we’d be chatting. He’d never say anything to me publicly but if I was talking with him one-on-one, he’d be waiting for me at home, we’d have to sit down and have a big chat about it. It helps to have somebody looking over me like that. I don’t think I would be in the position I was in to be able to play for Kerry without him.”
As he settles in next month, Walsh won’t be moving back to the family homestead — “My father and I would kill each other”. With a construction management degree from Limerick IT under his belt, he hopes to find a job in January. He hasn’t ruled out doing a Masters either.
“I know what’s ahead of me and I’m ready for it. Even playing out here, it’s like a nine-to-five job. It’s not as glamorous as some people might think. It’s not a game when you’re training during the week and then at the weekend, walk up and play a match. There’s so much around it. You’re still doing 40 hours a week. You’re not getting off anything lightly. I think I’ll be able for the nine to five life.”
The lure of Strand Road is hefty compensation too. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most — getting back with the club. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities here only for what the club did for me. I want to give something back in return.”
Seeing Austin Stacks in a Munster Club final tomorrow week brings to Walsh the need to reclaim the local bragging rights. “We won’t hear the end of it!” he laughs about the Rockies’ recently-claimed county title. “No, seriously, it’s great for the town. Obviously with Crokes dominating over the last number of years, Killarney were producing a lot of good footballers and I think it was important for Tralee to have strong football teams.
“It’s great to see Kieran Donaghy do so well at the end of the year and he’ll be captain next year after showing great form. That’s the way the captaincy works out. Often it doesn’t work out but Kieran is definitely a guy you would want to be a Kerry captain.”
Declan O’Sullivan’s retirement earlier this week was a blow but the thought of Donaghy and Walsh renewing their twin tower partnership in the full-forward line is a tantalising one for Kerry supporters. As an outsider, Walsh is sensitive to saying the right things about his county prospects. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has publicly welcomed his return home but he remains cautious. The game has also developed since he scored four points in the 2009 final, a year after he was named the young footballer of the year. “I don’t want the lads thinking ‘here’s this fella back from Australia and thinking he’s straight back in the panel’. I will enjoy the challenge of trying to get back in there.
“I’ll just go in with the club and approach things the same as I always have, train as hard as I can and whatever happens after that happens. There’s a serious squad there now, they’re All-Ireland champions and all have a medal in their ass pocket now. So I’m just going to go back and do my best to get in there.
“I had to take a month off after just to give the leg a rest after the season. It was getting a bit sore towards the end of this year. I took off half of October and the first half of November and am back training now. I don’t want to be missing anything and hopefully I’ll be fully fit for the start of the year and ready to go.”
Last Christmas when Walsh was home, Fitzmaurice sought his advice. “A lot of it was just about measurements and how we measure ourselves, what we do going into games and what we talk about. Our target areas, our key indicators of whether you play well. Eamonn’s been around a long time himself and I’m sure he’s learned a lot over the last few years. A lot of it was things he knew himself and he was just trying to get the Australian Rules side of it.”
Jack O’Connor may have been the manager in 2009 but Walsh knew Fitzmaurice was going to be a good one in the making.
“Certainly because he was getting involved in training and whenever he spoke everybody listened because he is a guy who’s played the game and is so well respected and has a huge knowledge of the game. You see what he’s done this year, it’s incredible. He’s taken a bunch of group with a good few inexperienced guys and made them an All-Ireland winning team.”
Walsh hopes to see a lot more of Fitzmaurice in the new year but for now it’s about preparing himself to get back into the swing of Kerry life, far removed from the sleeveless vests and flipflops of Australian beach suburbs. “I’m looking forward to the Irish lifestyle again. I know a lot of people give out about it but I don’t think they realise how good it is until they are away from it.”
The AFL, he knows, will continue to target Ireland for new recruits. He’ll be happy to counsel those considering life in another world. “It mightn’t be for everyone. The clubs look after you but it’s not home. A lot of guys who come out there, I can guarantee you they will learn a hell of a lot about sport, about themselves, about their physical and mental abilities. It taught me a lot of lessons. It’s something I can always pull out when I want.”
How Kerins O’Rahillys and Kerry will like the sound of that.