Vincent Hogan on 'Brick' Walsh: A hurler whose play has always borne the relentless glow of honesty and high purpose
If Waterford dwell on the circumstance in which Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh strides towards history tomorrow, this game almost seems a vulgarity.
They go to Thurles, essentially, to wake their season. Hurling for intangibles like pride, honour and a sense of human care towards someone, they know too well, has no truck with ceremony or sentiment. Walsh’s 74th championship appearance might give him a unique place in the game, yet this won’t be the day they all yearned it to be.
Apart from Monday’s recovery sessions in two separate groups on Dunmore and Clonea strands, the Waterford players kept their own company this week, convening as a unit only last night in preparation for Cork.
Their season has been such a travesty of misfortune, bad luck intersecting with bad timing, that even talk has probably come to feel a little futile now.
The new championship has been pitiless on Waterford and tomorrow, win, lose or draw, it will evict them.
For Derek McGrath, the frustration is in knowing that their opportunity to honour ‘Brick’ now comes padlocked against survival.
"One hundred per cent," he agreed on Thursday. "And that makes it a difficult week because (a) you’re slow to focus all your motivation towards Michael, or at least trying to do it in a subtle manner so you don’t interfere with his own individual focus and (b) you’re looking at the overall picture where, effectively, you’re trying to restore some pride.
"It’s not a non-event, but it is difficult for us. Over the last five years, we’ve always tried to give everything we have and we’ve just got to try and do that again, try to get the best out of ourselves. Try to take some sense of self-worth from it I suppose more than anything."
To do that, Waterford owe themselves and ‘Brick’ a performance.
Where that performance takes them is immaterial. At 35 now, Walsh will scarcely be seen again in a Waterford jersey whilst McGrath himself looks set to move on too after five seasons at the helm in which they won a National League and reached only the county’s second All-Ireland final since 1963.
When he thinks of the efficacy of 'Brick’s' role in a group that underwent transformative change in his second year as manager, McGrath’s mind often turns to the evening of March 22, 2015.
Having just beaten Wexford by six points in Wexford Park to secure promotion out of Division 1B, the team convened for a meal and debrief in White’s Hotel. And it was there, sensing an air of self-congratulation in the group, that Walsh set about focusing minds on a looming quarter-final against Galway seven days later.
For a man then already into his twelfth season as a county man, he had an attentive audience.
"He just talked about how much he loved being part of a team of workers," McGrath remembered this week. "He felt that the team evolving might be different to the one he started out with for Waterford. Like he wasn’t casting any aspersions on any team he’d been on before, but he just told the players that he loved the honesty of the group.
"We often use this expression in the dressing-room, management and players, of ‘getting back to the ordinariness’ of something. Maybe it sounds paradoxical to say this, but it’s ‘Brick’s ordinariness that makes him stand out. His attitude that day was, ‘Look, we’ve gained promotion, but there’s another competition to be won now!’
"He just set the right tone. That’s what he does. He was getting people to re-focus. When you reach a particular target, there’s a tendency to go, ‘Anything after this is a bonus!’ But he was quick to dispel that idea. His attitude was, ‘Lads this is a team of workers. As long as it stays that way, we can achieve something.’
"Sounds a simple philosophy, but I suppose that depends on who it’s coming from."
Six weeks after that meeting in Whites, Waterford were National League champions for only the third time in their history.
In a county that has always coveted swashbuckling crowd-pleasers, ‘Brick’ Walsh has almost been a 16-year rumour. A four-time All-Star, winner of three Munster senior titles and now about to break Brendan Cummins’ record of 73 championship appearances by making his 51st consecutive start since 2007.
Yet, in his time hurling for Waterford, Walsh has manned almost every position bar goalkeeper, fuelling the impression of a utilitarian hurler, someone maybe handy for awkward tasks but not given the marquee roles.
McGrath believes Walsh has been poorly served by caricature.
"I think he doesn’t get enough credit for the guile in his hurling," he suggests. "The general descriptions that have attached themselves to ‘Brick’ over the years have been ‘warrior’ and ‘leader’ and they’re well-earned, no question. But I think people miss a lot about his ability as a hurler. He has really good hands, great vision. His set-up play and the cuteness of his hurling is often overlooked.
“Maybe it’s because he doesn’t score a huge amount, but he has this way of sucking someone in almost rugby-style when he’s over a ball, then handpassing out the side, past them. Look at Austin’s (Gleeson) goal in the 2016 replay against Kilkenny. ‘Brick’ just waited and waited before offloading when Austin was on his shoulder.
"Like you don’t survive the way ‘Brick’s survived solely on being a leader or just giving impassioned speeches. You know, he’s able to play like. And, for me, that’s sometimes missed by people.
"If you think of Waterford and our great sports people, maybe you think of John O’Shea, John Treacy, Seán Kelly, John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Tony Browne, brilliant people and brilliant at what they did. Well, I think Michael’s right up there with those people, but maybe in a more understated way."
Walsh’s hurling has borne the relentless glow of honesty and high purpose since his debut season of '03 and McGrath believes the Stradbally man represents, if not exactly a dying breed now, certainly an exception to the general energy around the modern game. As in a father-of-three, still hurling inter-county in his mid-30s.
"I don’t think we will see his like again," acknowledges the Waterford manager. "I actually think you’ll see a retirement age in the next ten years of maybe 28, just given the alternatives and the educational route that fellas are going. So he’s certainly... I won’t say a dying breed... but he’s an incredible man.
"I think he’s never been afraid of failure, which is a great trait. He’s full of courage. That’s what makes him, what separates him. He’s never affected by chat or gossip or people telling him what he should do. I mean there’d have been plenty telling him last year was the perfect time to go out, on top with another All-Star.
"That doesn’t enter his mindset at all. Like, to me, there’s nothing worse in life than false humility, someone pretending to be the ultimate team player, but really being wrapped up in themselves.
"But there’s never pretence in anything ‘Brick’ does. It’s just complete sincerity, complete honesty."
They know he’ll want zero fanfare to his march on history tomorrow and maybe the only smart thing Waterford can do is recognise that fact, seeking simply to honour him with how they play. It’s been a tough, cruel year and this isn’t how they intended it to end.
For McGrath then, last night was about getting the emotional dynamic right, no more.
"I’m just completely focused on trying to get a performance out of the team," he stresses. "As far as Michael’s story is concerned, you would have different things in mind, but you’re trying to get the balance right yourself in terms of whether you should mention it or say nothing.
"Whether you should just kind of leave it be. Amongst the group, we know what we’re doing, we’re trying to represent one of Waterford’s greatest ever players on what is a momentous day.
"And I don’t think we should be afraid to be ourselves either, no matter how corny it might seem, no matter how much people might think it’s just hyperbole. Like we’re proud to share a dressing-room with that man and we just want to get a big performance out of ourselves for him, but for the group as well.
"Because a performance would be the most eloquent tribute we could pay Michael now, without a shadow of a doubt. We know Cork are playing for a lot more than us, but we’re playing for a lot ourselves. We’re playing to restore pride and put some optimism in people going forward.
"Not strictly to honour a great man, but to perform as he would want us to perform. Just get numbers around the ball and make sure we’re working hard all over the field. Do that and we can live with ourselves."