Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Tommy Walsh's return is the comeback story that looked like it might never happen'

Tralee man’s inter-county career looked to be over three years ago but he has fought his way back

Tommy Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

For the 1984 All Ireland final two Kerry players devised a plan to try and get inside the heads of a few Dublin players. Tom Spillane and Ger Lynch were marking Tommy Conroy and Barney Rock.

For the National Anthem they stood skin-tight to their opponents and let it all out. "There was no belting but the plot was to sing the National Anthem as loud as we could into their ears to put the fear of God into them," Spillane said in the book 'Princes of Pigskin'. "Neither of us were great singers but they must have thought we were wired to the moon."

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At some point this evening we'll see the figure of a man on the sideline who Kerry hope will again put the fear of God into their opponents.

For the last two games against Tyrone and Dublin, Tommy Walsh has come onto the pitch with the look and intent of a man who knows where the bounty is buried.

"Should Tommy start?" has been the chorus-line again in the lead-up to this replay and it's likely his appearance will come well before the 53rd minute which was when he was eventually pitched into the action in the drawn final.

Forget Hollywood's upcoming 'Top Gun' sequel, Walsh is Kerry's returning Iceman who can add heat and havoc to a contest in his second coming as a Kerry footballer.

Walsh's return is the comeback story that looked like it might never happen. In an interview last October, Walsh said, "I think it's unlikely that I'll play for Kerry again," while adding the caveat, "I'd never say never".

When he came on against the Dubs on September 1, it was the first time in 10 years that he played in an All-Ireland final. After winning Young Footballer of the Year in 2008, the following year Walsh scored four points from play (two off the left foot and two off the right) in Kerry's All Ireland final win over Cork.

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Later that year, Walsh moved to Australia to play AFL with St Kilda and later with the Sydney Swans. In 2013, Walsh suffered a horrific injury. "I tore the three hamstring tendons off the bone, so it was pretty significant. That was probably the hardest time I had over there," Walsh told Tommy Bowe in an interview for eir Sport.

Ten days after Kerry won the 2014 All-Ireland final, it was confirmed that Walsh was coming home. But the transition back to Kerry football proved tougher than expected and before the start of the 2016 championship Walsh opted out of the panel because of a lack of game-time.

"I think we made a major mistake with Tommy as a management (team) when he came back," former selector Mikey Sheehy said earlier this year. "We probably should have let him go and play with his club for maybe six months but we kind of threw him in at the deep end at the start of the league (in 2015)."

It's nearly a year to the day that the rejuvenation of Walsh really took off. In the second round of the county championship in September 2018, Kerins O'Rahillys fought back from a nine-point deficit to beat county champions Dr Crokes by 3-18 to 2-17. Walsh was at the heart of the comeback and scored 2-2. That same week Kieran Donaghy announced his inter-county retirement. As if on cue, his former twin tower sparring partner put himself back in the frame.

"He was seen to be doing everything that day: catching, running freely, scoring freely, scoring a couple of goals," Mark Fitzgerald, Kerins O'Rahillys selector, says. "People started to say maybe there might be a role for him to come back in there (to the Kerry panel)."

Winter came. And so did a phonecall from the new manager Peter Keane. Tommy was back.

What sets Walsh apart is his ball-winning - especially winning it in front of his opponent. With his club in Tralee they work a particular drill - like for goalkeepers - to help with his handling.

"We've had instances where we've had one of the selectors or one of the trainers and myself kick the ball at him from close range at a serious pace. His hands are absolutely phenomenal, you've no idea until you get up close," Fitzgerald says. "He's quite clever as well. He can look for it (the ball) in behind or he can look for it in front of him."

Three minutes and 30 seconds after Walsh came on in the drawn All-Ireland final, Kerry scored a goal that flipped the contest. A typical on-the-money kick-pass from David Moran was briefly caught by David Byrne but he fumbled it, Walsh gathered and fisted the ball to Killian Spillane who rocketed the ball into the back of the Dublin net.

If Kerry had won, this move would have had prime billing in 'Reeling in the Years 2019'. For the trio of players involved in that move, their dads - Ogie, Seánie and Tom - were part of that famous Kerry team and all started that final in 1982. Could it be there in the back of their minds about their dads to somehow make up for what happened in '82?

"No, it's about winning a huge All Ireland for Kerry," Eoin Liston says. "They have tasted what it's like to win and when it's taken away from you for a few years, and if you've the chance again, that hunger is there. And an awful lot of them are very hungry to win their first."

Walsh's attitude to a setback could be encapsulated in a 43-second vignette in the drawn All-Ireland final when his effort at a point went well wide and the Hill lapped it up. But he faced the Hill again to score a point from a more difficult angle less than a minute later. Whether he's a surprise starter or a sub today, Walsh will be ready for whatever comes his way. It's the setbacks that make the comebacks all the sweeter.

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