The retirement of Tommy Walsh from inter-county hurling with Kilkenny ends one of the most spectacularly successful GAA careers of all time.
Walsh retires with nine All-Ireland senior hurling medals and nine consecutive All-Star awards, won in five different positions. The Tullaroan clubman did not figure prominently for Kilkenny this year but his retirement yesterday drew tributes from teammates and opponents alike.
“For me he was the best, that’s how I’d rate Tommy,” said Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly. “He had everything — aggression, skill, courage, you name it. He had the will to influence the game, to make the ball go where he wanted it to go. He ticked all the boxes for me — the best, simple as that. I couldn’t give him any higher a compliment than that.
“One thing I always liked about Tommy is that he got on with the hurling. He kept his mouth shout and got on with it. He hurled hard, he hurled fair, and I’d say if the stats were available you’d see in most games he probably handled the ball more than any player.
“The Kilkenny supporters really loved seeing him on the ball, too. He not only lifted the team, he lifted the whole place. When he was on his game then Kilkenny were on their game.”
Eddie Brennan, who won eight All-Ireland senior hurling medals with Walsh, concurs: “DJ (Carey) was the crowd favourite with the Kilkenny support and Tommy will be a huge loss in that regard. Some national league game in Nowlan Park, the result in the melting pot, he’d win a ball and come out under the new stand and clear it down the field — that rose the crowd. It rose us as well, playing with him, but he had an ability to rise the crowd in a way no player, past or present, could match.
“Some players have that. The vast majority don’t have that connection, and they never do, but he always did. Maybe it was because he wasn’t the tallest, but he had such heart, and saw no fear, that people related to him and got a kick out of his displays.”
Cork star Tom Kenny remembers hearing about the young Walsh: “I remember Dr Paddy Crowley saying to me before Tommy got to UCC that this was a guy who was going to be a serious hurler, and he was right. He was very strong on team spirit and camaraderie, he’d have spoken about it, and he showed it himself with Kilkenny.
“This was before he filled out to play inter-county, but even then, in testing conditions, he was well able to handle any player, no matter what size, and you could see the talent. He started off at corner-back and moved out to wing-back when we started going well with UCC.
“What stood out for me was his ability to field the ball, obviously, positioning and anticipation of the play, to time his runs — those were all shown when he broke onto the Kilkenny team.
“When Kilkenny beat us (Cork) in 2003, in fairness to him he came over to me afterwards. I did the same in 2004. He’s down to earth, no rubbish about him. I’d say he’s just a guy who when he had the UCC jersey on, he gave it everything, same with his club, same with his county.”
Brennan thinks his All-Star haul, in particular, will never be matched.
“This year didn’t go that well and he’d be disappointed with it, but I don’t think it’d be fair to focus on that, given the career he had. When you’re playing with someone, you don’t realise what they’re achieving, and nine All-Star awards in five different positions is something that’ll never be equalled.
“He’s a great guy, what you see is what you get. No airs and graces. Off the field he’s as nice as you could meet. On the field, the competitor comes out.”
Eoin Kelly warns that opponents may not have seen the end of Walsh: “I think his best day may be yet to come. Tullaroan are down intermediate next year and it’s a serious grade in Kilkenny, but Tommy will be determined to get them back up to senior. I’d say the ultimate for him would be to win a county title with Tullaroan.”
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