Dermot Crowe: 'Michael 'Brick' Walsh - the greatest player Waterford have ever produced'
Waterford local radio, WLR, lined up a range of contributors last week to pay their respects to Michael 'Brick' Walsh on his inter-county retirement after 17 years.
Milking public adulation wasn't Brick's way and it is a fair assumption he would have found the attention slightly mortifying. He remained as steadfastly wary of the spotlight as he did loyal to the cause he served so nobly for such a long time.
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Derek McGrath, one of the radio guests, said he'd phoned Walsh on hearing the news and it was clear he wanted to talk about anything but himself and the end of his Waterford career. A former team-mate contacted for this piece declined to talk on the basis that Walsh had not made any official announcement himself. It would, it appeared, be insensitive to be part of an obituary without at least having that imprimatur from the man himself, rather than relying on second-hand accounts. And, knowing Brick, could he really trust the news he was finished without hearing it from the one person who knew for sure?
But gone, it seemed, he was. The season past saw his appearances diminish and his last, a record 76th in the championship, was as a sub in a bad defeat by Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. At 36, with three children under seven and a new manager in charge, climate conditions weren't favourable. It was not a surprise yet it creates a sadness in all followers to see a universally popular player take leave of the stage.
Was ever the old cliche of the player who preferred to do his talking on the pitch more fittingly applied than to Brick Walsh? Kevin Moran came into the Waterford panel a few years after Walsh in 2007. "He was someone I would have tried to aspire to," says Moran. "The immediate thought is he probably won't like me talking about him. It's something he'd nearly be embarrassed about."
It says much about the kind of player he was that in his first year as a regular, 2004, he produced one of his best performances in the Munster final when Waterford won with 14 men for most of the second half. The player sent off that day, John Mullane, had reason to be more appreciative than most. But it is a match he picks out, one of three, which he will remember Walsh most by.
"He did the work of four men," says Mullane. "I said to myself, this man is going to go on and have an unbelievable career. They all rolled up their sleeves but him in particular, that game was the beginning, for me, for Brick Walsh: he was colossal."
Now place that performance in the context of it being his first season as a settled senior inter-county hurler, having been reared in Stradbally, where football is the ruling game. He rose to the challenge to produce an implacable show of defiance with his team a man down. And against a seriously good Cork team, who would be All-Ireland champions later that year, and again the year after that.
The first game Mullane remembers Brick most by is the 2003 Munster under 21 football final when he turned in a huge performance in the middle of the field against Kerry in Walsh Park. He has won 10 county senior medals with his club in football. From that game he brought athleticism, vision and an unfailing instinct for support play.
"He nearly beat Kerry on his own, he was that good," says Mullane. "I remember watching that game and thinking to myself this man is an unbelievable athlete. And Justin (McCarthy) was the making of him. Made him into the hurler that he was. Justin's hurling drills were just what Brick needed at the time."
The third match Mullane selects from the catalogue illustrates the player's longevity. It came against Cork, 13 years after the '04 Munster final, in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final when Waterford won with a late flourish. "Everyone was building Mark Coleman up to get an All Star, he was playing unbelievable, and wondering will they put Brick on Mark Coleman and lo and behold they threw Brick on him and Brick was unbelievable in that game," says Mullane.
When McCarthy came in, inconsistency was a serious issue for Waterford, a county capable of moving from sublime and intoxicating to excruciatingly poor and abject. Walsh was one of a new breed of ultra-reliable and unremitting competitors. "He never went below seven," says Mullane. "Always an eight or a nine, and sometimes 10."
Over his career he won four All Stars, the most recent two years ago as a half forward, having won previous awards in 2007 at midfield and 2008 and 2010 at centre back. He played in every line of the field aside from goalkeeper. "Even in the last couple of years, to do what he did as a wing forward from a guy who was so used to facing the ball," says Dave Bennett, his former team-mate, admiringly. "People might have thought, was it silly moving him to the half-forward line but every time he moved he proved everyone wrong, time and time again."
In a county known for producing flamboyant players, he never belonged in that company. It did not make him a misfit because he was supremely adaptable and dedicated, a master of efficiency. "He wasn't a flair player," says Kevin Moran, "he just led by example - he has some super skills without showing them off. I loved everything about him, the way he played, he was good in the air, a real team player. A guy who was able to play in many different positions. Who never really caused any trouble."
Justin McCarthy's days with Waterford ended sourly when there was a player heave against him during the course of the 2008 championship. By then he had made Walsh his captain, He led the county to a National League title the year before. As captain he carried a duty to serve his players' needs but also retained a loyalty to the man who brought him into the team and did a lot to improve his hurling. For a personality who preferred the absence of melodrama those months must have been difficult. It did not impair his friendship with McCarthy, which holds to this day. He made some efforts to try to mend bridges at the time but the relationship had broken down; the differences were irreconcilable.
"He hated every minute of that kind of stuff," admits Moran. "That wouldn't be his nature but at the same time knew he had to be there as the captain and had to support the players."
There was a selflessness about his play throughout his career, the signature 'Brick flick' often employed to accommodate the team and move the ball on to a better placed colleague. How do you quantify all of those small intercessions? "I used always love playing near him because he'd give you the ball," says Moran, "he'd win the dirty ball and you'd know the ball was coming to you. He was so unselfish. The ultimate team player."
Mullane picks up on the theme. "I would love to see the stats on the number of frees he won and were scored and the number of assists he set up and were scored. I'd say you would go into huge figures."
He left behind a series of really good performances and for such a competitor it is impossible to remember anything unsavoury. "I think championship matches were a given, he always played so consistently well," says Dave Bennett. "I remember, I was well finished, I'd say 2010 or 2011, going in to see a National League match where Waterford played Tipperary in Walsh Park, he was playing centre back the same day. It just seemed any place the ball went into the Tipp forward line he seemed to be the one that got it. But he produced so many performances like that."
Mullane says that, for him, he was a blend of three players: Ken McGrath, Tony Browne and Seamus Prendergast. "If you mixed the three of them in a bottle you got Brick Walsh. He was a warrior. Ken McGrath was a warrior, he had that will to win. Tony Browne had attitude and application, attention to detail, wanting to better himself. Seamus Prendergast . . . punishment. Brick took an awful lot of punishment for the team. And an awful lot of punishment that went unnoticed. He was the go-to guy when you were in trouble or needed a dig-out in lull moments in a game."
Moran speaks of times Walsh defied pain to play or train. "He wouldn't show pain. I have seen him playing with broken ribs and things like that and not a word out of him, and the physio saying, 'you can't be training, you've cracked ribs', and he'd say, 'ah I will be grand'. We played Wexford in Wexford Park a few years ago, he had two broken ribs, there was no way he wasn't playing that game. Bit of padding under his jersey and out he went."
Seamus Prendergast describes him as a natural-born leader. "Since the day he came in, he was a leader. You could see that - he stood out. A warrior. If things were going bad you could still count on him. He was a fella that was always giving it 100 per cent whether it was training or matches, in the Munster Championship or a challenge, he always stood out. In whatever position he played, it didn't make a difference. Where he was asked to go he would go and do what he was asked to do. Probably one of the most honest hurlers Waterford ever had."
That honesty earned him admirers outside Waterford too. In his new autobiography, the former Kilkenny hurler Eoin Larkin, mentions Walsh. "I'd imagine Brick is the sort of player that Brian Cody would have loved," he says. "There's no bullshit about him, he just wants to come in and train hard, improve himself, prepare properly and perform as well as he possibly can for the team. The Cody doctrine. There's no banging the chest and kissing the crest like there was with some of his team-mates over the years."
Dave Bennett doesn't find any of that surprising. "If you spoke to all the other counties who played against them they would tell you that the one player they would love to have had was Brick Walsh," he says. "That is probably the ultimate compliment."
Mullane speaks of a "very religious man and non-drinker who would very rarely get upset or get angry". If the standard in training dropped it might test his patience. "He might," says Mullane, "let out a small little bit of an 'f word' under his breath and grind his teeth and you knew then that, you know, we really have to up it here."
He talks of a voice lost to the dressing room that will be "sorely missed" and even "irreplaceable". On the field he remembers his awareness. "His timing, knowing when to offload to others, was second to none."
Walsh was the first Waterford hurling captain not to come from the county champions, when that tradition was abandoned. He was the players' natural choice in 2007 when Waterford probably lost their best chance of that period to win an All-Ireland, defeated by Limerick in an upset in the All-Ireland semi-final. The following year's shattering All-Ireland final defeat by Kilkenny was his lowest point, but he dealt with all set-backs with an equanimity which became a trademark. The night after the county lost the 2017 All-Ireland final, he left the homecoming reception in Waterford to train with Stradbally.
"Some might call him old school but there's something nice about it," says Moran. "In my eyes he is the greatest player Waterford has ever produced." That is saying something.
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