Friday 19 January 2018

Sticking to the power of one

Dual ace Shane Walsh is now a key figure for Waterford's hurlers, writes Damian Lawlor

Seven years ago, the Waterford under 21 footballers took on a highly-fancied Kerry team in a Munster final.

With just minutes left, the underdogs were trailing. In desperation, they launched a long high ball into the Kerry square.

Michael Ryan, a coach with almost 30 All-Ireland ladies football titles in his locker, was co-commentating on the game for WLR FM. "I remember thinking what bloody use was that?" Ryan recalls.

"But from nowhere Shane Walsh arrived, jumped like a salmon and punched the ball to the back of the net. I'll never forget that moment. That was some illustrious Kerry team; Jack O'Connor in charge, the Gooch, Bryan Sheehan, Kieran Donaghy, all these fellas. But our lad leaped like a basketball player and flicked it home. Winning goal. The place went nuts."

It was Waterford's first title at that grade, only their fifth ever provincial crown.

"If I look back on my years now, I suppose that was the highlight," Walsh himself recalls. "It was a great feeling, but we had a good team and we knew we'd give Kerry a rattle."

Walsh and that team looked to have a great future ahead of them. Perhaps these would be the lads to restore pride to Waterford football, and in the intervening years they certainly have raised the county's profile.

But for Walsh, another path beckoned. In 2007, after years of impressing in the local championship, he was summoned onto the county senior hurling team.

With forwards like John Mullane, Dan Shanahan, Eoin Kelly, Stephen Molumphy, Eoin McGrath, Paul Flynn and Seamus Prendergast all firing, openings were going to be rare. Walsh hung in there, though: later that season they won the National League but wouldn't have got there only for his match-winning point from the sideline against Tipperary in the quarter-final.

With so many big names starring, his cameos were brief after that; he got a minute against Cork in the Munster semi-final but didn't play when they landed the provincial crown soon after. This past year, though, Davy Fitzgerald has adjusted his game plan and the likes of Shanahan and Prendergast have found themselves on the bench.

Last year was Walsh's first real opportunity to climb the pecking order and he took it. He came on as a substitute in the All-Ireland quarter-final, banged in the winning goal and helped his side to a one-point victory over Galway.

Fitzgerald had no choice but to start him two weeks later against Kilkenny. Waterford were on the ropes but the Nire/Fourmilewater man fought a physical battle with the Cats defence and against the grain rattled in two superb goals to bring them back into the hunt. Until then he was best known as a footballer. That day, however, he announced his arrival as a serious hurling talent.

"Himself and Gary Hurney are the two best footballers in Waterford," former football manager John Kiely remarks. "Shane is an outstanding talent; a way more natural footballer than hurler. But I can see why the hurling people need him too. It's a huge asset to be strong and brave; he has great physical presence and a good brain; he can pick out other people."

If he had his way, Walsh would play both codes. But it doesn't work like that down in Waterford.

Last year, both Hurney and he played for the footballers in a crucial Division 4 league match away to Sligo. Kiely's men were beaten by two points but Walsh delivered one of the best goals you'll ever see.

Five weeks on, the two were asked to play against Cork in the Munster football championship. The request was frowned upon by the hurling management but the county board facilitated it as both players were desperate to line out.

"It wasn't an ideal situation for either of us," Hurney remembers. "It would be great if we could have played both, but down here we have two different camps. We might be from the same county, but we are two different organisations.

"You'd be training five nights a week if you wanted to be a dual player. That Cork game certainly wasn't ideal. The Wednesday before, we played a challenge match with the hurlers. Two days before the football, we went down to Lisdoonvarna for a hurling training camp. We played Clare on the Friday evening and had the camp all day Saturday. Davy released us Saturday evening and we played football against Cork the next day. It wasn't an easy ask but we both wanted to play.

"Both teams could use Shane but when everyone is pulling from both sides, it's not easy. He had to go with the hurling. It's a major thing to have two Munster medals now."

Kiely knew the duo's preparation wasn't ideal that weekend but wanted his brightest stars on the field against the strong All-Ireland favourites.

"They trained hard with the hurlers three times the day before; morning, midday and evening. After that, a players' meeting. Then they were released. But the next day, Gary tested Alan Quirke four times in the Cork goal and Shane got another belter of a goal. It was classic Shane; quick thinking, about 25 yards out, he buried it. If it was a Kerryman, it might have won goal of the year."

Walsh, however, knew the dual mandate couldn't last. You can see his passion for football still burns. Yet the lure of an All-Ireland hurling medal is something no one could ignore.

"I would have loved to play both codes," he admits. "But it was just not practical. The commitment involved with both set-ups was incredible. If you tried to do both you would be out every night of the week. And that wouldn't do you any good in the long run."

Choosing one code, this year especially, must have been bittersweet. While he played in both the Munster hurling final and the replay -- ending up with another winner's medal -- he missed the footballers' successful and historic promotion from Division 4.

"I watched the boys every chance I got," Walsh says. "It was tough looking on, but I got to see a few games this year, and tried to make as many games as I could. I was delighted for them; they did brilliant and it was great to see all their hard work paid off. The lads deserve it; they've worked fierce hard to get promotion from Division 4 and it all worked out this year after the disappointments of the past few seasons."

Still, adding a second provincial hurling crown to the National League title he already holds was sweet consolation. He's developed into a poaching full-forward now, brave, and able to spot a pass. Paul Curran will have his hands full this afternoon.

Hurney agrees: "The only reason Shaney didn't make the hurlers years ago was injuries. They always seemed to affect him at wrong times. Then, he got the all-important goal against Galway and went into the Kilkenny game and buried two goals. That's what he does -- he gets goals. He is a top poacher and has been at club level."

His clubmate, Michael Ryan, concurs that injuries cost him a couple of seasons. "He was always a decent hurler. In 2001, he won an intermediate championship with Fourmilewater and has been our talisman since. His inter-county development took a while because of those injuries. He picks up a lot of them because he's such a competitor. He puts his body in first."

Last year, Hurney had begun to establish himself in Fitzgerald's team before breaking his collarbone. This season, Liam Lawlor left the footballers to nail down the hurlers' number three shirt. It's taken Walsh a little longer to cement his status but he's philosophical about that. "It does take a couple years," he says.

"The first thing you have to do is settle down into the squad, find your feet. After that you have to show that you want to work hard. But in fairness, that's what everyone has been doing from day one. We're all working hard as a team and encouraging everyone else at training. That helped me settle in. But I would agree that it's hard to make the switch over.

"You're talking different types of training and different game plans but if you keep the head down and work hard in training, it will pay off. It might take a couple years but it will pay off."

Having been in both camps in recent seasons, Hurney points out that each code presents a dual player with significantly different demands. "The likes of Shane and Liam Lawlor would have had no problem fitting into the hurling dressing room because they have great personalities but physically, the two codes are totally different.

"I came out of the hurling squad earlier this season and really thought I was very fit. Even in my first few football training sessions, I was doing grand. But when it came to the first match or two, I was off the pace. There's just a lot more, running-wise, and you have to be fitter for football. But the boys have negotiated all that and they're key figures on the team now. I'm dead proud of them, to be honest."

Kiely says there may be bigger names on the Waterford hurling team but Walsh offers something different.

"I've been watching him play hurling and football since he was a kid and I've seen him grab vital scores for every team he's played on. I was a selector on the 2002 Waterford minor team that only lost to Gooch Cooper's Kerry by one point, 0-14 to 2-7. Shane got yet another goal of a lifetime that day, he went by two Kerry defenders and hammered home an unstoppable shot.

"One of the Kerry selectors turned to me and said it was worth travelling down to see that alone. It's the same when he's hurling; every time he goes out he's going to do something."

One thing he'd like to improve on, no doubt, is his scoring ratio. He's managed 3-1 in 230 championship minutes thus far, but there's much more in his locker.

He's too unselfish; he should go for more scores himself," Ryan observes. "For me, the point against Cork in the Munster final replay summarised him. He made an unreal catch, turned in the air, hit the ground, rolled over and shot a great score. I'd like to see him do more of that. He's well able to."

There's little doubt about that now.

Sunday Independent

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