The Big Interview - Shane Walsh
By John Harrington
Any time you think Gaelic Football as a sport has become too strait-jacketed by tactics and predictable patterns of play, it’s always a good tonic to watch Shane Walsh in action for Galway.
Because when he gets his hand on the ball you never know quite what’s going to happen, but there’s a decent chance it could be spectacular.
His mastery of all the skills, two-footedness, raw pace, and confidence to back himself in situations where most wouldn’t make him a hugely enjoyable player to watch.
The Kilkerrin-Clonberne man is just as refreshing to talk to off the pitch as he is to watch on it.
He’s a football obsessive who almost loves to talk about it as much as he does play it. It’s that sheer enthusiasm for the sport and desire to be the very best he can be that enables him to do the sorts of things on the pitch most players could only dream of.
When he sat down with the media ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Derry he gave a fascinating insight into the mindset and dedication required to become of the most skillful players of his generation.
Q: You look like someone who enjoys himself every time he goes out to play a match. For you, is football about having fun and showing off the skills of the game?
Shane Walsh: Covid probably took the fun out of everything in that regard, the whole feeling out of the atmosphere and the occasion. But for me you are always looking at the positive that you are able to play and be lucky enough to be able to be one of the players to represent your county. There’s so many people out there who are so interested in it and would love to be doing it and for whatever reason they are not in that position. So I’m lucky enough to be there. I won’t be around forever, but when I’m there I’ll enjoy it and try and do what you were doing growing up. Everything I was doing when I was younger I’m just trying to live it when I play it and it just so happens that it’s for Galway. If it was the club or whatever I’d still be trying to do the same things, it’s just great to get that chance.
Q: Do you go out to play with the intention of executing as many skills of the game as you can?
SW: It’s to add another weapon to your armory really, that’s what it is all about. Paul Clancy was our selector in our U21 team in 2013 and we were training before and he came over and said ‘why do you keep kicking the ball so different every time?’
We were doing the drill where you run through, play the one two and take a shot on goal from various positions. Some lads would go back to their banker every time but I was saying someone might know that so I’ll do something different. He was smiling saying you’re like a golfer now adding a couple of more irons to your play. He said to just make sure you choose the right one.
You never know what scenario you find yourself on the pitch and I always say I play on instinct. If you kick a ball on the outside of the boot and it goes wrong they’ll say why didn’t you go with your other foot. But my instinct said to do that and sometimes you’ll trick someone and you pull it back and go on the other foot.
I suppose the big thing for me is I don’t want an opposition player to know what I’m going to do and I think I disguise it pretty well at times. Sometimes then the predictable, they are not banking on it because they think you are going to dummy and then you don’t. It’s nice to have that in your armory.
That’s what it’s about for me - learning the skills of the game and keep learning. I’m not saying I know every skill in the game, I’m still learning. I have alluded to before the opposite hand to opposite foot solo and the way that can be used and how it’s a weapon with regards to protecting the ball against an opposition player. I learned that from a lad that is a couple of years younger than me, David Clifford, I don’t know if you know him?! From someone who is really good at something I see potential and wonder if I can bring it to my game and if I can add it to my game that can benefit me and hopefully it can benefit Galway.
Q: When you first saw David Clifford execute that opposite hand to opposite foot solo, did you immediately go to get a ball and try it yourself?
SW: I probably had a ball in my had at the time! It was funny, because I was kind of looking at it and straight away I knew there was something different about that. Firstly, I was thinking of vision wise that when you're crossing the ball over, essentially the ball comes off your instep naturally so automatically the ball will shift if you're soloing on your right foot, it'll shift slightly to your left. So it's easier to get your left hand up.
Likewise, then if you know it's going to come there you'll get the use of the feel of the ball coming into your hand and you can have your head up at the same time to scan the field. But also what I found as well was that if you're going down an opposite side, if I'm on the right sideline say, I can solo it off my left foot. You'd say you should be soloing it off your right to keep it away from yourself, but what it actually does is free up your nearest hand to your man to hold him away from the ball. That's what I found to be the strength of it.
It's huge then because if you're essentially stopping someone from tackling the ball then you have possession of the ball and you're creating time for yourself. That, for me, is what I'm all about. I try to create as much time as I can on the ball because it's hard got. But if you can make the time then luckily enough I've a bit of pace behind it as well to create a bit more time for myself.
Q: Your manager, Pádraic Joyce, said after the Connacht Final you’re one of the best footballers he’s ever seen playing. What was it like to get a compliment like that off someone who was such a good player himself?
SW: Pádraic has always challenged me. That is the nature of it. Pádraic sees potential in me, no more than I do. I am trying to get the best out of myself every time I go out and play. Sometimes it is frustrating when you are not able to get that performance out of you for one reason or another. Thankfully I have shaken a few niggles, even the last ten days coming into the Connacht Final I felt I was getting sharp.
A lot of the work comes down to what is going on all around the field as well. It is easy to heap plaudits on someone who kicks a few frees and happened to get a goal, but, at the end of the day, there are lads stopping goals down the other side. Some of that work goes unnoticed. I'd hate to be a defender. I don't know why anyone wants to be one. Literally, you could win nine balls out of ten. The one ball you lose out on that essentially could be the losing of the game. That is the nature of the beast.
I have huge admiration for Pádraic as a player and a manager. He has Galway at the centre of his heart. It is so refreshing when you have someone like that. He wants the best for Galway. He has made that so clear. It is the heartwarming thing for me. He’s Galway to the core. It is nice.
He might say that the last day but I know he will have something different to say to me in training the next night as well. Look, there is a challenge there every time you go out and it is to try and better yourself. He always says when you go out to leave your best performance for Galway every time you play and improve every day. If we do that good things can happen for Galway. If that happens with every player, it has to happen all around. I think I am the last of the players to play well so hopefully we can keep it going now.
Q: To what extent is a footballer’s ability down to hard work, or is there such a thing as natural talent?
SW: It is funny, our psychology lecturer in college, Emma, gets a good kick out of me because I always say there is natural talent and she will say there is no such thing as natural talent, it is practice. It is funny, I have probably been twisted around that way.
When I was younger it was my imagination and who I looked up to. What you do on a training ground isn't enough no matter what age group. You essentially practice there but what do you do outside of that? When I was younger I’d often go out of the house at half 3 after school and mom would be looking for me at 11 to come inside. That was the nature of me. The only time I had to go in is if I broke a window at the side of the house kicking ball.
I always allude back to my old principal in Clonberne national, Peadar Brandon. If he hadn't come over to me when I was six or seven to say start kicking off my left foot, I probably would be late developing that skill and who knows how it would happen.
It was highly frustrating at the time but he would not allow me to kick off both feet in games because I developed it so well. That is what it took. Going out kicking ball, I never saw it as a chore. I never see football as a chore. There are chores in the winter time when you have to go run up a block of fitness but other than that, when you get a football in your hands it is a ball of magic really.
It is what you can do with it. That is something I have based my game around. People give out to me, especially Padraic and Scan (John Concannon), 'you only come to life when you get the ball. Can you do more off the ball?' That is the challenge for me I have to keep working on. At the same time, I know my strengths. When I am on the ball I know I can make things happen. It is just about continuing to do that for the better of the team.
Q: Are you saying you were forced to play off your left foot only in primary school by your principal, Peadar Brandon, so you’d better develop that skill?
SW: Yeah, he would give me about three or four weeks and when that block came he would say I was not allowed to kick off my right foot and it would be a free against me every time I did. I love a challenge, I love when people challenge me. I'll never react negatively to a challenge. Yeah, I'll get frustrated, but, at the same time I'll turn away and say, 'right, I'm going to get this now'.
It's not even a chance to prove people wrong, it's just to prove that I can do it. If I say to myself that I base my game around skills, someone challenges my skillset, then obviously I'm going to work to show that's something I can do, I can tick that box.
I just find it very enjoyable because you have a football in your hands. Some people change their style of technique in terms of kicking the ball, but if you do it the exact way in terms of kicking off your right foot or left foot, then the end product should be the same. That's the aim of the game really.
Q: When did you start kicking frees off the ground with both feet?
SW: I was doing that in first year in the school in St. Jarlath's. I remember Father Ollie Hughes was the President in Jarlath's at the time and I remember him coming out and talking about kicking frees off the ground. I never had kicked them off the ground so it was a case then of start placing the ball on the ground and kicking it.
And he said sure if you can do it off the right foot then you can do it off your left foot. It was a very simple analogy but I thought there was something in it. So, I spent time after training kicking the ball off the ground. That builds your confidence. I remember the first time I actually did it was when we played a club championship game and I was only 14 playing a minor championship game for the club.
I remember our managers at the time were losing their life because they saw me placing the ball on the ground. There was a bit of a wind against me but it was a nice wind kind of picking on the wide from right to left so I thought, lovely, I'll have a go at this. Everyone was losing their life but then once you kick it over the bar it's like anything, when you score you're a hero and if you miss you're the worst in the world.
I talk about adding weapons to your armory, it's just something else I have. Because on a day when I might need it I'll use it. No more than with the wind changing on the Thursdsay coming up to the Roscommon game (Connacht Final) I said I might need to kick one or two off the ground here.
So, I just kicked one or two even though the lads were saying I should be kicking it out of my hands. In my head I was saying, I might need that come the game-time. And, lo and behold, we got two 45s and I had them kicked over the bar before I even kicked the ball because I knew all I had to do was stroke it. That's the benefit of practice, really.
Q: The perceived wisdom is that a free-taker should always either just kick it from the ground or from their hand and work on that technique solely, but you obviously don’t believe in that?
SW: Yeah, I play on my instinct. So if I feel a ball should go off the deck, it goes off the deck. If I feel it should go out of my hands, it goes out of my hands. Usually I'm thinking it has to end up with the same end product. Part of what you do when you're kicking a free is to picture the umpire waving the white flag before you even kick it and the scoreboard changes.
That for me is money in the bank. When I'm practicing those frees that's me effectively saying that's the umpire waving the white flag. For me kicking those 45st the last day was the exact same way, I was literally like, 'yeah, the umpire is already waving the white flag here'.
Q: Do you ever feel pressure?
SW: I don't really. I always say you ignore a crowd and it can be hard when you pick up a ball in an area of the pitch and all of a sudden it goes from being quiet to there being a lot of expectation. One thing I learned from Paddy Tally when he came in in 2018 was just about dislocating expectations. As in, 'Who are you?' And as Cian O'Neill says, it's about humility as well. It's a new occasion, it's a new game, so who are you in some ways. You just have to go out and do what you can do. Do what you can with the ability you have.
For me, I slag the lads and say pressure is for tyres. Even Mum and Dad would be asking me would I be nervous going into the game on Sunday or other people would you be asking you whether you're nervous. I'd be like, 'What have I to be nervous about? I've been training the guts of 20 years for this. I've been training all year'. The only way I'd ever be nervous was if I missed training. Because then I'm saying, 'Have I practiced enough?'
Whereas right now I'm saying I practice so much, just let me out there. That's the way I'd be going into a game. It's another game. What's the difference between our first championship game and the last championship game? To me, it's 70 minutes of football, it's another opposition, lets go get them.
Q: It sounds like you just have a pure love for football?
SW: Well, I do, I live and breathe it. Hence why I chose the different career path. I was in the Bank and, in fairness, had absolutely no issues with working with that. For me, I just said I need to be involved in sport and I'd love to go into coaching as well down the line. So for me, teaching PE was the next step for that. Going in teaching PE is the same as me going in coaching as well.
I always say that if I can get the sort of improvement out of somebody else that I got out of myself, then I'll be loving life then.
When I go out and play football, it's the exact same way. If I can get an improvement out of myself and see it, that's the greatest satisfaction for me. When I go out and I'm practicing things and they come off in a game, that's nearly a greater satisfaction than winning a game. Because the work I've put in and the rewards you then get in a game, essentially that's huge for me because it means what I was doing was working and I can just keep going and work on something else. And if that works again, it's huge for building confidence.
Your character is always tested in games because you'll never score every shot or make every block or you'll never win ever game, but all you can do is bounce back from that. If I miss a penalty in the first minute of a game there's 69 other minutes. If I miss one on 35 minutes there's 35 other minutes. If I miss one after 65 there's five more minutes to do something.
It's not just a case of that one moment. That's one moment in so many moments of a game. So can I impact the game again some other way? That's the way I play it. I suppose I'm a bit of a risk taker in that way in that you can't fear missing because if you do you tend to hold back from what your real potential is. That's my belief anyway and it'll be hard to change now anyway.
Q: What about the belief in this Galway panel? Do you all believe you can win an All-Ireland title? Because if everyone doesn’t believe that then you won’t…
SW: There's definitely more of a belief there now. Like, Pádraic is a man of belief. He's such a confident man. What he said when he played, he did. He was just an unbelievable footballer and to have that confidence, it shows, and it spreads across the team as well. The players see that as well. When you have a manager breathing that confidence into you as well, that helps.
There could be doubts in the back of some lad's mind and they're kind of saying, 'Am I going to? Is it going to happen?' Whereas if you have a manager inspiring you all the time to help you and encourage you on, then you're thinking, 'Well, why can't I?'
That's the way i see it. Why not us? Tyrone won it last year and when Dublin were winning it they had the belief. Where we get our money's worth is there could be a stage in the quarter-final where we're down having played well at half-time and that's when your belief is tested.
You're saying to yourself, we played well, but we've been unlucky. There could be a goal that goes in off a freak deflection or something like that. It’s how we respond to that, that's when your character is tested.
I think throughout the League we've bounced back in situations that were sticky enough and came through those. Even against Roscommon we didn't play well on the day and still came back to make a right game of it down the stretch. I think that's the sign of a team and I think we are building that character all the time. Hopefully everyone will see that down the line.