Tuesday 10 December 2019

IT felt like waking to a world where one of those chiselled chalk faces had been airbrushed from Mount Rushmore's backcloth.

IT felt like waking to a world where one of those chiselled chalk faces had been airbrushed from Mount Rushmore's backcloth.

The hurling topography is forever altered by the exit of the red helmet beneath which lurked a phenomenon; the only man to ever win nine consecutive All Stars.

Tommy Walsh: freakishly athletic, carnivorous, unyielding, majestic, enduring, versatile, hard-bitten; with the airborne grace and the pitiless predatory instinct of an albatross; both a soaring opera and a shatterproof chunk of Tullaroan marble.

And for so long, it seemed, a listed building on the avenue of Kilkenny giants.

Until 2014, when Brian Cody ripped up the preservation order and yet again demolished the notion that one player was untouchable, eternal.

In so many ways the news that Walsh, at just 31, has decommissioned his hurl perhaps says even more about Cody than it does his departing colossus.

Frigid

Once more we are reminded of perhaps the key tool in the Cat chieftain's box: a reptilian indifference to sentiment, a Fergusonian absence of tenderness, a cold-eye judgement devoid of emotion; just blood that flows frigid as an Arctic night.

For Cody (right) could not have survived almost two decades, could not have taken a pickaxe to team after glorious team and yet kept gathering All-Irelands in freckled fistfuls, without making the most brutal, unforgiving Machiavellian pact with himself.

It is to see every player as a utensil, just one more implement in the creation of a stripey kingdom: Dispensable.

Cody will not make friends with a player, any player; he cannot, for it might inhibit him from doing whatever is required, sacrificing whoever must be sacrificed to win.

He can appear cruel; beneath that peaked baseball cap lurks a manager who knows his actions leave him open, at times, to accusations of soullessness.

But that is how it must be.

One man's cruelty is another's rigorous fairness.

Walsh, who could be as ruthless on the field as he was refined, might have quietly seethed at times this summer. But part of him would most probably understand.

For a while it seemed Cody had broken his own first commandment through a growing bond with Henry Shefflin. The latter brought the former's spirit across the tramline, into the battle. But this year even the King was introduced to the gutter.

But it was nothing to how his fellow titan was cast adrift.

Walsh - a nine-time All-Ireland winner, an athlete of impossible finesse and poise, a 5'8" leviathan - was effectively spat out like a ball of phlegm.

Dropped after an indifferent afternoon in the league, an early summer purgatory seemed at an end when he was allowed again to fraternise with the angels against Galway. Walsh excelled that afternoon only to be cut down once more, never seen on active service again.

On one level it seems as preposterous as banning Shakespeare from writing one more sonnet, disregarding all his earlier genius because of one un-dotted i.

Yet Walsh's unrivalled body of work - one acclaimed with All Stars in attack, midfield and defence - counted for nothing in the end.

Tommy played not a solitary second of the 210-plus minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Limerick, or the two finals against Tipperary.

If Shefflin was by now a bit-part player, his one credible rival for greatest performer of the Cody years had been reduced to a nothing, a non-entity.

He and Shefflin were seen on the pitch after the replayed victory, jointly heisting Liam McCarthy to the Hill 16 masses; in his other arm Tommy was cradling his son Finn, Henry Senior had Henry Junior on his shoulders.

Walsh's smile was in no way forced, but the black tracksuit top which had never left his back all afternoon would have devalued the moment.

A compelling argument can be made that his status deserved so much more; that his form had not haemorrhaged to the point where he had become a liability.

Yet the cruellest truth is that - even as Cody chopped and changed his half-back line - Walsh remained of value to him as he sat mute and helpless on the sideline.

Message

Imagine the message it sent to everybody else in the Kilkenny dressing-room to see such a stellar name benched, picture how it keeps the rest on their toes.

Walsh had undoubtedly earned something more, one of the greatest hurlers of all time hardly deserved to be disregarded like a chunk of roadkill.

As outsiders we are blind to what occurred in those famed Nowlan Park training battles; but there was enough in that Galway display to say the reel had not run.

Yet he is gone and Henry is pondering his future.

Soon only Cody will remain; as constant as the oceans.

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