Shane Walsh is wearing shorts. When he steps in from the biting cold of a sharp January afternoon in Dublin, it’s the first thing that hits you, just before the arctic draught.
As you frantically try to hide a thermal trapper hat, battery-powered hand warmer and oversized fleece scarf beneath the table, he glides over still looking like a boy of summer. But then the sun has yet to set on the most extraordinary and taxing season of his career. Having waited his entire life to play in a senior All-Ireland final, on Sunday Walsh contests his second in six months.
Most weekdays he works in Loreto Abbey, Dalkey, an all-girls secondary school on Dublin’s southside where he is currently on teaching practice. But he is spending today finishing assignments as part of his BA in Physical Education at Portobello Institute.
[ Shane Walsh going baggage-free as Crokes reach another football final showdown ]
He’s 29 now and having worked in the banking sector for many years, during Covid lockdowns he decided on a career change. So here he is, starting out again, carving a new path.
Only, the path he chose wasn’t to everybody’s predilection. When word emerged last August that he was transferring from Kilkerrin/Clonberne to Kilmacud Crokes, he became an unwitting shareholder in the rural-urban debate. Moving from rural clubs to city sides is a particular bête noire among some GAA folk.
“We are going to fight this all the way,” commented then Kilkerrin/Clonberne chairman Ian Hynes last August.
In the end, they didn’t. The Walsh family are steeped in the club and community in north Galway. What’s the point digging trenches for a fight that would only throw up losers and resentment.
Mainly, the messages he got were supportive. Most people understood, so the fallout didn’t bother him much. But it wasn’t the easiest period for his parents.
“It would have been hard for them initially because that is where we have been living all our lives,” says Walsh.
“There were some people who didn’t want to see me going, everybody reacts differently, you can’t tell somebody how to react. Sometimes people can speak rashly, and it mightn’t come out the best. Thankfully, a lot of that has settled now at home.”
All the while, up in the capital Walsh settled in nicely to his new surroundings. On Kilmacud’s way to Sunday’s All-Ireland senior club final he has scored 0-36.
Last weekend he watched David Clifford win the junior title. In July, the pair served up one of the greatest shootouts in All-Ireland final history, Walsh with 0-9, Clifford 0-8. Each score seemingly outdoing the previous one, like a pair of powerlifters continuously challenging the other to heave more and more iron on the bar until there was none left. They delivered a masterclass on the biggest stage.
Both walked off with plaudits, but Clifford walked off with the silverware.
Walsh was reluctant to watch the game back. Until Christmas Day. And then he watched it twice.
“It was like a Christmas present to myself,” he jokes wryly.
“Those last 10 minutes, I could barely keep my eyes open. It was tough because you know how it all turns out. It’s like the worst storyline and you have been let in on the ending.”
Kilmacud couldn’t have been more welcoming to me, they are a great club. But most people realise that this is just for now, the time will come when I’ll be back in Galway again.— Shane Walsh
If the first viewing was merely to rejog his memory, the second sitting was more analytical and critical. Fuel for the hurt locker. He reckons Galway ball-handling errors and failure to execute some basic skills might have contributed to around eight Kerry scores.
But there was one moment that particularly gnawed. With just over 15 minutes remaining, and Galway trailing by a point, they burst through the middle with possession. They had three men over to the left of the play, but the final offload went to the right and ultimately the ball was kicked wide. Clutch decisions. The difference makers.
“I think it will forever be ingrained in me,” he says, recalling that sweeping move. “It was a goal chance. If the ball went left and not right, we had a 3 v 1 situation. But the ball went right.
“It reminded me of The Fast and the Furious, Paul Walker going the other way. That was a chance, but the ball went the other way.”
For somebody who grew up in the country, Walsh is Gaelic football’s ultimate street player – full of tricks and dinks and an uncanny ability to shimmy his way out of any jam. There is stardust in his jet-heeled boots. He is the most two-footed player in the game, once remarking, without a trace of pomposity, that he didn’t know which was his weaker foot.
In an ever more structured game, Walsh remains an antidote. Within the confines of team systems, he still somehow manages to play football the way kids dream it up in back yards. It is impossible to look at his point against Tipperary in 2014 and not smile. He’s a master of improvisation.
But his display in the All-Ireland final elevated him in the national consciousness. Had the transfer happened at any other stage during his Galway career, it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed but it certainly wouldn’t have generated the same reaction.
“I remember we played Thomas Davis,” he recalls. “And I was preparing to take a free when one of their lads came over to me, roughed up the ground where I was going to kick from and told me where to go.”
Which, of course, was to f**k off back to Galway. Walsh nailed the kick.
He got plenty of it during the Dublin final against Na Fianna too, including a nasty stamp on the side of his head that required stitches to his ear.
Of the 30-man Kilmacud panel listed for the All-Ireland semi-final, Walsh was the only player not to have grown up in the area or come through the club’s underage system.
In Walsh’s first start for Crokes, Paul Mannion suffered an ankle injury and has not played since. One can only imagine the wizardry the pair might have conjured up together over the last few months.
“Paul is like a serial assassin when he’s in around goal,” adds Walsh. “We were trying to build that chemistry but unfortunately we didn’t really get the opportunity to try it out. Hopefully we will get more chances.”
He has been over in Mannion’s house watching Premier League games. And gone out to support some of the club’s other teams. He’s mucked in around the place. Got to know people. Feels part of it all.
In the absence of Mannion, he has become the fulcrum of the Kilmacud attack, operating nominally from the centre forward position. He’s like a high-scoring quarterback, stringing out passes and slinging over points. He’s still waiting for his first Kilmacud goal, though.
Before joining Crokes he had never won a county title. Kilkerrin/Clonberne lost Galway intermediate finals in 2016 and 2020.
But a semi-final defeat to Claregalway in 2017 left the biggest scars. With the game level deep in injury-time, Walsh had a 45 to win the game.
[ Ciarán Murphy: Shane Walsh transfer tug-of-war is a well-worn tale ]
“I was waiting for the ball to come out and when I got it I went through the same routine I had been doing all day.”
He struck it over the black spot, but just before he had connected with the ball the referee blew for time wasting. Draw match. Kilkerrin lost the replay.
“That was the toughest one to take,” he recalls.
“It probably broke me to a certain degree as well, trying to win something at home with the club. We came close so many times.”
If he could write how the script plays out from here, Crokes will win on Sunday and when he eventually returns home he will help Kilkerrin/Clonberne claim a Galway intermediate championship.
“Kilmacud couldn’t have been more welcoming to me, they are a great club” he says. “But most people realise that this is just for now, the time will come when I’ll be back in Galway again.
“The club at home is something we all love. Moving to Dublin was never a case of saying goodbye. When my circumstances are different, the plan was always to go back to play there, that hasn’t changed.”
His sister, Aisling, won an All-Ireland club senior football title with Kilkerrin/Clonberne in 2021. Something she has no problem reminding her little brother about. His sole All-Ireland is an under-21 with Galway in 2013.
Walsh’s entire family will be at Croke Park, his parents have been at every game so far, just as they have been throughout his career. They are his pillars. In his kitbag he might even throw in some piece of gear with the Kilkerrin/Clonberne crest.
Either way, when the final whistle sounds against Glen, one of the longest seasons of his career will be over. He intends to take a break and will miss the opening rounds of Galway’s league campaign. But it will probably be no harm, he’ll return refreshed and ready to chase down another All-Ireland goal.
On the pitch after that final last July, he shook hands with Clifford.
“I think I said to him, ‘I could begrudge a lot of people, but I couldn’t begrudge you,’” recalls Walsh. Game recognises game.
“It’s very easy to admire talent and David has that, obviously. You look at it over the years, even the likes of Lee Keegan retiring recently, you hate seeing players not having won what their talent deserved.”
As he gets up from the table, he is clearly the only person in the cafe expecting Spring. He stands out. But then that’s what he has been doing for his entire career. Lately more than ever.
On Sunday, in the colours of Kilmacud Crokes, Shane Walsh gets another shot at finally lassoing an All-Ireland senior title his talent deserves.
That’s the long and short of it.