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'The reason I started playing was to win an All-Ireland final and we just weren't good enough to do it'

Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh reflects on the end of his Waterford career and the state of the inter-county game.

THERE WAS NO official announcement, no statement released through the GPA or county board.

michael-walsh Michael 'Brick' Walsh ahead of the Electric Ireland Higher Education Feile Weeked which plays host to the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup Semi-Finals. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

News of Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh hanging up his hurley at inter-county level arrived through a newspaper report and tributes quickly began to flood in for one of the Deise’s most beloved players.

Walsh handled his retirement like he did his playing days. A no-nonsense hurler, he kept the head down and endeavoured to keep a low-profile, happy to leave the media spotlight and fanfare to others.

Even some of his former colleagues were reluctant to speak on the record after the news of his retirement broke. If it didn’t come from the horse’s mouth, was it really true?

“I’m just not a big media man or anything like that,” he says.

“I prefer to slip in under the radar as much as possible. But, yeah, I was very lucky to get as long as I did out of it and I’m happy to be looking on now from the outside.”

A year earlier, as the Derek McGrath era drew to a close in June 2018, it was expected that Walsh would follow his manager into the sunset. He was 35 then and a father of three kids under the age of six yet by November had thrown his lot in under Paraic Fanning for the 2019 season.

“I’m not a big social media follower, I’m not involved in that side of things,” he explains.

“People were probably speculating alright but it probably went over my head to a degree because I always kept to myself a bit.

“Maybe from that regard people were probably saying it. But, again, the year came around so quickly. I was involved with my club and then back in with the county. People don’t talk about me too much so I probably missed a lot of that.”

Throughout the 2019 season, Walsh knew in his heart it would be his last.

“I knew when I finished up last year that I was finished. So it wasn’t that hard from my perspective. I suppose looking back on it, I will miss it.

“If you take a snapshot of your life at a specific time, a lot of those players I’ve spent four more times a week than I would meet my own family at home, you know what I mean?

“You do miss that and the camaraderie that brings. I knew it was time to go so it wasn’t that bad in that regard. And you move on.

“You don’t want to be looking back or too much involved with the players because they’re trying to keep everything in-house from their point of view. Look, you miss the camaraderie of the dressing-room.

michael-walsh-after-the-game Waterford's Michael Walsh during his last campaign with the county. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I suppose it won’t really hit probably until the evenings get longer and things like that. I’ve a few young children and I’m kept going with them at the moment.

“I’m busy from that side of things. Sure, look, you’ll look back on it and you’re bound to miss it. I suppose you move on to the next job, next opportunity and try to make the most of that.

“You move on and you can miss it all you want but you have to realise that it’s gone from you and off you go. I’m back to my club now like so I’m lucky to be part of a good club standard. I’ll enjoy that now.”

He made his debut in 2003 and nailed down a place on the starting team the following season. He embarked on a career that would see him make a record 76 championship appearances, win four All-Stars, three Munster titles, one league crown and two All-Ireland final appearances.

But a failure to land the Liam MacCarthy Cup will always stick with him.

“The reason why I started playing was to win an All-Ireland final and we just weren’t good enough to do it. There’s no point saying ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or anything like that. We just didn’t and we weren’t good enough. That’ll always be a disappointment for me.

“That’s why I would have started off, with the hope of winning it and putting it in to win an All-Ireland but unfortunately we didn’t.

“But look we had a lot of good times. The Munster finals were fantastic. The 2004 and 2010 ones were nice. I actually forgot about the league, that was the most recent medal I got with the county in ’15. That was great.

“But there were a lot of games you would have enjoyed and winning those hard-fought games. As a fella said to us years ago and it always stuck with me, the ten minutes after winning a game – that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we had during that time.”

Team-mates spoke of Walsh’s honesty and his steadfast refusal to miss training, even if he was in pain. Kevin Moran once recounted the story of Walsh defying a physio’s orders by heading out to train with broken ribs.

It’s not surprising then to hear that the thing Moran will miss most is being on the training field with his team-mates.

“I’ve always loved it. My biggest thing was I always loved training. There’s no point in saying otherwise. I always loved going to training and trying to get the better of fellas, and trying to push fellas, and them trying to push me.

“I always enjoyed that. I’m always mad about that. That’s one thing, as I said earlier, I don’t know how individual sportspeople do it. I suppose it’s a different mindset. Mine was always part of a team.

michael-walsh Walsh with his team-mates ahead of the Munster SHC clash with Tipperary in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I suppose suffering is probably a harsh word, but working hard with a group with you, it’s fantastic. It’s great when you go to training. It is tough, but there are plenty of times for a bit of a laugh and things like that along the way.

“But I always enjoyed the training aspect of it, and the matches. But the training aspect of it was, in my opinion, if you trained hard and worked hard, you’d get the rewards in the match.”

In many ways he was the last of a dying breed, an inter-county player soldiering well into his mid-30s like Tony Browne before him, who retired after a staggering 23-year senior career with Waterford.

The same winter Walsh retired, Philip Mahony also packed it in. Mahony is just 29 and spoke recently of his belief that the commitment levels will see more players retiring in their 20s.

“If you look at GAA in general it’s starting a lot earlier,” says Walsh. “You’ve U5s and U6s now in terms of training. Fellas’ hurling is unbelievably now in terms of their wrist work and things like that, so they’re starting earlier.

“You look at it now, when I started playing 21 was probably a reasonably young age to start on an inter-county team.

“Whereas now, they’re 19 or 20 and you could even have fellas still in school starting on an inter-county team. So it has changed and there’s that commitment there as well. But I think the big challenge for inter-county players is the career aspect.

“Before you could say, ‘That company will look after a GAA player’, but from a company perspective now the time commitment and things that go into it, they mightn’t be as willing to leave their employee to commit for as much. So that’s why it’s transgressing to a college player.

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ronan-maher-and-paddy-stapleton-tackle-michael-walsh Walsh takes on Tipperary's Ronan Maher and Paddy Stapleton. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“They’ve the summer off and things like that. Mary I, imagine when I was playing if you were saying they’d be in the mix-up for Fitzgibbon finals, it wasn’t heard of. But they’re all going that way.

“The summer is the big thing. I won’t say like Jamie Barron that the teaching (is easy), it’s not. It’s difficult but the big bonus of it is the summer off from that regard.”

Then we come to the ‘Brick flick’, a skill affectionately named after the Stradbally man that has garnered much attention in recent years.

Anthony Daly remarked on the Sunday Game in 2018 how the skill patented by Walsh has become a key facet of underage coaching.

“Every time we coach a team now, we coach the ‘Brick Flick’ where you throw out the ball and you flick it off the hurley instead of the hand-pass,” said Daly. “Normally now with the tackling, you can’t get the hand-pass away so ‘Brick’ throws out the ball and flicks it five yards away.

“It’s actually something when you get a bunch of U14s together, you’ll say ‘No hand-passing lads, we’re doing the ‘Brick Flick’.’ And every one of them know what you’re talking about. That is some tribute to a guy.”

Walsh smiles when the name of the skill is mentioned to him.

“From my point of view, I was probably an average hurler in terms of technical ability and all of that side of things. From my point of view, why that started was probably a lack of hurling.

“It’s probably over-emphasised a bit at the moment. You can’t beat the hand pass. Fellas are such good strikers nowadays, the hurling ability that’s out there at the moment with a lot of 10, even younger, five, six or seven-year-olds is unreal.

“A lot of it keeps getting better. I would have used a lot to get out of trouble, but probably from a lack of hurling. It stuck – someone was very good at rhyming back in the day!”

michael-walsh-with-fans-after-the-game Walsh signs autographs with fans in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

For a man that adores the dressing room environment, Walsh plans on having a crack off management at some stage down the line.

“I’ve been a player the last however-many-years. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll be any good at coaching. When GAA is what you are and what you like, I’d have to say that I’ll go at it at some stage, yeah.”

One turn-off in getting involved is the fixtures mess that he describes as the GAA’s “biggest issue.” Like many former inter-county players who return to their clubs, Walsh is aghast at the lack of games on offer for players.

“It’s easy for me to say after going back after so many years of playing county, and it suited me, but it has to be looked at for a club player. It’s hard for a player to commit nowadays, in terms of playing a game in April, and then not playing a game until God-knows-when.

“That’s a hard slog for a club player, because if you got back from five-year-olds to 30-year-olds and ask them, what do you want to do, they all say they want to play a game.

“That’s the thing, we all want to play games.”

- Originally published at 15.45

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Kevin O'Brien

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