Aidan Walsh’s double life makes for tough going

Kanturk man is one of three Cork players attempting the impossible, to be a dual hurling and football star in the modern game

Cork’s Aidan Walsh in his hurley-making workshop in Kanturek, Co Cork. Photo: Larry Cummins/Evening Echo

Cork’s Aidan Walsh in his hurley-making workshop in Kanturek, Co Cork. Photo: Larry Cummins/Evening Echo

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

The dual player needs fuel. Aidan Walsh rises to a haystack of muesli with fruit, honey and coconut followed by eggs and beans. Before bedtime, he’ll have put away four more square meals, lorrying back 200g of protein alone. Very often, that’s two steaks for lunch and a couple of gluten-free burgers for dinner, all topped up with protein shakes along the way.

The dual player needs time. Walsh was 24 last month and the reason he’s had to wait till now to have a go at playing football and hurling for Cork is that for all the gifts God gave him, an ability to stretch out a clock’s circumference didn’t make the list.

So if time wasn’t going to expand, then the amount he tried to fit into it needed to contract. College is done, living in Dublin is done, all that’s left to detain and distract is his hurley-making business out in the back garden. His own boss. A 15-second commute. No clock to punch. No suit to please.

The dual player needs to practice. He’s been a senior intercounty footballer for five years. He’s been a senior intercounty hurler for a fortnight. There is some catching up to do.

He’ll start each morning in his workshop but hurley-making isn’t the most varied or stimulating work in the world and invariably after a couple of hours he’ll down tools and head out to the wall for an hour. Hurley. Sliotar. Wall. Right side. Left side. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. An hour a day, every day. Those are the terms and conditions.

“I know going in that it’s going to be difficult,” he says. “I knew even before the start of the season that it was going to be difficult even just to play hurling at that level, not to mind playing football along with it. I would see it playing with my club. If you take the lads on the Cork panel when they come back, you can see that their touch is so much better, they do things so much easier than everyone else.

Fierce level
“Take that to intercounty then and everyone else on the pitch is at that level. That’s the sort of thing that would have me worried, you know? I have that ground to make up on everyone. I’m watching the best hurlers in Ireland and going, ‘Jesus, that’s a fierce level to get up to’.

“But I see it as a challenge. A lot of people said I couldn’t do it. A lot of people said that the day of the dual player is gone. So all the time you have that in the back of your head. You’re going, ‘I want to prove these people wrong’. It can be done if you put the effort in.”

The planets had to align. He was supposed to be back in DCU but he failed an exam last summer so it went on the long finger and he moved home to Kanturk. Each of the previous three winters he was either in Dublin or Australia; this time around he was in Cork loading up on pre-season training.

Conor Counihan was never keen on the idea of him playing both but all it took was one conversation with Brian Cuthbert and the new man said he’d back him all the way. And not only had Jimmy Barry-Murphy always been a fan, he was the one Cork hurling manager who was hardly likely to take a dim view of trying to do both.

“The only way it can work is if the managers get along and they have an open mind,” says Walsh. “I’m very lucky that way. They met early and they sorted out what matches I’m playing in the league. So I know already what matches I’m down for in football and what ones I’m down for in hurling. They decide it and then I get told.”

His spring is plotted out in week-long blocks. Instead of one night with the hurlers and the next with the footballers, he moves between them for more substantial periods. He played the first football league game against Westmeath and then went to the hurlers for two weeks, ending with their league opener against Limerick.

Then it was back to the footballers for a fortnight for tonight’s visit to Croke Park. Next week it’s hurling, so he’ll play in the second game of tomorrow week’s double-header in Páirc Uí Rinn. The week after is football, so he’ll go to Mayo while the hurlers are up north playing Antrim.

Dizzying? Sometimes. Tiring? Most of the time. But nobody has a gun to his head and indeed maybe the only person who really wants him to do it is Walsh himself. Friends and family advised against it. Yet what can you do when something itches at you only scratch it? The thought of looking back in 20 years regretting not having tried to find a way was too much to bear.

He has always hurled. He was wing-back on the last Cork minor team to win a Munster championship back in 2008. Famously, he gave a virtuoso display at wing-forward in the Munster under-21 final three years later, scoring eight points from play. Up until a fortnight ago, that was the last time he’d hurled for Cork. And didn’t he know it.

Not realistic
“The last day playing against Limerick, I felt there was a lot of expectation because it had been so long. I was sick of living off that under-21 game. It was understandable I suppose because people hadn’t seen me play in the meantime but I was tired of it too. I know myself that I have to do something else now.

“And as well as that, there’s this expectation that it’s going to be like that every time I play a game of hurling and it’s just not realistic. That’s just life. You could play an unbelievable football game and then go out the next day and you can’t kick a ball straight to save your life. That’s just the way it is.”

The push-and-pull between codes was a constant throughout his teens. The year he was a minor, he played for 18 different teams. “Actually, it might be 19,” he says. “I can’t remember exactly.”

It’s pretty tawdry all round when you think about it. Walsh was a commodity back then, horse-traded by mentors concerned only with their own results and protected from himself by nobody. That his body held up through it all makes him a medical marvel.

“I was the kind of fella who didn’t want people to be giving out about me. I tried to keep everyone happy. The physio of the Cork minors at the time was appalled really. He just said this was crazy, that it was going to lead to injury somewhere along the way. Touch wood, it hasn’t.

“But I knew it was wrong as well. I just couldn’t say no to people. I’ve learned since then that it’s important to say no and I’ve probably fallen out with a couple of people over not being able to play for them. But it’s only for my own good.

“You look at the amount of hip injuries and cruciates that are going on and it makes you make sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself. I’ve seen lads get bad injuries and they’re by themselves when they try to recover. There’s no fellas with them. That’s what will happen at the end of the day. There’ll be no fellas ringing you or texting you or hanging around you if something bad ever did happen to you. Guys have learned that the hard way.”

For now, he’s fit and strong and ready for whatever’s coming. Covering every blade for the footballers tonight against Dublin. Fighting for puck-outs next Sunday against Offaly. Stride for stride with Aidan O’Shea in Castlebar the following week. Switching his brain from one to the other as best he can.

Fatal compromise
For now, he works out of the same gearbag but he reckons if the hurlers keep him around for the summer, he might have to split his stuff between two because their official bag is sometimes a different colour. It’s the little things.

No, it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for Eoin Cadogan or Damien Cahalane either. But they’re giving it a go, attempting what looks at worst an impossibility and at best a fatal compromise. However well they manage it, it stands to reason that neither of Cork’s teams will see the best of them this year.

“Yeah, that’s obvious,” he concedes. “You’re never going to be – or, well, it’s going to be very hard to be at 100 per cent in both sports. It’s a matter of trying to play the best you can at both.”

The dual player is a throwback. A relic. He shouldn’t be possible in an era of back-door championships and marginal gains and fight-for-that-inch paranoia. Maybe he isn’t.

Can’t fault him for trying, though. Better to regret what you did than wonder at what you could have done.