The best place to begin any appraisal of Tommy Walsh’s career is not with the All-Ireland medals, not with the All Stars but on a Sunday afternoon at Walsh Park in the summer of 1997.
Among the attendance for the Féile na nGael Division One final between Tullaroan and Sarsfields of Cork was Ned Power, the former Waterford goalkeeper and enduring coaching luminary.
Power’s attention, as he wrote in his newspaper column the following week, was immediately drawn to the patent mismatch on the edge of the Tullaroan square. The Sarsfields full-forward was a human skyscraper in the form of a teenager. The opposing full-back was an elf who appeared so laughably out of his depth against his gangling marker that Power’s heart went out to him. After 20 minutes Power’s fears had been fulfilled, the twist being it was the unfortunate full-forward who was being eaten alive by the little fella. Power noted the name and filed it away for future reference. Tommy Walsh.
Did Power realise he was witnessing something special? Clearly, not least because a little investigative work yielded Walsh’s bloodline: he was the grandson of Paddy Grace, the legendary former Kilkenny county secretary and an All-Ireland winner in 1939 and ’47. But if Power didn’t realise quite how special, well, that was forgivable. For his versatility, durability and consistency, Walsh was to be nothing less than one of the wonders of modern hurling.
We cannot be sure nach mbeidh a leithéid etc. But we can be fairly definite that if there’s to be another hurler who wins nine consecutive All Stars, four of them on different lines of the field, it won’t be any time soon.
Ned Power would have enjoyed his young friend’s entree to the All-Ireland senior final stage too. Ten seconds or so into the 2003 decider and Walsh, wearing number 12, hoists a monster left-hander from the Hogan Stand touchline that drops straight over the black spot at the Railway End, almost certainly sucked over Dónal Óg Cusack’s crossbar by the ghosts of Lory Meagher and Paddy Phelan, Tullaroan heroes of yesteryear, on the terrace behind.
He was the last of the schoolyard hurlers. For no other player we’ve seen was the game one of such unadorned simplicity, free from systems and tactics. Get the shaggin’ ball and hit it.
Kilkenny hurlers are supposed to be calculated and calculating, perhaps even a little studied; Walsh was the antithesis of that. He was loved for his energy and his determination, for how – and how often and with such brio — he won the sliotar rather than the manner in which he dispensed it. He was the Harry Potter of the basics, magicking 50-50 or 40-60 balls into the gold of primary possession.
Formidable in the air and supreme when it came to picking the ball on the run, there was nothing refined about his stroke. Brian Whelahan, the finest right-half back of the previous generation (and of the millennium), he wasn’t. The celebrated crossfield pass to Henry Shefflin for that point in the 2011 All-Ireland final lodges in the mind because of its rarity. Walsh’s everyday delivery was high and long and straight down the tramline. It wasn’t precision-tooled to the advantage of the receiving forward and it didn’t have to be, not with the plethora of hunter gatherers in the Kilkenny attack.
A tiny percentage of hurlers are blessed gifts so wristy and elevated we admire them rather than empathise with them. Walsh, on the other hand, was someone everyone seemed to feel they could be if only the joy of battle and lust for contact burned as brightly. The belief that he was “small”, meanwhile, was misplaced. One year at the All Stars in Citywest he was standing near Michael Meehan, the Galway footballer. Meehan looked a slip of a lad; Walsh resembled a middleweight boxer.
For a while his versatility was a sword with two edges, never more so than the wonderful and barmy afternoon Kilkenny and Galway shared nine goals in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final. Walsh hit a world of ball from midfield that day; the bottom line, however, was that in hitting less ball David Tierney, his marker, managed a couple of interventions that really counted, including the incisions for two of Galway’s five goals.
Come the winter Brian Cody, Mick Dempsey and Martin Fogarty made a cabinet decision from which there would be no going back. Thereafter Walsh would be sited at right-half back and he’d play the position, nothing more. No sallying up the field, no essaying points from distance, no trying to be all things to all men. Goodness knows how much his boundless spirit must have chafed at such petty restrictions, yet if the move entailed Kilkenny offering up a point or two per game the quid pro quo was increased security at the back. Thus was installed one of the building blocks of what turned out to be the four in a row team.
If Shefflin was the field marshal, Cha Fitzpatrick the brains and Noel Hickey the commander of the watch, Walsh was the team’s soul, the fire to JJ Delaney’s ice, and it was symbolic rather than coincidental that the four in a row was secured with the Tullaroan man charging out with the sliotar as Diarmuid Kirwan sounded the final whistle in 2009.
The dark stuff? There was rather too much of it around 2008-09. No contemporary trod the edge as unapologetically or as consistently. There was an unwholesome pull in the region of Diarmuid Lyng’s shins in the 2008 Leinster final, a second yellow card inexplicably avoided against Galway in Tullamore the following year, and if his part in the Battle of Brian Gavin’s Nose in 2011 was silly rather than malicious he was extremely fortunate nonetheless Gavin didn’t get all schoolmastery. By the same token, people who gave him credit for bouncing back up like a Subbuteo man after Benny Dunne’s pull in the 2009 All-Ireland final missed the obvious. Any player as heedless of whirling ash as Walsh wasn’t going to be precious about his own safety.
His decline was swift, precipitated by a couple of trimmings from Dublin’s Danny Sutcliffe in the National League. A mode of existence predicated on getting to the ball before the other lad was always going to be blowing fumes once the first half yard of pace was lost. Cody, needless to say, did not stand on sentiment.
But what of it? The Team of the 20th Century had a Tullaroan player at wing-back. The Team of the 21st Century already has another.
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