Thursday 19 October 2017

Cork need Walsh to be 'dual' in their crown

Aidan Walsh will make his Munster SHC debut for Cork against Waterford on Sunday
Aidan Walsh will make his Munster SHC debut for Cork against Waterford on Sunday
Kanturk team-mates Anthony Nash and Aidan Walsh

Christy O'Connor

Tomorrow morning, Aidan Walsh and Anthony Nash will more than likely follow their usual ritual of heading to the ball-alley in Kanturk before a big game.

Walsh is playing alongside Nash now but the custom had been well established over the previous two seasons; Walsh would repeatedly strike the ball hard against the wall for Nash to hone his touch and sharpen his eye.

The routine was only broken once, when Walsh was playing with the footballers last July the day before the hurlers played Kilkenny. Although Walsh was studying for exams in Dublin the week of last year's All-Ireland hurling semi-final, he returned home that Friday because he didn't want to break with tradition.

That tradition is more easily translated into deep friendship. Walsh will regularly travel over to Nash's house to shoot the breeze, puck a ball or kick a football. They have been bonded tightly together through a human tale of lifelong friendship and shared ambitions.

For Kanturk, the end product has been a bounty beyond description. Both were All Stars in 2012 – only four clubs had previously managed that feat of players winning All Stars in both codes in the same season. The achievement was even more marked for Kanturk because they were a club without power or prestige, a dual club making waves in the football-dominated division of Duhallow.

Kanturk always had hurling sympathies and the game has always had a powerful presence in Walsh's life. He has been making hurleys now since he was 15. As a child, the craft always fascinated him. After a relentless barrage of requests, his parents finally relented and got him a belt saw and sander one Christmas.

In time they helped him build his workshop. When his trade took off, it provided him with a modest income as a student. Now, it's his full-time job. Nash is one of his biggest customers; Walsh also says he's his fussiest.

Nash is a few years older than Walsh, who grew up with Lorcán McLoughlin, another Cork hurler. They both made the Cork U-14 hurling team together, but Nash had already been the groundbreaker after winning an All-Ireland minor medal in 2001.

Walsh never had to look too far for inspiration. On his phone, Walsh has an old photograph of Nash presenting him with an underage hurling award.

"We always looked up to him (Nash) because he broke the mould," Walsh said last year. "Growing up in a small club, you'd always wonder if you'd ever get the chance to play with Cork. After Nash, you knew you could if you put in the effort."

Walsh played in two All-Ireland Vocational Schools hurling finals with Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, but football always sat just as comfortably at the centre of his life.

He won a Munster minor hurling medal in 2008 and an All-Ireland U-21 football medal in 2009. Walsh established his reputation with the senior footballers in 2010, but he could just have easily carved it with the hurlers.

"If I had been asked to join the hurlers after winning that minor in 2008, I would have gone straight in," Walsh once recalled. "After we won the U-21 football, I was asked in with the footballers. I was called in to the hurling panel afterwards, but I said I'd be loyal to the footballers then. That's what swayed it because I'd definitely have picked hurling before football only for that."

Walsh's contribution in the 2011 Munster U-21 hurling final, when he nailed eight points from eight shots, reminded everyone of what he could offer the hurlers. He was voted Munster U-21 Hurler of the Year and Bord Gáis national 'Breakthrough Player of the Year'. That October, Mike McGurn said Walsh was the fittest player on the International Rules squad. Naturally, Jimmy Barry-Murphy called when he took over around that time, but Walsh chose to stay with the footballers.

AMBITIONS

At one stage of that 2011 season, Walsh was playing with 19 different teams. Moving on from the U-21 grade alleviated the strain, but his dual schedule was still hectic and his ambitions stretched out ahead of him like the demands on his time. After finishing a three-year course in recreation and leisure management in CIT in 2012, Walsh went to DCU to study PE teaching.

The rumours of him being called in to the hurling panel for last year's All-Ireland hurling final replay were untrue, but his circumstances were changing. He would be back home for the coming season and it was announced in November that Walsh would try and play both codes in 2014.

Despite the species almost becoming extinct in the modern era, Cork has been regarded as the last great refuge of the dual player among the elite counties. After Brian Corcoran quit the football panel in 1998, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín replaced him in 1999. Diarmuid O'Sullivan appeared in the 2002 Munster football final and Tom Kenny played a year later. The difference with Walsh, though, is that he is a footballer transferring to hurling.

Although it is largely considered that dual players can no longer really exist at the elite level, Kenny said last December that it was possible. Yet he made one key point.

"It's always easier to go from hurling to football," said Kenny. "One football session, kicking around, and you have your eye in. Going the other way, your eye is slower coming in to hurling from football. You need to hurl the whole time."

Cork really needed a player with Walsh's blend of athleticism and aerial authority in the middle third of the field. Yet given the speed and pace of the 2013 hurling championship, and the lightning first touch and striking required, trying to prosper as a hurler has never been more difficult as a dual player.

Eoin Cadogan has discovered as much in recent seasons. After opting to go with the footballers in 2013, he is back with both sides again now. Yet in 2012, it was obvious that Cadogan hadn't enough hurling done to be the best hurler he could be and the centre-back Cork needed him to be.

Along with Cadogan and Damien Cahalane, that is the challenge facing Walsh now. On Cork's opening league game against Limerick, Nash pucked an amount of ball into Walsh's orbit but his timing was off and Walsh failed to win any clean possession. He made just seven plays and only struck the ball twice before going off injured in the second half.

He clearly needed as many games as possible, but that was a consistent struggle with dual commitments and subsequent injury.

Of Cork's six league hurling games, Walsh only played twice. He has been able to completely focus on hurling in the last month, but is that enough time?

He pucks a ball against the wall at home for an hour, every day, but when the footballers start rocking in high summer, will Walsh be able to reach the required hurling level when his concentration is divided?

"I see it as a challenge," he said in March.

"A lot of people said I couldn't do it. A lot of people said that the day of the dual player is gone. So all the time you have that in the back of your head. You're going, 'I want to prove these people wrong'."

The Cork hurlers really need Aidan Walsh. He is a brilliant athlete, a huge talent, a big-game player, a really popular, genuine and confident guy.

Yet trying to make it happen in both codes will present him with the greatest challenge yet of his sporting life.

Irish Independent

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