The end of any season in any sport can spark the retirements of many players. In 2014 a lot of big names in GAA have announced their decision to no longer persevere with their hurling and football careers. Here Sean Cremin looks back on one of those careers, that of Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh.
As mentioned in the introduction, a lot of big-name players have departed the intercounty scene as the winter has started to set in. Some high profile players, most notably Aidan Walsh and Padraic Collins have changed codes between hurling and football but a lot of prominent players will no longer put on their county jersey in the height of the summer.
In football, the likes of Aaron Kernan and Benny Coulter have led the way. In hurling, All-Ireland champions Kilkenny have now lost four members of their most recent All-Ireland winning squad. Brian Hogan, David Herity and Aidan Fogarty have left the scene. But one name has, and fully deserves to catch the attention more than any other, and that is Tommy Walsh.
Any Kilkenny hurler of the last fifteen years boasts a phenomenal record of medals and achievements and none more so than the man from Tullaroan. The medal collection of all Kilkenny hurlers is mightily impressive but what Tommy Walsh did on the field of play was simply remarkable. If anything, there has been a lack of tributes to Tommy Walsh as a hurler since he announced his retirement.
Walsh was an absolutely outstanding player. He was the complete hurler. The only question that could be asked of his legacy is whether he was the best of all time or not? Nobody can question anything he performed on the field of play.
He carried out every single skill in the game to the highest standard in a variety of positions. As good as the standard has been over the last ten years, it is very hard for anybody to try and compete with what Walsh has achieved.
Nobody has demonstrated the capacity like Walsh to play corner-back, wing-back, midfield and wing-forward. The term ‘you could play him anywhere’ is often said about a player but Tommy Walsh was a true representation of this and his performances on the field prove so. Starting out as a wing-forward, he was very energetic and free-scoring before a move to the back line saw him cement his legacy.
Having begun as a wing-forward in 2003, he moved to corner-back in 2004 when Brian Cody went about tightening up his defence. He ended that year at wing-back before moving back to wing-forward in 2005. 2006 saw Walsh permanently move to number five and it is safe to say that he made the Kilkenny number five jersey his own.
From 2006 all the way to 2013 Walsh spent seven years as the stand-out wing-back in the country. His style of play was a joy to watch. He was a hard player and a tough player but he was very honest. He lived on the edge and may have pushed the boundaries at times but overall Walsh never pulled a dirty stroke on any player. His disciplinary record was very good and Walsh played out his career as a good role model to all players.
As mentioned previously, any Kilkenny player of the last fifteen years has an abundance of medals that fail to really be matched by anyone.
They have been the dominant force in hurling and Walsh’s list of honours is as good as anybody. Walsh won seven All-Ireland titles, eight Leinster titles, six National Hurling League medals and an outstanding nine All-Star awards in four different positions, including Hurler of the Year in 2009.
Nothing else is really needed to back up Walsh’s quality other than his All-Star achievements. Nine awards is incredible but to do so in different positions; corner-back, wing-back, midfield and wing-forward is an astonishing achievement. Nobody has ever done anything like this and for one player to do so, to such a high quality in all positions goes to epitomise how good he was.
His skill levels were excellent. One of his most staggering attributes was the incredible ability he showed to win his own ball in the air. Walsh stoof 5 foot 8 inches tall and the amount of times Walsh managed to win ball above significantly taller opponents was endless. This was one thing that really made him stand out.
As a forward he showed great pace to get away from his opponents and score. Similarly as a defender, he showed this same pace to make inspirational last ditch tackles. He was always capable of scoring as both a forward and a defender and he could always prevent opponents from scoring.
He simply performed every part of the game of the hurling to the highest quality. The pace and intensity of his play failed to be matched by many.
One of the moments that summed up Walsh was the 2009 All-Ireland final. With the game in the melting pot, Tipperary substitute Benny Dunne entered the field and was going up to contest a puck-out with Walsh. A moment of madness from Dunne saw him pull wildly straight across the head of Walsh. Walsh obviously hit the floor but bounced straight back up to his feet following a horrific blow.
There no rolling around the ground. There was no major attempts to get Dunne sent-off. Dunne did receive a straight red card, but the actions of Walsh could have made it easy for the referee to only brandish a yellow card. This was the honesty that Walsh played with. He lived on the edge but hardly ever crossed the line. He went into battle one-on-one with all opponents and came out on top most of the time.
The only possible downside to Tommy Walsh’s career may be the way it ended. He finished as an unused substitute in an All-Ireland winning squad and lost his place to his younger brother, Pádraig, as well as others during the year. He did not go out on a complete high. While he has another All-Ireland medal, it is hard to imagine that he was happy to watch from the bench.
His legacy may be slightly tarnished by the fact that he did not finish at the same heights that his career consistently had, which is wrong. Over the last fifteen years there has been no more complete or more consistent hurler then Tommy Walsh. His teammate Jackie Tyrell included “#TW5” in a tweet paying tribute to Walsh’s career.
The irony was that 5 could have been any number for Walsh, with the exception of 1 in terms of the playing field. That is how good Tommy Walsh was. In terms of this writer’s lifetime watching hurling, Walsh was definitely the most complete hurler to ever take to the field. His actions, records and performances justify this.
The way he carried himself was also of the highest quality and as a result Walsh deserves every plaudit and every compliment that gets thrown in his direction. We previously mentioned that #TW5 could have read every number except for 1. But maybe it could have been 1, as Tommy Walsh was the number 1 hurler of his era.
So, all the best to Tommy Walsh. He provided great memories for all hurling followers. Even those not from Kilkenny should be big enough and respectful enough to recognise what he achieved and how good a role model he was throughout his exceptional hurling career.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.