Kerry's running machine
Selfless workhorse finally getting credit he deserves for creative role
Published 21/08/2015 | 02:30
The week before the epic 2013 All-Ireland semi-final clash with Dublin, Kerry went to Fota Island for a training weekend. All angles of preparation were covered but a huge part of time was spent on video analysis, particularly on Dublin's defence.
Dublin had the lowest goal concession ratio during the league. They had coughed up just two in their four previous championship matches. But Kerry studied them in depth and concluded that Dublin were wide open. So much so that they set themselves a target of bagging five goals.
The Kingdom had their most lethal attacking forwards available that day: Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan, Darran O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin, James O'Donoghue. Kieran Donaghy and Eoin Brosnan came on. Yet much of the code-cracking was placed at the hands and feet of Donnchadh Walsh.
The opening period went as Kerry expected. They had three goals clocked by the 20th minute. Walsh scored one and had an assist in the other two.
Jack McCaffrey had been excellent all season but Kerry targeted him with Walsh. He was consistently taking McCaffrey down different channels, always looking to get him on the back foot.
Walsh's goal was brilliant, a beautifully dinked finish, but most of the acclaim still went to Cooper for his pass that split the defence. It encapsulated everything about Walsh: even on his best days, he never got the credit he deserved.
In July's Munster final replay, Walsh forged the opening for Paul Geaney's game-breaking goal when his initial shot was blocked. The move was instigated by Cooper's vision from a quick free but Walsh created the platform for Cooper to show his genius.
"Donnchadh made the run forward," says former Kerry selector Ger O'Keeffe. "He is never standing, he never stops. He sees things developing where others might not. When everybody else was expecting Gooch to kick a point, Donnchadh identified the space to run into."
Walsh, 31, still doesn't carry anything like the same profile of Kerry's army of marquee forwards but his stock value is at an all-time high in Kerry. In that unique Irish way, Walsh has finally been acclaimed as an excellent player primarily because of his celebrated role as Kerry's unsung hero.
For years, few players were as effective by remaining so understated. Now Walsh is recognised in the county as one of the best Kerry players never to have won an All-Star. The penny has finally dropped.
"I'm thrilled that Donnchadh is finally getting the credit he has always deserved," says Seán O'Sullivan, former Kerry player and a clubmate of Walsh's.
"The unselfish runs he makes sums Donnchadh up as a player, a person and a man; he is just completely unselfish. He doesn't want the glory. He doesn't want scores after his name.
"He will do whatever he has to for the team. He will do whatever it takes for Kerry to win."
Everything Walsh has done in his life has been planned and processed by his desire to get to this point.
He repeated his Leaving Cert in Intermediate School Killorglin because he felt they could rattle a Corn Uí Mhuirí.
He chose UCC because he felt it was the best footballing college in Munster at the time. He left civil engineering because Walsh didn't feel the long hours on site were conducive for the game he plays.
Walsh went back to college in 2011 and got a BSc in physiotherapy from the Royal College of Surgeons last year; he works now in Tralee General Hospital.
"From day one," says O'Sullivan, "his aim was to get to the top."
It still took a long time to reach that level. An excellent minor in 2001 and '02, Páidí ó Sé brought him onto the senior panel in 2003. Walsh made his debut in that year's league but a catalogue of injuries and loss of form wiped out the next three years.
"He was possibly a bit young," says O'Sullivan. "He still had to develop but I remember Seamus Moynihan saying to me one evening in training in 2003 that he had no fear."
His good form with Mid-Kerry in the 2006 club championship put him back in the shop window but Walsh didn't make his championship debut until 2008. He started four games that summer but he didn't feature in the replayed All-Ireland semi-final or All-Ireland final.
In 2009, Walsh started the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final but was dropped for the final.
But he has started 28 of Kerry's last 31 championship matches.
"Although it took Donnchadh a while to nail down a place, I never doubted he'd become the player he has," says O'Sullivan. "He's one of the first names on (Eamonn) Fitzmaurice's team-sheet."
He is because of his work rate and honesty. When the players were clocked by GPS tracking vests during one training game last year, Walsh travelled 11.5 kilometres.
How long is that? Burnley's George Boyd was the hardest-working player in the English Premier League last season, covering an unparalleled average of 12km per match. Yet he is a professional playing 90-minute games. That's the level Walsh is at.
If Walsh plays the 70 minutes, he could potentially cover over 13km on Sunday because he is one of the very few players to cover so much ground between the two endlines. Given that Walsh is likely to cover 3km at high intensity, that is roughly a running speed greater than 17.5kmph.
The average road trip for an inter-county footballer hovers between eight and nine kilometres. The figures Walsh recorded were put up on show to the rest of the squad as the standard to aim for.
Any time the Kerry players are measured by the bleep test, Walsh blows everyone away.
Walsh has the heart of a lion and the stamina of husky dog but he has gone searching for inches in trying to cover more miles. A few years back, he enlisted the help of a breathing coach.
"Everybody thinks the correct breathing technique is in through your nose and out through your mouth," says O'Sullivan. "But it's actually in through your nose and out through your nose.
"When Donnchadh was doing these bleep tests, and it was getting too much for him, he opened his airwaves because he was then able to breathe like the rest of us. It was like he was starting all over again because he was able to take in so much air.
"That's the level he is at. That's the level he has gone to, to get on, and stay on, this Kerry team."
Walsh has got better as he has got older because he has got smarter. He has also learned how to gamble more.
"His running now is way more productive than it used to be," says O'Keeffe. "It's giving him a greater sense of involvement.
"He has developed into a better player because he is more active on the ball. He can break forward a lot more than he used to."
Despite what he offered the team, especially as a linkman between defence and attack, Walsh's low scoring return was always going to provide ammunition for the Kerry traditionalists who expect their forwards to rack scores for fun.
Prior to this season, Walsh had failed to score in 47 of his 80 league and championship appearances. He had only registered more than two scores twice, but his scoring rate has improved in the last three seasons. Walsh has now scored in 10 of Kerry's last 15 championship matches. Of his championship total of 4-22, he has clocked 2-12 since 2013.
His work rate got Walsh onto the team but he had to evolve to stay there.
"He's actually a very good scorer but you don't see it enough because of the places he finds himself on the field," says O'Sullivan.
"He's also a super kicker of the ball but he's really worked on that part of his game, especially his 30-40 yard kick-passes. Those balls look simple but it's so important they are on the money every time to pick out the likes of James O'Donoghue and Gooch."
Growing up in Cromane, a small fishing village eight miles west of Killorglin, Walsh's home backed on to the local club's pitch. Having four brothers, Walsh had a ready-made team with him.
O'Sullivan was the first player from Cromane to play senior football for Kerry, winning four All-Irelands. He is very close to Walsh.
"Donnchadh is very unassuming," says O'Sullivan. "In Cromane, he's always there any time the club or community ask.
"He is hugely respected for what he does on the field and for the type of guy he is off the field. He is very popular within the Kerry panel too because he has a great sense of humour."
O'Sullivan was there the night Walsh got his nickname. After beating Dublin in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, the players went across to the Croke Park Hotel.
Walsh went up to buy his round of drinks at one stage but he came down with nothing. Kerry had got new tracksuits and he said that he couldn't open the zip pocket to get out his money. The O Sés and Tommy Griffin christened him 'Dishonest Denis'.
The fun is in the irony. Because they all know Walsh is the most honest player they have.