Standing still is akin to going backwards in Donnchadh Walsh’s eyes.
The Cromane man turns 30 in July, made great strides in 2013 but knows his evolution as an inter-county footballer is far from complete.
This year was his best ever in the green and gold ending with an All Star nomination. His style — a pulsating mass of movement, always available for a pass — is high-octane but it is the only way he knows. Years of being the best underage player for his club moulded him so.
“Being from a smaller club we wouldn’t have had a big selection. I suppose I was the best player at my age-group and other players looked to me to do a lot of work. I was expected to catch every kick-out, run the length of the field, score, and then catch the opposition’s kick-out. Every game I was covering huge distances. My fitness was always going to be very high.”
Living within 50 feet of the local football field in Cromane; having a father, Frank, who is “nuts about football” and four brothers were all elements that when combined acted as spurs.
Donnchadh Walsh is second eldest: Eoghan, twins Seán and Fionán and Liam. He also has a sister, Aoife.
It was with his younger brother Seán — a member of the 2011 Kerry U21 panel — who he had most battles with on Cromane’s GAA pitch as they grew up. The battles were slightly lopsided, Donnchadh being five years older.
“When we used to go over to the field I remember giving Seán 97-goal advantages in a game up to 100. Often he’d beat me 100-75 or whatever, so I was after scoring 75 in him but he got the three. I was 10 or 11 he was five or six at the time.”
It was his father Frank — who trained the Intermediate School Killorglin (ISK) to a Hogan Cup title in 1996 — who had the biggest influence on a young Donnchadh though.
“He hated losing. Making him proud was always high on the agenda. Making my parents, Frank and Mary, proud really is the most rewarding thing. That will never change.”
It has been a long road to recognition for the Cromane man. He was 19 when first brought into a Kerry senior panel by Páidí Ó Sé in 2003. Just out of minor, he was overawed.
“I had just started in UCC and it was a completely new lifestyle for me. I moved away from home, was renting a house in Cork and then hopping into the car with Declan O’Keeffe to go training in Killarney. Sitting in the dressing room next to Seamus Moynihan. Getting the lifts down to the grub after training with Páidí Ó Sé and he asking me what I was eating above in Cork. I was so naive like telling ‘Oh, pizzas’. He was telling me I needed to get steaks and spuds into me as I was quite light.”
He played against Dublin in March of that year joining his clubman Seán O’Sullivan in the half-forward line for a league game in Killarney. He admits he wasn’t physically up to it. It wasn’t until 2007 — after some strong county championship displays with Mid Kerry — that Pat O’Shea brought him back into the Kerry football family. He didn’t make his championship debut until 2008 under Jack O’Connor. It was a vindication of sorts for the lifestyle choices he has always made. He is now in the third year of his physiotherapy course in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.
“I have always put football ahead of everything in my life. Going back to the Leaving Cert, I repeated because I knew there was a good football team in the ISK. I chose UCC because all the best Kerry footballers went there to try and win a Sigerson.
“When I got a job as an engineer I soon realised that being a site engineer did not allow me to train and to make a Kerry team due to the hours and travel so I got out of engineering.
“When I needed to choose a career that would suit football I thought of physio.”
Since 2007 Walsh notes a personal year-on-year improvement in performance. That’s his mantra: constant improvement. In 2009 he came on for Tadhg Kennelly to win his first All-Ireland on the field of play. In 2012 his best display was against Donegal and this year he saved his best for the All-Ireland semi-final epic against Dublin. Not that he enjoyed it mind.
“People said it to me after scoring the goal against the Dubs that I didn’t celebrate — no smile. But for me on the field it’s almost terrifying. You have so many jobs, you are trying to think of everything. When I stuck that goal Cluxton probably had the ball on the tee by the time I was running out past him again. He could have been picking out my man with a ball. I don’t get a chance to enjoy playing on the field.”
In the lead-up to that epic All-Ireland semi-final Cluxton’s kick-outs were a particular focus for Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s team and Walsh was a key to the plan to counteract them.
“It was a big talking point beforehand. A lot of our team meetings were about his kickouts. Of all the teams that Dublin came up against we did the best in limiting his effectiveness.”
Since that game Tomás Ó Sé has retired and more may follow. ‘Kerry in transition’ is the popular refrain. Walsh accepts that but it doesn’t mean Kerry lower their expectations.
“I think Kerry have been going through that transition since 2009 really. We lost so many key players after that All-Ireland win: Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly, Seán Bán [O’Sullivan], Darragh Ó Sé, Mike McCarthy, and Diarmuid Murphy.
“The good thing about this year is that Eamonn Fitzmaurice got on board and he has made the transition as seamless as possible.
“The new leaders of the team are the likes of Peter Crowley, James O’Donoghue, and Fionn Fitzgerald. Eamonn has come in and we had a very competitive year. We were still not there when it came down to it. We are still not good enough to win an All-Ireland but he has made us very competitive with new players.”
“I think we realised this year what it takes to win an All-Ireland and we all know from number one to 36 the commitment that is required.
“What was required from us is complete commitment to the platform that Eamonn has created for us.
“I think every fella did everything they could this year and it will require another year of complete commitment.”
Walsh learned of that commitment when he arrived into a Kerry senior panel with some of the best players to ever play the game of football.
Looking back on 2003 he regrets that no-one took his 19-year-old self aside and explained what inter-county football was really about.
“I think I could have been handled a bit better. Somebody to maybe take me under their wing and say: ‘Look, Donnchadh this is what you need to do’. I didn’t realise the commitment that would be required at the time.”
So, does he now take the time to pass on his experiences to the younger players on the current Kerry panel?
“Eamonn makes a point repeatedly about the fact that this is our team. We are only going to be the best if we push each other. If Fionn Fitzgerald pushes me or Peter Crowley pushes me and I push him, then we both carry each other along.
“He has put a certain onus on the younger fellas to take that responsibility, not to just be the young lads that are going to be carried along by the older ones. I think whether it is just the character of those players, or the structures, everybody recognises what we all have to do.”
So leadership is not defined by age?
“No, the contributions of the younger players to training or meetings are just as important as someone like Tomás Ó Sé, who spoke so well at every kind of meeting.”
Walsh doesn’t see himself as a natural-born leader.
“I wouldn’t naturally be a leader, no. I definitely have different attributes as a footballer.
“I suppose my workrate would hopefully inspire others. Mycontribution this year has given me a lot more confidence in my ability as a Kerry footballer, that I can contribute more and more to the team next year again.
“I don’t think you need 15 leaders you just need 15 fellas you are working for each other and making the team better.”
More and more: that’s what Donnchadh Walsh asks of himself every time he takes to the field in green and gold. He would hate to stand still.
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