Monday 18 December 2017

'Brick' building on epic record of Déise service

Walsh has been ever-present in side for 15 years

Waterford’s Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh challenges Derek Lyng of Kilkenny during the Allianz League back in 2003 - Walsh’s first year with the county senior team. Photo: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Waterford’s Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh challenges Derek Lyng of Kilkenny during the Allianz League back in 2003 - Walsh’s first year with the county senior team. Photo: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the early stages of Waterford's All-Ireland quarter-final win over Wexford last month, the influence of Michael 'Brick' Walsh was never more stated.

Even in his pomp years as the team's captain and centre-back or midfielder, 'Brick' arguably never had a quarter of hurling like it. His prints were all over a 0-8 to 0-4 lead established by the 16th minute. What's more, it was all delivered according to plan.

Waterford sought to isolate 'Brick' and his marker Willie Devereux and it paid a handsome dividend. Every time Stephen O'Keeffe had ball in hand and looked up, he had eyes only for the Stradbally man.

Three times he was fouled for frees which Pauric Mahony converted, he laid off for a Jake Dillon point and scored one himself.

But it was his ability to stand his ground under a dropping ball and hold off his pursuers which made each opening. Classic 'Brick', the role Derek McGrath had in mind for him perfected to a tee.

His influence waned from that high when Liam Ryan was detailed to pick him up, offering a matching physical influence. But it took such corrective measures to get a handle on a player in his 15th championship season, 16 if the year he spent with the Déise footballers is included.

With the retirement of Westmeath's Brendan Murtagh earlier this year after their championship campaign had ended, 'Brick' now stands as hurling's long-serving player. Only Dublin's 'Dotsie' O'Callaghan and Gary Maguire come close, beginning their championship careers in 2004 against Westmeath.

'Brick made his debut against Kerry in the 2003 Munster hurling championship. He featured in four more games that summer as a replacement but nailed down a starting place for the opening Munster Championship match against Clare and, remarkably, has started all of Waterford's 63 championship games since.

To put it into context, Henry Shefflin played in 62 consecutive matches between 1999 and 2012 before a broken bone in the foot ruled him out of three Leinster Championship matches in 2013.

Shefflin's career finished with 71 championship appearances for Kilkenny, two fewer than the record holder Brendan Cummins but he too had an interruption when he was dropped during the 2007 championship. 'Brick' has now featured in 68 successive championship hurling matches for Waterford. Count his two football appearances against Clare and Roscommon in 2002 - he scored goals in both - and he now played in 70 championship games for his county.

It's a phenomenal record for a player who has traded in raw physicality since emerging in 2003.

After losing an eight All-Ireland semi-finals, last year's epic replay defeat to Kilkenny in Thurles looked like a good place to anchor his career.

Former Waterford defender Stephen Frampton is an AIB work colleague and felt he would.

"Last year he had a real good year, having had a quieter year in 2015. A lot of fellas would have said, 'I'll cut my losses here, I've had a fantastic career, I've finished at the top.'

"That would be 99 per cent of inter-county players who are around that long but I know he has got a burning desire to try and reach the pinnacle and get that All-Ireland medal and that's obviously what keeps him going."

His longevity and record of service amazes Frampton, given how he has consistently put his body on the line.

"He never seems to get injured," said the Ballygunner man. "It's not as if he tries to look after himself.

" He's on that team because of physicality and his ball-winning skills. He's not a fella that dodges the ball either. He gets in to do the dirty stuff for the flyers.

"We have lots of good hurlers in that team but not as many ball-winners as we would have had a few years ago. If you're under pressure that's the word, throw it out to Brick.

"At worst he will hold it up. He's great ball-winner and he proved that with his massive start against Wexford and it set the tone for the whole match."

His one-handed 'Brick flick' has become a unique feature in the game, so much so that young hurlers in Waterford are trying to copy it, much to Frampton's frustration as an underage coach!

"I kill him over that. I coach young fellas and they all want to do the 'Brick flick' instead of handpassing the ball. I'm lambasting them for it!"

Frampton feels the support of his family - Walsh has three young children - has helped him to extend his career and feels he has exceeded the expectations there may have been for him. "At the start of the year his dominant role would have been as a leader of the team and leader in the dressing-room but he's grown as the year has gone on. I'd say the expectation wasn't as high with his actual performance on the field."

That leadership is reflected in the fact that at three different times now during his 15-year career he has been appointed championship captain.

Frampton admits to being less confident about Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final in the probable absence of Tadhg de Búrca who takes his case over his red card in the Wexford game to the Disputes Resolution Authority tomorrow night.

He feels the sweeper service provided by De Búrca will be sorely missed if his last avenue of appeal fails but still feels the system gives Waterford their best chance of making progress.

"At this stage we we've been lauded for having beautiful teams in the noughties playing flamboyant open hurling but it didn't win us an All-Ireland title. Now is the time to be winning and whatever way that's done there is no space for an honourable loss. We're past that. I'd be traditionalist in the way I'd look at the game but at this stage I don't really care what people say."

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