Record-breaker 'Brick' leaves his legacy in stone
By John Harrington
Whatever school-friend first christened Waterford hurler Michael Walsh with the nickname ‘The Brick’ was some sort of child-Nostradamus.
His durability at the highest level of the game since making his senior inter-county debut as a substitute back in 2003 against Kerry has been incredible.
He’ll make his 74th Championship appearance for Waterford against Cork on Sunday which moves him to the top of the all-time list ahead of Tipperary’s Brendan Cummins.
What makes the record-breaking achievement all impressive is that those 74 appearances will have been made consecutively.
“It’s unbelievable, especially in the modern game” says Walsh’s former Waterford team-mate, Ken McGrath.
“He’s always in the mix and he’s brilliant at winning dirty-ball so it’s not as if he’s been minding himself on the pitch.
“2003 seems like a lifetime ago really and for him to be still going until now without missing a game through is incredible.
“He's a great friend, as sound as a pound, and he would hate all of this fuss about breaking the record on Sunday.
“He wouldn't be into any of that at all. He'd much rather that this was a competitive game and not about being his 74th game.
“But he deserves it because he's after giving some service and been a top-class player for us.”
When Walsh made his Championship debut against Kerry back in 2003, McGrath was the player he came on to replace.
By then ‘The Brick’ already had a season of senior inter-county football under his belt and was regarded as being more talented in the big ball code than as a hurler.
But the work ethic that has to define him over the course of his 16-year senior inter-county career ensured he quickly got up to speed.
“When he came in first he was a bit raw and I don't know if he felt totally comfortable when he came in first,” said McGrath.
“Justin McCarthy was the manager at the time and the one thing with Justin is that he'd improve your hurling.
“For all of us, he improved our hurling no end. Brick really bought into the training and his hurling improved year after year.
“In 2004 he had a brilliant year at centre-forward and midfield for us, won a Munster title, and kicked on from there and became a real leader.
“He always had the athleticism and will to win, but his hurling really, really improved and he became a top-class player in every position he played in.”
His dependability on the field was reflected in his personality off it which over the years has made him a reassuring presence in the Waterford dressing-room for his team-mates.
“He was the sort of fella who never looked for excuses or anything like that,” said McGrath. “He got on with the job in hand, whatever it was. Whether something happened before a game or at half-time, he never got involved in that stuff, he just always played his game.
“He would never shout for the sake of shouting. When he spoke it was always something proactive and you'd always listen because he'd always make sense.
“He has won four All-Stars as a back, a midfielder, and a forward. I think myself, Tommy Walsh and him are the only three lads who have that so it's a fair achievement.”
‘The Brick’, Ken McGrath, and Tommy Walsh were different players stylistically, but the reason they were all so effective in defence, midfield, and attack was because they shared arguably the most vital trait any hurler can have – the ability to win possession.
You can’t do much on a hurling field without getting the ball into your hand first, and just like Ken McGrath and Tommy Walsh, ‘The Brick’ has an almost unnatural ability to get the ball into his hand regardless of whether it comes to him high or low.
Kilkenny legend Walsh puts that down to a combination of two things – a ferocious will to win the ball combined with brilliant technique.
“Yeah, it's a mix of the two,” said Walsh. “If you don't the technique then you're not going to catch any balls.
“Once you have the techniques right then it's all about the will. You usually find they go hand in hand.
“Because a guy who has that will to win the ball, whether it's in the air or on the ground, will find a way of doing it, whatever way he has to do it.
“The Brick was unbelievable. If you go through The Brick's games, when he was centre-back he caught an awful lot of ball.
“He was especially brilliant at catching the ball going backwards where he wasn't actually coming forward onto the ball.
“He was going backwards so he could have a lad jumping on his back, but he was so tall and strong that he was able to jump up and catch it anyway, which is a very difficult thing to do.
“Then when he was in the forwards he was the master at bringing the ball down. So, when a half-back liked to catch the ball he'd stick up the hurl at the last minute and break it down. And then he was able to use his size and physique to win the ball.
“He was a great man in the rucks. I often watched him in games, you'd be trying to learn a few things, and he always seemed to come out of a ruck with the ball.
“That's not through luck or anything, it's down to technique and that will to win. He was brilliant under the dropping ball and also when it came to the ground he seemed to always come out with it.”
He’s the best team player that’s ever played for Waterford – simple as
Waterford have nothing tangible to play for against Cork on Sunday because they can no longer qualify for the All-Ireland series of the hurling championship.
No doubt Walsh will play with his usual determination regardless of those circumstances, and you can be sure too his younger team-mates will be keen to send him out on a high as a fitting farewell.
“He’s the best team player that’s ever played for Waterford – simple as,” says Waterford manager Derek McGrath.
“There’s no debate, that’s what he is. He’s just different gravy”