Carlow's prodigal son pushes the boundaries one more time
The Tommy Walsh transfer saga takes yet another twist today in Portlaoise, writes Damian Lawlor
F OR a man of few words Tommy Walsh just can't seem to avoid being the centre of attention. After three contentious years with Wicklow, he makes a first championship appearance since returning to his native Carlow today. He probably hankered for a low-profile opener against the likes of Louth, Longford or Westmeath but instead he finds himself facing his old Wicklow team-mates.
"Yeah, it was probably written in the stars that Tommy would play his first game back with us against Wicklow and it will be an awkward one for him," admits Carlow chairman Pat Deering. "But he'll overcome that. These last few years have been difficult for him, no doubt about it, but the Carlow players have accepted him back. He's blended in fine with them, played two or three challenge games since the League ended and done really well. There have been no problems."
At this stage, Walsh is well equipped to handle the spotlight. From the day his transfer papers were lodged, controversy has been a constant companion. And even when he drew a line under the divisive switch to Wicklow and returned home, there was still one last hullabaloo.
On the day of Wicklow's final league outing against Kilkenny, who should adorn the front cover of the official match programme only Walsh, clad in a blue and gold jersey, just weeks after he'd transferred back to Carlow.
It reminded supporters of another occasion when, during the early stages of his Wicklow career, he again featured in one of their match programmes, this time wearing a Carlow shirt. These are just a flavour of the peculiarities to surface during his time on adopted soil.
Those were light-hearted moments, but mostly this transfer was fraught and prolonged. Walsh was Carlow's best player when he left in 2007, prompting the aggrieved natives to accuse Mick O'Dwyer of poaching.
Wicklow retorted swiftly and cited a Greystones address as the basis for the allegiance switch. Carlow were less than convinced and relationships between the counties deteriorated.
The furore surrounding that address grew. The news department of one national paper alleged that Walsh's Greystones apartment was actually owned by the sponsors of the Wicklow team, Ballymore Properties. The player himself, however, was adamant that it was his permanent residence and invited all doubting Thomases to visit him there any day of the week.
The Carlow Board proceeded to ask the Leinster Council to check every detail of what they deemed an "unusual transfer" that "must make people wonder". They again maintained that O'Dwyer's fingerprints were all over the move, a claim which the Kerryman vehemently denied, saying that he hadn't even met Walsh. Eventually, the provincial council met and approved the switch by just one vote. A disheartened Carlow Board dropped its objection but there was no disguising the bitterness in the air.
Carlow had to accept the sight of their best player doing well in a Wicklow shirt. More than once they asked him to return, but he was enjoying good form and success and stayed put. The board and team manager Luke Dempsey continued to express their anger but Wicklow thrived, winning the 2007 Tommy Murphy Cup, beating Kildare in the Leinster championship a year later and reaching the last 12 in 2009. Walsh was a cornerstone of it all.
He may have been an outsider but he was proud and passionate; he picked the team up when it was down, got scores and rallied them when they were flagging. The landscape only changed last August when the big midfielder left Bray Emmets to return to his home club Fenagh. Even then it was uncertain whether he would rejoin Carlow, so raw were the wounds from his initial switch.
He went back to his safe house, Tullow Rugby Club, where he has always felt comfortable and pondered his next move as Luke Dempsey left it to his team to make the final call on his return. When the squad met it's understood that 14 panellists voted against a return but 16 wanted him home.
At the time, Walsh, a property surveyor, was said to be considering moving to Australia. Work in his field was scarce and local reports suggested he could also join his solicitor brother, Patrick, another fine footballer, in London. Once Dempsey got the green light from his panel, however, he officially invited the prodigal son home. The invitation was accepted.
Walsh has long since demonstrated that he can play through any storm; it's just unfortunate that his competitive return to the team pits him directly against Wicklow. He could have done without the spotlight blazing on him again in Portlaoise today.
"He's strong enough to handle it," Deering continues. "Yeah, some people might not have been happy at the circumstances that he left in some years back but that's behind us now. Remember it was a difficult time for him too. The main thing is he's back where he belongs. Have no doubt about that."
It's easy to understand why some are still restless. His loss to the county took its toll in 2007 and they lost four games on the trot to finish bottom of Division 2A.
Under Dempsey's watch, they stabilised but Walsh's Wicklow career soared, culminating in last season's epic championship run which saw them topple Longford, Fermanagh, Cavan and Down; a stark contrast to the summer Carlow suffered, losing to Louth and Donegal.
"I've no doubt the county will be somewhat split for a while but the management took a decision that they wanted Tommy," Deering says. "Luke was in constant consultation with the players who ultimately voted and cleared the way to bring him back. It was a gradual process and while I'd have liked to have seen him back for the league, that didn't happen. Tommy was playing rugby which was probably a factor in the timing of his return.
"The bottom line is that he's a quality footballer and he'll complement Brendan Murphy very well in the middle of the field. If we could manage to beat Wicklow, and that will be some task, we'd have Westmeath in the next round;another game we'd be capable of winning.
"I'm probably getting ahead of myself, but two wins for Carlow and Tommy would be an absolute hero again the way he plays. Everything would be forgotten in an instant."
Carlow's gain, meanwhile, is definitely Wicklow's loss. The big man's absence created a vacuum during the league and despite the emergence of Jacko Dalton at midfield, they struggled to win possession in the engine room.
Walsh's former team-mates will deem it strange that he's back in opposing colours. Last week, Wicklow selector Kevin O'Brien bemoaned the fact that his team had lost a powerful man but complimented Walsh, saying he was a winner no matter what county he's from.
Not surprisingly, O'Dwyer has been careful not to rock the boat following his star man's departure. "Thomas has gone back to his club, Fenagh, and it is a great sign of any player when he goes back to his own club and his own people. Thomas gave wonderful commitment to Wicklow for three years and did a lot for us. He was a big man in the middle for us. We are sorry to lose him; we wish him the best of luck now that he has gone back to Carlow, but not too much luck on May 16."
If Carlow win in Portlaoise today, it will be as if Walsh never left.