GAA Legends - Tommy Walsh
The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of Croke Park with Martin Storey takes place this Saturday at 11am. Tickets are sold out.
By Cian O’Connell
Before the medals arrived, the Croke Park memories started for Tommy Walsh.
Black and amber teams are well and truly versed in operating on the grand Jones Road stage, but Tommy Walsh’s first trip to GAA headquarters still sticks in the mind.
It wasn’t exactly one of Kilkenny’s greatest days at the venue, but it left a mark and impression on a Tullaroan youngster, who would emerge as a totemic figure in the salad Brian Cody years.
“One of my first days going up to Croke Park was during Italia 90 in the 1990 World Cup, Sunset House was the name of the pub, we used to go up there early, park up the car, give your man a few bob so he'd look after the car,” Walsh laughs. “You'd never see him after the game,” adds Walsh for a classic punchline.
“We were playing Offaly in a Leinster Semi-Final, but we were beaten. I think that was my first day in Croke Park.”
Unsurprisingly Kilkenny were back in the winners enclosure soon after. Walsh sat on his father’s lap watching the drama unfold.
“My first All Ireland seeing Kilkenny win was in 1992. That time the Cusack Stand was five pounds cheaper because there was more poles in the Cusack,” Walsh chuckles.
“We used to always go to the Cusack, but we never had to pay until we were 13 or 14. You'd go in through the same stile as your father, you'd sit down on his lap then to watch the matches.
“We have great memories, we lost the first one I saw to Tipperary in 1991, we won in 1992. We had great memories at the start growing up.”
In the next few years Walsh began delivering in the fabled jersey of Tullaroan for a promising collection of underage hurlers, who earned Feile nan Gael success in 1997.
It was a particularly interesting time for the fabled Kilkenny club. “The background to that is on average in Tullaroan you might have five or six boys per class,” Walsh explains.
“In our class there was a boom we had 16 boys. That is just in the one class, you wouldn't have that maybe in three classes now. Of them 16 boys, maybe 11 of them were massively into hurling, brilliant hurlers. That time we lost the Ryan C County Final when we were in third class. We went on to win the C, B, and the A, the mini sevens, we went on to win a Feile and won right up until Under 21.
“We were lucky enough to have a good group ahead of us and before us. In small clubs you get groups like that. We were growing up at a time when our senior team was flying it, they were in county semi-finals and finals.
“They won the county final in 1994, it is actually the 25th anniversary of it this year. We just had a lot that went for us, we were very lucky.”
Several of that outfit including Walsh delivered in the Croke Cup for St Kieran’s, who continue to craft inter-county hurlers.
“In our Under 14 Kieran's team I'd say we had seven Tullaroan lads on the panel,” Walsh states. “We were all from that same class, regarding the Croke Cup, the All Ireland, four of us were on the team, maybe five or six on the panel when we won the final against Flannan's.”
It led to a stint in UCC for Walsh, who benefit hugely from the experience Leeside. The learning was constant in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
“Paddy Crowley was over us, you had John Grainger, Paulo (Paul O'Connor RIP), Eamonn Ryan, who went on to manage the Cork Ladies Football team,” Walsh recalls.
“They were all involved in running the club when I came to UCC. They just looked after us as if they were one of their own. We didn't win, but we had a great time in regards the training we got, it was a step to senior if you like from minor or colleges.
“We trained with the Fitzgibbon as strong and as tough as any senior inter-county team without the intensity or pressures from outside. That was definitely crucial in our development as players, it was a time I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Inevitably the call to train with Kilkenny arrived. Was it daunting or did Walsh enter Nowlan Park with the fearlessness of youth?
“It was exciting, winning and losing didn't matter when you went in as a 19 year old,” Walsh replies. “You are just so happy to be there, you are hurling free as a bird. At the same time you are just fighting to survive at that stage, you are questioning are you good enough to make it.
“You are marking the likes of Charlie Carter, Brian McEvoy, (Henry) Shefflin, Derek Lyng. In the first year physically you weren't really up to it because there was no weights programme that time from a young age.
“So slowly, but surely you start growing more confident when you settle into it and it was a fabulous time.
“Brian Cody that time set out his standard that it was all about creating a spirit that couldn't be broken. When you have that kind of atmosphere around it is very easy to blend in. Young or old we were all very close.”
The genuineness Cody so frequently refers to endures to this current day and it something Walsh derived pleasure from being involved with such a defiant team.
“That comes from the top, that is led from the very top from the County Board, team management, they just lead that whole culture,” Walsh adds.
“The culture becomes before winning or anything else. Whatever happens after that is important too, but it is definitely secondary. The culture is number one and that is why you see the Kilkenny teams since Brian Cody took over will be tough to beat always.”
Glory followed during a decorated playing career with Kilkenny, but what games carried the most satisfaction? “We were massive favourites for most of our All Ireland finals bar two - the '06 and 11 final,” Walsh remarks.
“Them two finals stand out above all. We weren't the favourites going in, we weren't expected to win them and we did. That pure elation and pure excitement were two that stood out.”
During those two particular triumphs storied rivalries with Cork and Tipperary existed. “Yeah, they were,” Walsh acknowledges.
“We were all GAA young fellas, we were all fully aware of the tradition and the rivalries going back to the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. At different stages we had a rivalry with Cork, at different stages we had a rivalry with Tipperary.
“When you had that tradition and history going head to head with two great teams, both the Cork and Tipperary teams had great forwards. When they came together like that it was going to be powerful.”
Now established as one of the most respected and passionate hurling analysts with Off The Ball, Walsh enjoys the debates and anticipation which swirls around hurling.
This weekend should provide plenty of intrigue with two fascinating All Ireland Semi-Finals looming. “Limerick are massive favourites for the first one, but Kilkenny have great forwards, because of that I would give them a chance,” is Walsh’s assessment.
“Like the Cork game they will have to cut out space, keep it tight. If that Limerick machine starts rolling they are very hard to stop.
“As we have seen in the last round of the Munster round robin Tipperary defeated them so they can be beaten. They aren't unbeatable. I would say Limerick are massive favourites, but Kilkenny might cause a surprise.
“In the second one all the momentum is with Wexford. If Tipperary can be fresh, come in all guns blazing, I think Tipperary will win it. If they don't come out fresh, I think it is Wexfords.”
Modest and unassuming Walsh will take his place in the Hogan Stand with equal measures of hope and expectation. A game always matters.
Those fortunate enough to have seen him play will always cherish the style and spirit one of Tullaroan’s most famous sons constantly demonstrated.