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'I kind of put that to bed' - Walsh admits 'shock' at Kerry return

Tommy Walsh discusses Peter Keane’s phone call inviting him back into the fold, the overcomplicated advanced mark and Cathal McShane’s AFL move.

ON PAPER, ONE of the players most likely to benefit from the introduction of the advanced mark is Kerry star Tommy Walsh.

tommy-walsh-arrives Kerry’s Tommy Walsh arrives in Croke Park. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Kerins O’Rahillys man enjoyed something of a third coming last season under Peter Keane, making a major impact in the second-half of the drawn All-Ireland final after his 50th minute introduction off the bench.

The ball-winning ability and aerial threat he showed against Dublin prompted widespread calls for Walsh to start the replay.

While he was forced to make do with another impact sub role for the second outing, it marked quite the turnaround. A year earlier, the 31-year-old wasn’t even on the Kerry panel.

He battled injury and a loss of form following his return from Australia where he spent five seasons between stints at St Kilda and the Sydney Swans.

An ill-fated comeback to the Kerry colours saw Walsh drop off the panel following the 2016 Division 1 final after he was an unused substitute in Croke Park.

“I think any fella that leaves a squad will say they weren’t getting a fair crack,” he said at the launch of the Lidl Comórtas Peile Páidi Ó Sé in the Croke Park Hotel. “I was probably putting a lot of pressure on myself and probably wasn’t performing to the level that I felt I could have.

“Now, at the same time while I probably wasn’t playing that well there were certain times during the 18 months that I was there that I felt that I was doing enough to get into the team or whatever. There were probably ten other fellas that felt that too.” 

Last year, Eamonn Fitzmaurice recalled the conversation they had after Walsh informed him of his decision to step away.

“He was so professional, he was so courteous,” the former Kingdom manager stated.

“There was no sour grapes or throwing the toys out of the cot. But I do remember when he was finishing up after the league final and he went back to the club, he said to me, ‘Look, I don’t feel that my Kerry story is over.’ And I said, ‘I agree with you, I don’t think it’s over either.’”

But by the end of 2017, Walsh admits doubts began creeping into his mind about whether he could ever make it back.

“Once I was away from the panel in 2016 and 2017 I was playing football for my club and didn’t play any games really. I kept pulling my hamstring, the same hamstring all the time, it kept giving me problems and I pretty much missed the whole year.

“I suppose at the end of that year I was kind of starting to doubt it. Not that it was ever my ambition to say I’m playing well for my club to get back to playing for Kerry, that was never my ambition.

“I just wanted to get to a level where I could contribute for my club again because I obviously grew up playing there and had a lot of friends there. That’s something I associate enjoyment with all the time, just playing with my club.

tommy-walsh Walsh warms up during the drawn All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I worked hard that winter and was able to get back playing with my club, I don’t think I missed a game during 2018. And, then, I suppose there was shock really at the end of the year when Peter rang me to come back in. I weighed it up for a week or two but then said I wanted to give it a go.”

It genuinely came as a shock?

“Ah it was, yeah. I kind of put that to bed, really. I was happy, like. I was living my life. I have a lot of other interests besides football and I was doing different things. I was able to go away at weekends in the summer which obviously I can’t do now. I was living my life and getting on with it.

“But, then, when that opportunity came up and a lot of people say you’re a long time retired so I think it would have been something, looking back, where I would have said, ‘Why didn’t I go in and just give it another shot and see what comes of it?’ And, look, there was less pressure obviously.

“A lot of people probably thought that nothing would have happened. I said I’d go in, give it 12 months, and, if it worked, great, and, if not, then at least I’d know then that the body just wasn’t up to it.”

So fast-forward to 2020 and the GAA has introduced a rule that appeals to Walsh’s main strengths: his 6’4″ frame, strength and fielding ability. Little wonder he’s in favour of its introduction, while other elite forwards such as Paul Geaney and Paul Mannion have rowed in the opposite direction.

“I suppose I would see ball-winning as one of my strengths,” he says.

4T7A6261 Kerry's Tommy Walsh, Dublin's Martha Byrne with Comórtas chairman Pádraig Óg Ó Sé announcing details of the Lidl Comórtas Peile Páidi Ó Sé 2020, which takes place from February 21-23. Source: Paddy White

“It’s entirely how the team play, we have good kickers as well, if the boys are able to find me I’ll get my hands on a few. I’ll always give myself a chance of taking it. You have to turn around then and kick it over the bar which, I’m not a free-taker, so that’s something I’ll have to get used to if I am able to take a couple of marks.”

But Walsh feels the GAA have overcomplicated the rule which will make things tricky for referees.

“While the rule itself is a good thing, probably the little rules around it may cause the problems, where you take the mark and you have to tell the referee you’re taking the mark by putting up your hand. If you play on the defender can’t touch you for four steps.

“If you mark it inside in the square it’s a different rule again so I think those little things might cause the problem whereas in Aussie Rules, where the mark is there the whole time, it’s far simpler; you take the mark, you step off, if you come off your line, it’s play on. Whereas I think there’s too many little rules around the mark itself that might cause problems.

“There’ll be guys that’ll be lining up for a free and they’ll be getting tackled and things like that, guys that take a mark and don’t put up their hand. It’ll take a bit of getting used to. I think it could be simplified, but I think the concept of it is a good idea.”

drew-wylie-and-tommy-walsh Walsh fetches a ball above Monaghan's Drew Wylie. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

What about Mannion’s fear that some forwards will be double-marked to prevent them from fetching a clean ball?

“I don’t know but if teams are going to do that then it might free up other guy,” he replies.

“It will be interesting to see how teams adapt to it. It isn’t just necessarily a guy standing inside in the square and a ball being hoofed in. There’s different types of runs that you can kind of make to take a mark, you’re more running at the ball to try to take away the time for it to bounce, rather than running wide and it bouncing into you.

“Probably guys that have played International Rules might be a bit more used to it and you might see them come to the fore early on maybe. I think as the year goes on teams will get used to it. I think it will be a good thing. I think fielding is a really strong feature of our game, it’s probably been lost maybe over the last decade. I think with this it might encourage teams to start kicking again.

“A lot of people probably had their reservations about the midfield mark as well but I think that’s been good for the game.”

Many believe the rule will bring Gaelic football closer to its AFL equivalent.

Having played both codes extensively, Walsh doesn’t believe football will become too similar to Aussie Rules.

“No. Obviously it’s a different ball, the tackling is completely different. I think there’s a lot of rules that we could bring in from Aussie Rules that would benefit the game as well but I think Gaelic football is a very different game to Aussie Rules.

“If it was that easy, guys would be going over and adapting straight away but it takes a bit of time. Fielding is a strong feature of our game and I think any rule that encourages kicking and fielding is a good thing for the game.

tommy-walsh-comes-on-as-a-sub Walsh comes on as a sub against Dublin. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It was in for the league last year and I don’t think it was too messy. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of them in the game. If you see four or five in a game that will be max. So it isn’t going to really alter the way a game pans out.

“Bigger guys or guys that are good ball winners, you might see them come to the fore but you might not as well. They have to turn around and kick it over the bar. If you have a guy that’s able to take a mark closer to goals (great), but a lot of them might be further out the field and teams will just play on anyway so. So it won’t make any difference.”

There are other rules Walsh would bring in from the AFL such as the 50-metre penalty for cynical play and taking the time-keeping responsibilities off referees.

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Tyrone boss Mickey Harte has been vocal in his criticism recently on the GAA’s relationship with the AFL. Cathal McShane touched down in Adelaide this week ahead of a potential move to join the Crows, which would rob Tyrone of their top-scorer.

“I don’t see how they can stop it,” remarks Walsh “The only way you could stop it is contract your player.

I think it would be very, very unfair for the GAA to put in a rule that would stop a guy, 18, or 19, getting a chance to go over and play a professional sport on the other side of the world.

afl-tigers-cats Mark O'Connor has shone for Geelong since making the move Down Under. Source: AAP/PA Images

“I think while obviously it’s frustrating for managers and particularly clubs because they are losing such a high-quality player, unfortunately, it’s the only chance a Gaelic footballer will get to experience a professional set up full-time unless they go away and play something else, but it’s so close to Gaelic football, it’s the only opportunity.

“And it’s not for everyone. Some guys have gone out there and come back after a couple of months.

“Some guys have turned it down completely, but while I think it is a fantastic opportunity for fellas, while I can obviously see the other side of it, I don’t think there is anything you can do really.

“And I don’t think the GAA see it as a problem. Obviously, Kerry have been affected by it more than anyone else.

“Mark O’Connor is over there at the moment, he would probably be a walk up starter in the Kerry team.

“Tadhg Kennelly was gone for his whole career. I was gone for a couple of years. We have been affected by it as much as anyone. I don’t think there is anything you can do in terms of putting in a rule.

“But what I would say is: Can you do something on the other side? Can you bring in things for players that will make them think twice about going? Can we improve their education? Their lifestyle? Something on the player welfare side (for players) to say, ‘Actually I have it pretty good here.’”

jason-foley-and-cathal-mcshane McShane might spend 2020 playing AFL rather than GAA. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Walsh explains that, for AFL clubs, taking a punt on an Irish youngster is a relatively risk-free move.

“If they draft an Australian guy that’s a draft pick gone, whereas that doesn’t happen when you’re picking an Irish guy. It’s an international rookie, it’s a free pick.

“Obviously it’s a significant investment because they’re probably getting paid higher than a draftee over there.

“You’re bringing your parents, you’ve to fly them home. A lot of man-hours has to go into the Irish guy but there’s a lot of advantages to it from an Australian club’s perspective. And with the guys that are there at the moment they’re being so successful every guy that does better over there, it’s going to encourage them to come and try get more.”

Walsh was one of the oldest players to make a move back in 2009 when he was 21. McShane is three years older.

“He’s probably the oldest guy that’s gone there so it’ll be interesting to see how he does. But I wish him the best of luck, it’s a fantastic opportunity for him and I hope he does well over there.”

While Walsh hopes to continue doing well back here.

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Kevin O'Brien

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