Shane Walsh tells a story about his U-21 days. Paul Clancy, an All-Ireland winner with Galway and their selector at the time, notices the Kilkerrin/Clonberne man attempting to score goals in different ways.
Left foot, right foot, the instep and the outside of the boot. High and handsome to the net and daisy-cutters low to the ground.
“He came over and said, ‘why do you keep kicking the ball so different’,” Walsh remembers.
“We were doing the drill where you run through, play the one-two and take a shot on goal from various positions. Some lads would go back to their banker every time but I was saying someone might know that so I’ll do something different. He was smiling saying, ‘you’re like a golfer now adding a couple of more irons to your play. He said to just make sure you chose the right one’.”
Having the ability to score in a variety of ways but being urged to pick the right one is a neat analogy for Walsh’s play. It’s clear he was at the top of the queue when they were hanging out Gaelic football talent.
As natural a two-footed player as there is in the game, Walsh is blessed with pace and an explosive standing start.
On his day, he’s close to unplayable, a game-breaker who puts bums on seats. But there’s days he frustrates too. His manager Pádraic Joyce acknowledged as much after the Connacht final victory over Roscommon.
“He’s one of the best footballers I’ve ever seen playing, but Shane knows himself that he has to produce these performances in the big games and then he’ll get more national recognition,” Joyce said.
“But talent-wise, he has two feet, unbelievable talent, pace, he’s just such an enigma.”
Considering Joyce’s own talents, and who was around during his playing days, that is praise from the heavens.
And if high-level football is a risk-averse game won by the side who make fewer mistakes and with more science than art, then Walsh is a maverick.
“I always say I play on instinct. If you kick a ball on the outside of the boot and it goes wrong they’ll say, ‘why didn’t you go with your other foot?’ But my instinct said to do that and sometimes you’ll trick someone and you pull it back and go on the other foot.
“I suppose the big thing for me is I don’t want an opposition player to know what I’m going to do and I think I disguise it pretty well at times.”
His is an innocent love of the game, untainted by ESRI surveys of the commitment required.
He even changed careers from working in a bank to training to be a teacher to help him stay closer to sport during and after his playing days.
“I never see football as a chore. There are chores in the wintertime when you have to go run up a block of fitness but other than that, when you get a football in your hands it is a ball of magic really. It is what you can do with it. That is something I have based my game around.
“People give out to me, especially Pádraic and ‘Scan’ (selector John Concannon), you only come to life when you get the ball. Can you do more off the ball? That is the challenge for me I have to keep working on. At the same time, I know my strengths. When I am on the ball I know I can make things happen. It is just about continuing to do that for the better of the team.”
The skills of the game are ever evolving for Walsh. He credits his former primary school principal in Clonberne national school, Peadar Brandon, for his two-footedness, something further encouraged by Father Ollie Hughes in St Jarlath’s.
“He (Brandon) would give me about three or four weeks and when that block came he would say I was not allowed to kick off my right foot and it would be a free against me every time I did.”
More recently, he picked up something new from a Kerry star.
“The opposite hand to opposite foot solo and the way that can be used and how it’s a weapon with regards to protecting the ball against an opposition player. I learned that from a lad that is a couple of years younger than me, David Clifford – I don’t know if you know him?” he smiles.
This Sunday, he’ll bring his talents to Croke Park. At Armagh team meetings this week, it’s likely his name will come up as much as any Galway player. If he plays well, Galway’s chances of winning sky-rocket. Does he feel that pressure?
“I don’t really. I always say you ignore a crowd. It can be hard when you pick up a ball in an area of the pitch and all of a sudden it goes from being quiet to there being a lot of expectation.
“One thing I learned from Paddy Tally when he came in in 2018 was just about dislocating expectations. As in, ‘Who are you?’ And as Cian O’Neill says, it’s about humility as well. It’s a new occasion, it’s a new game, so ‘who are you?’ in some ways. You just have to go out and do what you can do. Do what you can with the ability you have.
“I slag the lads and say pressure is for tyres. Even Mum and Dad would be asking me would I be nervous going into the game on Sunday or other people would you be asking you whether you’re nervous. I’d be like, ‘What have I to be nervous about? I’ve been training the guts of 20 years for this. I’ve been training all year’. The only way I’d ever be nervous was if I missed training. Because then I’m saying, ‘Have I practised enough?’
“Whereas right now I’m saying, ‘I practise so much, just let me out there’. That’s the way I’d be going into a game. It’s another game. What’s the difference between our first championship game and the last championship game?
“To me, it’s 70 minutes of football, it’s another opposition, let’s go get them.”