Rock-solid 'Brick' at heart of McGrath's Waterford wall
Quiet hero Walsh has long been considered the Déise cornerstone
In the 32nd minute of the Munster final, Tipperary's James Barry mopped up a long ball and popped it back to Darren Gleeson. With Michael 'Brick' Walsh loitering with intent, the goalkeeper arrowed the ball to Pádraic Maher in space nearly 30 yards away. Danger apparently cleared. Apparently.
Maher had time on the ball but Walsh still didn't give it up as a lost cause. Maher lifted the ball but, whether he took his eye off the ball, or spotted Walsh out of the corner of his eye, he spilled possession.
Maher still had time to rise the ball again but Walsh was all over him like a rash and he dispossessed Maher. Walsh was on his knees, Ronan Maher had also arrived by then to help out his brother but Walsh still managed to win the ball and create a scoring chance for Jake Dillon.
The sequence of play encapsulated everything about Walsh: his power, strength, belief, desire, his ability to win possession, his ability to win ball that nobody else can or will. It framed everything about the essence of Walsh's character, and of how important he has been for Waterford for over a decade.
In Waterford's modern history, the county have produced some brilliant players, some of the most talented and skilful hurlers, and standout personalities, to ever play the game: Ken McGrath, Paul Flynn, Tony Browne, John Mullane, Eoin Kelly, Dan Shanahan.
Walsh would never be categorised in the same bracket for skill, or mercurial talent, or the exuberance of his personality on the pitch, but his value to Waterford has granted him a similar cult status.
"In my eyes, 'Brick' is one of the greatest players Waterford have produced in the last 20 years," says former Waterford player Eoin McGrath. "Every year, he produces the goods. He has had more consistency than some other flair players or guys with more skill than he had. I've so much respect for him. What he is after doing for Waterford, and what he continues to do for Waterford, is just unbelievable."
Walsh's performances rarely, if ever, fell below a certain threshold. If they did, his work rate or application or desire never did. That honesty added to Walsh's status both inside and outside of Waterford.
"The 'Brick' was always highly rated in Kilkenny anyway," says former Kilkenny player Aidan Fogarty. "Cody always had great respect for him. Cody loved the way he always put the head down and got on with it. He got stuck in and won dirty ball. He always stood up when Waterford needed him. From a players' point of view, Mick Fennelly always said 'Brick' was one of the toughest guys to mark."
It was easy to see why Cody respected Walsh so highly. He represented everything Cody valued most in a player. He was an ordinary hero who could do extraordinary things. What increased Walsh's stock value was that ability to arouse and activate those around him to do the same.
"Michael Walsh is a really unassuming type of a character," says Tony Browne. "He's a good friend of mine but I always really admired how he could inspire people around him in that unassuming manner. He's a humble guy but when he entered the arena for Waterford, he had intentions of a different nature. His will to win and his desire to give all for Waterford was something else."
Browne first came across Walsh when he was only 19. Mount Sion were county champions and they played an experimental Waterford side in a challenge game. Browne was centre-back. Walsh was centre-forward. Browne wanted to see what the rookie was made off. He soon found out.
"I knew straight away that this guy had something special," says Browne. "I knew he could have a big career. He took it hard from me that day but he never moaned or said anything. I knew the guy was made of steel."
He just needed the polish for it to shine. As a minor Walsh had chosen football over hurling when the demands on his time in his Leaving Cert year forced him to make a decision. In his fresher year in Waterford IT, Walsh didn't make the Fitzgibbon Cup team but he soon began to make his mark. He was athletic and rangy but his athleticism didn't set him apart. His stamina levels were on a par with the group but his iron will drove him to another level. In matches, he kept going and going like an Energiser Bunny on Duracell batteries.
His hurling, though, had to improve if he was to really go anywhere. Gradually, it did. "When he came in first, the amount of work he did to develop his hurling was something else," says Browne. "He came from a football background but the work Justin (McCarthy), and 'Brick' himself, put in really brought him on. All those other attributes made him the player he was but he has developed and improved so much that I would consider him a fabulous hurler now."
Coming from where he did has enhanced his status because Stradbally was always traditionally a football club. Before Walsh, Andy Fleming in the 1940s was the last Stradbally player to establish himself on the Waterford hurling team but there was an asterisk over that because he played his club hurling with Mount Sion. For Walsh, those were the odds stacked against his breakthrough.
He was part of Stradbally's run to five senior county titles in a row between 2001-'05 and there were also good days in between with Waterford's footballers. He was a critical part of the Waterford U-21 side which won the county's first Munster title in 2003, defeating a star-studded Kerry team, with Colm Cooper, Kieran Donaghy and Declan O'Sullivan, in the final.
"Kerry had nobody to match 'Brick' that day," recalled former Waterford football manager John Kiely a few years later. "Very few guys are born like that, who can be brilliant at totally different disciplines. Jimmy Barry-Murphy is the only one I'd compare him to."
Walsh was already playing for the senior footballers by then but when Waterford were defending their Munster U-21 football title in 2004, Walsh's importance to the hurlers had begun to grow. The Munster semi-final against Kerry was fixed too close to the hurling semi-final against Kilkenny and Walsh's request to play was turned down. After Stradbally lost the Munster club final that December, Walsh elected to concentrate solely on hurling with Waterford.
As he began to establish himself, he played wherever Waterford asked or needed him - centre-field, centre-forward, full-forward, wing-forward, centre-back. "He didn't care where he was picked to play, he'd always go out and do the job," says McGrath. "He has an unbelievable work ethic and drive but 'Brick' is a complete team player. His work rate is phenomenal. There's nobody better to win a ball than 'Brick'. Then he has this knack of releasing the ball when he's bottled up by two or three fellas. He's a great link-man. That probably comes from the football."
He was also a born leader. At the Waterford convention in 2006, the clubs voted to allow the inter-county management to decide on a captain, instead of the county champions. Walsh didn't come from one of the big city clubs but he was the natural appointment. It was the first of three stints he has done as Waterford captain.
"It was no surprise he was captain so often," says McGrath. "He's very passionate. There were very few fellas on the panel like 'Brick'. He was a 100 per center the whole time.
"He's a true competitor, he wants to win at all costs. He'll whinge and moan on the pitch to referees. In training, he'd be narky and be at lads but that just showed the fight in him. He was just an unbelievable guy to have on a panel. Everybody looked up to him."
He was a good captain in every sense. "He had in abundance," says Browne, "this ability and awareness to sense crucial times in a game when someone needed to step up to the plate. 'Brick' always stepped up."
Solid. His nickname came from school. One of Walsh's older brothers was known as 'Block' and 'Brick' seemed like the perfect connection. It was the perfect name because it captured everything about Walsh. It summed him up.
Walsh doesn't drink or smoke. He is very religious. On the Sunday morning after Waterford lost to Wexford in the 2003 qualifiers in Nowlan Park, the U-21 footballers were training at nine o'clock in Abbeyside. Walsh was half an hour late but he had a legitimate excuse.
Because of the match the night before, Walsh had been unable to go to Mass so he went instead at 8am the next morning and got to training as quickly as he could.
When Waterford played Clare in their opening league game in 2013, they stayed in Limerick the previous night. The bus was delayed for the trip to Ennis because Walsh hadn't returned from Mass.
Fogarty spent some time with Walsh on an All-Stars trip to Argentina a few years back and got to know him. "He's a nice fella. Very down to earth. Very humble. He could have got carried away because he has been such a great servant to Waterford but he never did. He always just did his job."
That work rate, honesty and humility was never more evident than against Dublin two weeks ago. Nobody won more breaking or dirty ball. Walsh had some involvement in up to a dozen scores.
On Sunday, Waterford go up against the machine but Walsh will lead the Waterford charge. Nobody will take the fight more to Kilkenny than him. And every other Waterford player will follow his lead.
"If you were going to war in the morning, the first guy you'd bring is 'Brick' Walsh," says Browne. "If I was to use three words to sum up 'Brick' I'd say trust, friendship and loyalty. You'd trust him 100pc. He is a great friend to have. And his loyalty to the team and the cause is very, very special."
A special guy on a special journey.