Saturday 7 December 2019

‘I didn't want to be sitting on a bar-stool in ten years’ time thinking I could have done this or should have done that’

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Faraway voices.

He sits in his Melbourne apartment, trying to pull a picture from the great river of Weeshie Fogarty's words. It sounds like Down are playing with florid confidence, but all he can see is a Radio Kerry logo on a laptop screen.

Night has long since slipped down outside and Weeshie's commentary comes to Tommy Walsh, stark as a boat's klaxon in thick fog. Worry coils itself around the apartment fittings now. He keeps telling himself that Kerry don't lose quarter-finals but, with every passing minute, conviction weakens further.

Then Weeshie's voice arrows to a crescendo, informing the planet of a Killian Young goal. Walsh is out of his chair, fists punching, re-assured that his old friends will drive on now. The traitor in his chest is gone.

But not Weeshie. "No goal, no goal," shouts Fogarty. Something about an imperfect hand-pass. And, suddenly, Down are tossing scores over the Canal end goal like kids spiriting apples over an orchard wall. Soon, he can tell that they are easing away. Unreachable.

And he is disbelieving as Kerry slip out of the championship. So, Tommy texts his commiserations and takes himself off to bed for a fitful sleep. Some days later, he will access the highlights on YouTube and find himself wondering what difference, if any, he might have made.

And, for a day or two, Melbourne will feel like a town perched on the furthest rim of the galaxy.

HIS father's two All Star trophies sit on the sitting room mantelpiece and, as he peers out at the October darkness beginning to filter down, Tommy could be looking at a beautiful picture now curling at the edges. Tralee Golf Club is maybe a meaty three-wood from the front gate and Banna Beach is within walking distance. "I love it here," he says, almost involuntarily.

Walsh looks lean and toned, though the pain is all ahead of him. At the end of November, he will fly back to Melbourne for pre-season with St Kilda. A year ago, he was innocent to the torture. He remembers being emailed the schedule and seeing nothing to trip sirens.

"You look at 'four-kilometre run,' he chuckles now, "and it doesn't look that tough ... "

The memories are like butterflies fluttering inside his head. It was mid-November when himself and David Moran pitched up in Australia, believing themselves prepared for whatever hardship loomed. Training started at 7.30 on a perfect Wednesday morning, the overhead sun already strong as a clenched fist.

They were given "skimpy" St Kilda outfits and, after a few gentle courtesies, official business began. With that four-kilometre run. Before they knew it, the Kerry boys were breathing soup.

"It was a massive shock to our systems," he remembers. "The lactic acid in your legs is burning. I'll never forget it, those first few days. It was hell. In two weeks, David lost nearly a stone. The weight was just falling off us.

"I mean, playing the All-Ireland final last year, I'd say I was just above 16 stone. Now I'm about 15 one or two. I was fit for the All-Ireland, but this just goes to a different level. Some of the players out there are like Olympic athletes, they're so fit.

"They monitor us all the time. Every day. Whether it be a hamstring stretch, calf or whatever. So, I'm kind of dreading the running when I go back. But I'm looking forward to getting back into shape as well."

Moran didn't make the 'cut' last year, but Walsh stayed to play in all 18 games for St Kilda's affiliate side, Sandringham. By season's end, he had been elevated onto the club's senior list and looked like he could play 'Footie'.

Drafting Gaelic footballers is always a shot in the dark and, for now, it's a moot point whether or not Walsh has a long-term future in the AFL. But, at least, the game no longer makes him feel as if he's got traitorous feet.

His first game was an intra-club, A v B exchange that amounted to ritual slaughter. The senior team all but treated their back-up as a side-dish. Tommy played in the forwards, got his hands on the ball a few times, but achieved little. "I was a disaster, we got destroyed," he remembers succinctly.

"We only kicked two or three goals in the whole game. They hammered us."

Then they took him to play North Melbourne seconds. And he found himself standing in the shadow of a giant called Majak Daw.

Some of the Australian newspapers picked up on the quaintness of this international match-up. They carried photographs of the blond Irish kid going toe-to-toe with the big, ebony-skinned son of Khartoum, whose family fled the second Sudanese civil war.

Daw is, maybe, six foot seven with the leap of a gazelle. And Walsh was placed at full-back to mark him. "Sure I hadn't a clue," he grins in recall.

"Like you can do all of the training you want, but it's not until you get into a game ... So, it was a bit surreal. I was lost altogether. And the game seemed to go on forever. I remember sitting down at half-time, thinking to myself: 'Jesus, if I was at home now, the game would be over.'

"But, by the time the AFL season started, I had played about five pre-season games and was a lot more comfortable."

There is a great, weed-strewn garden of reasons to doubt the prospects of an Irish kid in his early 20s going to the far end of the world and becoming successful in a game he has never played before.

Yet, that's precisely what the great Jim Stynes achieved in Melbourne and, of course, what Walsh's own Kerry team-mate Tadhg Kennelly has done with the Sydney Swans.

Walsh has never met Stynes, now battling cancer. But he recites the Dubliner's career statistics with undiluted awe.

Stynes remains the only non-Australian to win the coveted Brownlow medal and was recently named Melburnian of the Year. "He played 242 consecutive games," says Tommy. "There's only 22 games or whatever a season, plus finals. You play 26 max.

"So, you're talking about 10 seasons without missing a game. Unbelievable."

When Kennelly came home last year to win an All-Ireland medal, he never openly marketed the Australian dream. For most Irish kids who go, conviction turns to glass.


It's best not to think you're chasing some kind of rainbow. Kennelly just offered cold advice without a sales pitch.

Tommy had first been approached by Ricky Nixon just after Kerry's '08 All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway. "Being honest, I didn't really have ambitions of going there," he says.

He was playing with Kerry and getting valuable work experience in construction management with Jacobs Engineering, down in Ringaskiddy.

But they brought him out for a beautiful, sun-splashed week late in the year and he was shown around by the Laois player, Colm Begley. Before he went home, St Kilda confirmed their interest and, having liked what he had seen too, a tiny seed was sown.

"After that, I just concentrated on being with Kerry," he says of the '09 season. "I didn't really want anyone to know about it. The only people who knew were family and close friends. But, in fairness, I'd made up my mind before the All-Ireland final that I was going to go.

"I had to. I didn't want to be sitting on a bar-stool in 10 years' time, thinking: 'I could have done this or should have done that.' So I told Jack (O'Connor) before making any announcement. Naturally, he was disappointed. But he told me to enjoy the experience and that the door was always open."

Begley had returned home by the time he touched down at St Kilda, but Tommy's Irish girlfriend -- Edwina -- traveled out soon after and they set up home in a nice apartment close to the city centre. Edwina's medical studies mean she won't be able to return this time, however. So the gradient steepens further.

Now he watches the stiffening winds toss the colour off the trees and knows that, soon, he will be back saying his goodbyes.

"There wasn't a day went by out there that I didn't think about Tralee and what I'd be doing if I was at home," he admits. "But that (homesickness) is just part of it. It's the decision I made. I knew it was going to be like that. I miss meeting the lads and going for a few drinks after a game. The buzz of the games, that's the biggest thing.

"If I could move that out there, it'd be grand (laughing). But I'm determined to give this thing my best shot. I mean I do want to come back and play for Kerry and my club (Kerins O'Rahillys) again, whenever that might be. It could be next year, it could be who knows? Look, if I'm happy and they're happy, we could push on."

The recent experiences of Kennelly and, most recently, Down's Marty Clarke suggest that exposure to the professionalism of AFL training can only add to a Gaelic footballer's armoury. Indeed, Walsh points to the fact that, Stynes apart, every Irish player recruited has eventually gone home.

"That's why I don't think people should be complaining about it too much," he says. "And every guy that's come back has been a better footballer because of the training and, I suppose, the professional mindset."

He was part of St Kilda's extended panel for this year's Grand Final against Collingwood (they lost heavily in a replay), even the rookies getting decked out in shiny suits and having access to dressing-rooms and team-meetings. The atmosphere generated by 100,000 people at the MCG astounded Walsh.

"The size of the whole thing was unbelievable," he says. "The stadium was completely full an hour before the game. I didn't really feel part of it, though. You'd be sitting there thinking: 'I don't want to have this feeling again, I don't want to be sitting back, watching it'.

"It was the exact same feeling I had in 2007 when I was a sub for the All-Ireland. When you see it up close, you want to be out there."

They tell him to be patient and he knows that he must listen. What feels like a lifetime can evaporate in one lucky break. His target is one senior game next season. A gateway game, he hopes.

SEANIE WALSH steps in from the refrigerated night after a stroll on Banna Beach. Somewhere in this house sit seven All-Ireland medals fished from Kerry's greatest era. Seanie, the man who could leap so high that people still look at match photographs of the '70s and wonder if they've been doctored, is now dwarfed by his eldest boy.

Even 17-year-old Sean Jnr is closing rapidly and already Barry John -- himself a senior Kerry panelist -- gets mistaken for his big brother. The sense of dynasty is alive in this place. David Moran is, of course, son of Seanie's old team-mate 'Ogie'. Football is in the clay.

Yet, the absence of a current Kerry player from Anthony Tohill's 22-man squad for the upcoming Tests against Australia has been raising eyebrows and stoking mischief.

Tommy believes people have been searching for a rift that is non-existent.

He himself was picked in the '08 Ireland squad, but had to withdraw because of Kerins O'Rahillys' extended run in the county championship. He was "disgusted" to miss the experience, but club -- he says -- is club.

Last Sunday, he traveled in to see 'Gooch' Cooper's Dr Crokes beat Kieran Donaghy's Austin Stacks in the Kerry county final. Donaghy and Declan O'Sullivan both attended a few early sessions with Tohill's squad, but club commitments simply curtailed their involvement.

"Kieran had the county final coming, Stack's first in nearly 10 years," he says. "It's hard to be thinking about anything other than that. Like, if you're training for the International Series and -- next thing -- play bad in a county final, you're only opening yourself up.

"The two lads just made the decision to stay with their clubs, which was great loyalty. There was absolutely no issue with Anthony."

For Walsh himself, tomorrow's Test in Limerick presents the first of two important opportunities. He will be coming up against a couple of his St Kilda club-mates and doesn't doubt that an Australian audience will be curious to monitor his form.

"It's good too that they (his club-mates) will see Ireland and, maybe, understand where I'm coming from," he smiles.

After the Test series concludes, Tommy will begin a preparatory programme for pre-season in Melbourne.

He'll be back home for a fortnight at Christmas, but, thereafter, Kerry will be reachable only by phone and cyberspace.

Come summer, he hopes to hear Weeshie unwrap a happier story.

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