Does Walsh exit herald the end of the cavalier wing-back?

Tommy Walsh during the 2012 Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final against Cork in Thurles. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The departure of Tommy Walsh from the inter-county stage means we won’t see that red helmet blaze through a thicket having won a puck-out.

Does the end of the Tommy Walsh era signal the end of something else, though?

Does his retirement herald the end of the cavalier wing-back, in an era of patterns and sweepers?

Many years ago, Cyril Farrell summed up an opposing player in a pin-sharp phrase: he was a defender who liked to mark the ball rather than the man, said the Galway native, who might have been Darwin christening an entire species.

The player Farrell had in mind then was Denis Walsh of Cork, a player reliant on skill rather than brawn or pace, and there’s a proud tradition of players thriving at wing-back because of their independence rather than their powers of surveillance. The ultimate example was Brian Whelahan of Offaly, tilting games away from his wing for years, but there are others — Tom Cashman of Cork, Kilkenny’s Joe Hennessy, Anthony Daly of Clare.

There are different schools of wing-back play, of course. Matadors always differ in their approach.

Eoin Kelly of Tipperary pointed out to this writer yesterday that in Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row pomp, he looked out from his corner-forward berth to see Tommy Walsh at number five and JJ Delaney at number seven. Some pair of Spartans for any Thermopylae.

Delaney’s redeployment at full-back is no surprise, given his mastery of all the defensive skills but even though Walsh picked up All-Star awards in the corner-back, midfield and wing-forward positions, he was born to play wing-back.

The freedom to play his own game was facilitated, to some extent, by Kilkenny’s inclination to compress play in their own half, and the industry of their half-forward line in particular in the middle third of the field, but that didn’t give Walsh the freedom to dominate bigger opponents in the air or to deliver so much ball to his forwards.

For a while, nitpickers pointed to frailties. There was a sense a few years ago that Walsh was carrying the can for Kilkenny’s dominance: that he was playing on the edge, with the implication that sometimes he stepped over that edge and into lawlessness.

(This was skewered neatly by his manager. Brian Cody said: “I’d hate to think he is not a player who plays on the edge. Where are you supposed to play?”)

There was a different charge: that he had a tendency to sky his deliveries goalwards without picking out a teammate.

It was Brendan Cummins who pointed out in these pages many years ago, however, that when Kilkenny had forwards like Martin Comerford, John Hoyne and Henry Shefflin underneath the dropping ball, there was no great need to refine the delivery: those were players capable of winning possession on their terms. Their successors were equally self-sufficient.

That’s not to say Tommy Walsh couldn’t change. Witness his performance in the 2011 All-Ireland final or, if you’re a little rusty, hear one of his opponents that day admire the tweaking of a trademark style.

“In that All-Ireland final, I remember he changed a little bit,” says Eoin Kelly of Tipperary.

“Before that he’d rise, get the ball and rive it a hundred yards down the field, but in that game he was different.

“He was playing lovely diagonal balls across the field to Henry Shefflin, just the kind of ball a forward loves. Henry was on our most inexperienced man on the day, and it was obvious that Tommy was trying to involve him more in the play for that reason, and it worked out well for them.”

Walsh maintained a low profile off the field. Those who soldiered with him tell you of a down to earth lad, perfectly nice until, as the saying goes, the boots crossed the whitewash. “Marking him was a nightmare,” laughs Eddie Brennan.

“Tommy’s a lovely fella off the field, but once he gets into game mode, competitor mode, call it what you want, he changes.

“Gladiator mode would be the best way to describe it. If you’re between him and the ball, he’ll go through you for it. In 2006 I had a few training sessions where I had to pick him up when I was trying to stay on the team, and it was some battle.

“The upside was if you could survive on him in training, then management had to take notice of you; if you did well against Tommy Walsh, they knew you could do it against anyone.

“As for him, though... if you won a ball off him, it cut him. Simple as that. It hurt him that badly, he was so competitive.”

On a team holiday in New Zealand, the Kilkenny players fell in for a knockabout game of soccer — “Nothing competitive, no trophies,” is how Brennan recalls it — and the forward decided to beat his man at one stage: “I pushed the ball past him at one stage, and when I tried to get around him to take possession again, he just put me on my backside. That’s Tommy.”

Being a competitor and a stylish operator isn’t enough, of course. Eoin Kelly points out that there was a particular defensive skill in Walsh’s armoury that he was able to execute better than anyone else.

“He was able to defend, too. Brian Cody was a defender in his own playing days and whatever about lads who can hurl, they have to be able to defend if they’re in the backs on a Brian Cody team.

“Tommy got in plenty of hooks and blocks over the years, but how many of those blocks did he get in — when a fella was five yards away from him and going for a score, Tommy would have the hurley up in the air and get a block in even though he was miles away from him. Very few lads were able to do that.”

A competitive defender with plenty of elan: that sounds like a classic wing-back in any company, a recipe for success in any era, past or future.

There’ll be more cavaliers at numbers five and seven. None of them will be like Tommy Walsh, though. None could be.


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