Last year this writer went to a training session for the Waterford hurlers to discuss access for GAA Nua, an upcoming documentary.
On a dirty winter’s evening the players thundered past on their laps of the field, boots flicking up mud, Thurles in the sun a distant dream.
Out in front leading the pack? Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, who makes a record-breaking 74th championship appearance against Cork tomorrow (Semple Stadium, 2pm).
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of him,” says Waterford selector Dan Shanahan.
“As a player and a selector, he’s been the best trainer I’ve ever been involved with.
“I’ll put my cards on the table - it was an honour to play with him and an honour to train him, which was something I never thought I’d do. He’s the first to training and the last to leave, and that has always been his way, from when he started to now, 15 years later.
“He always leaves training after curling a ball over the bar at the very end, and then he heads up the tunnel to the dressing-room happy.” In his considerable pomp Walsh often lined up in the middle of the field against Cork.
Whether in Thurles or Croke Park, his direct opponent was often Tom Kenny.
“The marking assignments wouldn’t have been pre-planned when we played Waterford,” says Kenny.
“We (Kenny and Jerry O’Connor) wouldn’t have decided it beforehand which of us would pick him up.
“I always found him difficult to mark because he came from that football background, and at the time he came on the scene first there’d have been a sense that football was ahead of hurling in terms of physical preparation, though they’re on a par now.
“And he was always on the go, always working, always in the middle of the action. Because of that it was difficult to get a handle on him.
“He mightn’t have had the burning pace some lads had but he had that ability to be in the right place at the right time, knowing where the ball was going to be and knowing what to do with it. He always made the right decision in possession.”
Walsh’s right decisions made other right decisions easier. Though the Waterford side he broke onto in 2003 was an established team with plenty of experienced players, he soon emerged as a leader.
“He’s always been an outstanding teammate because he was always a leader,” says Shanahan, who was on that team.
“Within three or four years of coming onto the panel Justin (McCarthy, then Waterford manager) made him the captain, a decision we all backed one hundred per cent. That’ll tell you the respect we had for him, even players who by then were ten years with Waterford.
Kenny pays tribute to Walsh’s longevity, calling it ‘incredible’.
“Being able to play at that level for that long is incredible, in fairness. The game is speeding up all the time, not slowing down.
“Waterford have had success in that time, they’ve won leagues and Munster titles - I know the All-Ireland is the big one they want to win, obviously, but winning medals probably makes it a small bit easier to keep going.
“And he was one of those guys who was always in the thick of the action but was still well able to mind himself, didn’t pick up serious injuries - and was available then for selection the next day as well.”
Shanahan agrees the absence of serious injury helped Walsh, but teases that point out further: “A couple of people said to me that he was lucky enough not to pick up a serious injury over the years, but I’d flip that around. It wasn’t all luck. He got out of the game what he put into his preparation. Because he was so committed and dedicated in his training he got the rewards in terms of staying healthy.
“Two weeks ago when we played Tipperary we were in trouble with injuries, as everybody knows, and we asked him to drop back to half-back to help out the defence. No complaints, he just did it. He said he’d play anywhere. He’s played in every line of the field, often in the middle. Key positions, demanding positions, and he did well in all of them.
“He won’t like it being said because that’s not his style, but it has to be said - what he’s given Waterford has been unbelievable. Derek (McGrath) said he’s the best team player that ever wore the Waterford jersey, and he’s right.
When Shanahan got involved with Waterford five years ago he was hoping his old teammate would be on board with what the management wanted to do.
“I don’t know why I was worried about that. Brick is too dedicated to Waterford to be otherwise. I look to him still, and I’m older than him. The way he’s always applied himself in training, getting the most out of himself and the most out of every training session - that has been the benchmark for every Waterford hurler for years, and it still is the benchmark. Whether a young fella is on the U14 squad or the senior intercounty team, Brick is the man to copy in the way he’s applied himself.
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