GAA Football

"When you get a football in your hands it's a ball of magic..." Galway magician Shane Walsh looks forward to Armagh battle

Shane Walsh scored 1-6 in Galway Connacht final win over Roscommon at Salthill. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Andy Watters

THE front door would burst open and 30 seconds later the back door slammed as Shane Walsh, just home from school, skipped out with his “ball of magic”.

Yes, he got hungry but he played away and he never got tired.

When darkness fell his mother would go out looking for him.

“That was the nature of me,” says the free-spirited Galway forward.

“The only time I had to go in was if I broke a window at the side of the house kicking ball.”

Peadar Brandon, principal of the Clonberne National School, spotted his talent early on. Walsh was six or seven when Brandon said he needed to start working on his left foot so during games he would award a free to the other team every time the future county captain kicked with his right.

By the time Walsh left Clonberne, he was as good on his left as he was on his right.

“That is what it took,” he says.

“Going out kicking ball, I never saw it as a chore. I never see football as a chore.

“There are chores in the wintertime when you have to go run up a block of fitness but other than that, when you get a football in your hands it’s a ball of magic really.

“It’s what you can do with it. That’s something I have based my game around. People give out to me, especially Padraic (Joyce, Galway manager) that I only come to life when I get the ball. Can you do more off the ball? That is the challenge for me to keep working on. At the same time, I know my strengths. When I am on the ball I know I can make things happen. It is just about continuing to do that for the better of the team.”

Walsh is 29 now and probably at the peak of his powers. He has moved through the gears smoothly in this Championship: 0-5 in the one-point win over Mayo, 0-6 in the Leitrim cakewalk, 1-6 in the Connacht final win against Roscommon… Armagh are next on Sunday and Walsh will be central to their defensive planning.

His goal against the Rossies was a moment of brilliance but Mr Brandon would have given a free out. He dummied on his left to beat a defender, slipped another with his trademark side-step and then cracked the ball low into the net with his right boot.

He takes frees off the ground with both feet as well and it was his next principal, Fr Ollie Hughes at St Jarlath’s, Tuam, who nurtured that ability in him. He practiced the art slavishly and the first time he did it was in a minor championship game for his club. He was 14 at the time.

“Our managers were losing their life because they saw me placing the ball on the ground,” he recalls.

“There was a bit of a wind against me but it was a nice wind, kind from right to left so I thought: ‘Lovely, I'll have a go at this’. Once you kick it over the bar it's like anything, when you score you're a hero and if you miss you're the worst in the world.

“I talk about adding weapons to your armoury, it's just something else I have. Because on a day when I might need it, I'll use it.

“Mum and Dad would be asking me would I be nervous going into the game on Sunday and I'd be like: 'What have I to be nervous about? I've been training the guts of 20 years for this. I've been training all year'. The only way I'd ever be nervous was if I missed training. Because then I'm saying: 'Have I practiced enough'.

“Whereas right now I'm saying: ‘I practice so much, just let me out there’. That's the way I'd be going into a game. It's another game. What's the difference between our first Championship game and the last Championship game?

“To me, it's 70 minutes of football, it's another opposition, let’s go get them.”

He lives and breathes football. A career in the Bank of Ireland was beckoning but his love of sport drew him into PE teaching and he hopes to go into coaching when his playing days come to an end. Obviously he’d like an All-Ireland medal or two to brighten up dull days in retirement.

“There's definitely more of a belief there now,” he says.

“Padraic is a man of belief, he's such a confident man. What he said when he played, he did. He was just an unbelievable footballer and to have that confidence, it shows, and it spreads across the team as well.

“The players see that as well and when you have a manager breathing that confidence into you as well, that helps.”

Joyce’s former adversary Kieran McGeeney has that same belief and drive and it has filtered through to his Armagh players. Sunday’s quarter-final at Croke Park could swing one way, then the other but ultimately the side that truly believes and delivers will hold sway.

“There could be a stage in the quarter-final where we're down at half-time having played well and that's when your belief is tested,” says Walsh.

“You're saying to yourself: ‘We played well, but we've been unlucky’. There could be a goal that goes in off a freak deflection or something like that. It's how we respond to that, that's when your character is tested.

“I think throughout the League we've bounced back in situations that were sticky enough and came through those. Even against Roscommon (in Division Two) we didn't play well on the day and still came back to make a right game of it down the stretch. I think that's the sign of a team and I think we are building that character all the time. Hopefully everyone will see that down the line.”

After the Connacht final manager Joyce described Walsh as one of the best footballers he’d ever seen. High praise indeed.

Walsh produced the goods that day. He drifted out to the half-forward line and let Damien Comer and Rob Finnerty do damage inside and the Pearse Stadium crowd held its breath every time he got the ball in his hands.

“Padraic has always challenged me,” says Walsh.

“That is the nature of it. Padraic sees potential in me, no more than I do.

“I am trying to get the best out of myself every time I go out and play.

“Sometimes it is frustrating when you are not able to get that performance out of you for one reason or another. A lot of the work comes down to what is going on all around the field as well.

“It is easy to heap plaudits on someone who kicks a few frees and happened to get a goal, but at the end of the day, there are lads stopping goals down the other side.

“Some of that work goes unnoticed. I'd hate to be a defender. I don't know why anyone wants to be one. Literally, you could win nine balls out of 10 but the one ball you lose out on that essentially could be the losing of the game. That is the nature of the beast.

Galway manager Joyce was the top scorer in the 2001 All-Ireland Championship, signing off with 10 points against Meath in the final to add a second Celtic Cross to his first in 1998. That 2001 campaign included a Titanic struggle against Armagh in the Qualifiers in which the Tribesmen looked to be cantering home until Armagh produced a thrilling comeback to draw level with time almost up only for Paul Clancy to break Orchard hearts with a last-gasp winner.

“I have huge admiration for Padraic as a player and a manager - he has Galway at the centre of his heart,” says Walsh.

“He wants the best for Galway, he has made that so clear and it is the heart-warming thing for me. He’s Galway to the core. It is nice.

“There is a challenge there every time you go out and it is to try and better yourself. He always says: ‘When you go out leave your best performance for Galway every time you play and improve every day’. If we do that good things can happen for Galway.”

Off he goes and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he has a ball in his hands before too long.

That’s the nature of him.

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