Monday 23 April 2018

Cork's high achiever stays rooted in reality

His first full season brought him honours but Aidan Walsh isn't resting on his laurels, writes Marie Crowe

At half-time in last year's All-Ireland final, Nicholas Murphy called Aidan Walsh over. The Cork veteran had just came on for the injured Alan O'Connor and was partnering Walsh in the centre. They stood close together in the middle of the field and Murphy imparted some vital words of wisdom.

It was a simple but effective chat. Murphy was always a hero to Walsh and when your hero is giving you instructions they are hard to ignore. Walsh went on to give an exhibition in the centre of the field.

Since Aidan Walsh joined the Cork senior football panel two years ago, Nicholas Murphy has been his opposite number in training and marking him was one of the best learning experiences a budding footballer could hope for. There was no holding back from Murphy, it didn't matter what age you were or where you came from, every player was treated the same.

"Nicky would always hit hard and in training he plays every session like it's a match," says Walsh. "So week in, week out I knew I was marking one of the best midfielders in the country and that was a massive help when it came to championship. I knew whoever I was marking wouldn't be as good as Nicky."

The two players roomed together before games last year and again Walsh learned a lot. Murphy told him about the low times in Cork football and made him appreciate how special it was to win.

Midfield has been an area that has raised much debate this year but where other counties have worries, Conor Counihan has no cause for concern. Walsh and Alan O'Connor are two of the best in the country and Murphy is in reserve.

Walsh enjoys playing there, although it's a very challenging position which has evolved a lot in recent years. "The way football is gone now players crowd out midfield so you are nearly better off breaking than clean catching," explains Walsh

"If you catch the ball you often have five or six lads around you and you will get done for steps if you try to get out. So playing there is mostly about breaking and trying to win the break and for that reason I thought the mark was great when it was trialled a couple of years ago. It gave players more opportunity to catch the ball cleanly.

"It's all about handpassing and keeping possession now as opposed to kicking the ball up the field and hoping for the best. We used to get a bit of stick for doing that but now if we can't bring it any further, we bring it back and recycle it."

Walsh's talent isn't limited to football -- he is also a prominent hurler and plays on Cork's under 21 team. He even makes hurleys in his spare time.

Walsh is probably as good at hurling as football and would love to give both a shot at senior level, but not until he is out of under 21. When he was a minor he played for 18 teams, at inter-county, school, colleges, club and divisional levels, in both codes. He is very aware of burn-out, so much so that keeping injury-free is one of his main aims. "There are so many lads getting injured seriously now that I just need to watch myself. I've had a few hamstring problems that caused me to miss a few games and I don't want them to recur."

But why senior football first and not hurling? It was pure luck. Walsh had won an under 21 All-Ireland football championship with Cork and simply got the call-up to the senior footballers first.

"When I joined the panel, I had a good feeling about it. I knew from looking at the team that there was something good coming for Cork football. I knew we were capable of winning an All-Ireland and I got on well with the lads. It felt right. The hurlers are in more of a rebuilding period, they have a lot of young fellas at the moment but I know in a few years they will be well capable of winning an All-Ireland."

Although Walsh has only played one full season as a Cork senior footballer, he has already won an All-Ireland medal and an All Star and been named Young Footballer of the Year. But winning so much at such a young age isn't a worry for him, as long as he keeps his head. He had a reality check earlier this year when he was captain of the Cork under 21 team. They hammered Kerry in the Munster final and went into the All-Ireland semi-final as overwhelming favourites.

"I hate even thinking about that game," says Walsh. "We just thought we were better than we were and the game was set up perfectly for Galway." They lost by two points and Walsh suffered a hamstring injury during the match which forced him to miss the league final.

"Conor told me that I'd have to keep working hard and he explained to me that if I didn't play well that I wouldn't have my place on the senior team. It was as simple as that. I knew there was competition in the panel and I had to pick myself up and not dwell on things."

As he prepares for today's Munster final in Killarney, he recalls his first senior championship game against Kerry in Killarney last year, which was a real eye-opener.

"You just don't seem to get as much time on the ball down there, and I learned that the hard way with the first three balls I got last year. I think it's because the terrace goes right the way around and creates such an atmosphere.

"I learned from that that I must do the easy things right and I did that for the rest of the year. But on the back of that people think that I can't score and that I'm a wild shooter. Looking back, I'm glad it happened because on that day if everything went right for me I wouldn't have learned anything from it."

Although there has been much debate recently about the value of the Munster championship Walsh is pretty happy with the way things are.

"People are saying that there is such a long wait after we play the Munster final if we win but I think they are looking for excuses," says Walsh. "If you win it's the best thing that ever happens, there isn't anything wrong with it then if you have good intensity in training and good A versus B matches and challenge games, it's fine. I just think it's a case of people looking for excuses if they are thinking that way."

Aidan Walsh may have achieved a lot in his short inter-county career but he still has a lot more that he wants to do and beating Kerry in Killarney today is next on the list.

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