Not long after Galway had secured the Connacht title, Kevin Walsh appeared on RTÉ to give a post-match interview to Clare McNamara. The Galway manager holds natural aversion to singling players out from the collective. But he knew that he would be fielding a question about the performance of Shane Walsh.
“Well everyone helped out,” he began before accepting that what everyone had witnessed over the afternoon in Hyde Park was a virtuoso hour.
“Shane is a great talent and he is still a young fella. There is loads expected of him and I think that this guy needs time and bit of space. He has fierce talent and he works really, really hard and I am just delighted that it came off for him today. You know, everything he hit today was good. His passing was good. But it is about a team. The last day it was someone else out there. That’s probably what makes a team . . . that those guys would just push on individually.”
That brief interview perfectly captured the balancing act in which Galway have been engaged all year. Given half a chance, everyone is happy to praise the individual attacking talent, from Damien Comer’s undiluted power game to the nonchalant artistry with which Ian Burke unlocks defences.
They have blistering speed in players like Seán Kelly and Eamonn Brannigan; a veteran, Seán Armstrong providing an understated brand of leadership; and highly-rated young stars like Michael Daly. who may yet have a big impact on this championship.
Walsh, though, has always been regarded as once-in-a-generation special. But for all the individual flair, Galway’s emergence as a top-four contender was predicated on an absolute commitment to the team ethos.
One of the advantages of the defensive system which Galway unveiled over the course of the league was that it fosters the sense of a co-operative: everybody working their socks off; everyone clear about their role and every player supporting the other.
Go back to opening day of the league: a dank Sunday in Tuam stadium and the world not paying all that much attention to Galway’s first top-flight match since 2011. They held Tyrone to 0-3 in the first half partly because of the elements (and errant shooting by the Ulster champions) but also because of a work-rate that would become the trait of their programme.
Even though the day was utterly damp and the pitch heavy, the conditions weren’t enough to prevent Shane Walsh from gliding across the surface and, in the 54th minute, landing one of those sumptuous, long-ranges points on the run which he makes seem effortless.
Nobody who watched Galway regularly was that surprised: in most games, Walsh has a habit of landing a sporadic score of breathtaking technical excellence.
After starring in Galway’s All-Ireland under-21 win in 2013, he was ushered through to the senior ranks the following summer by Alan Mulholland and ended up with both a senior All Star and young footballer of the year nomination. He was on free-taking duties that summer but nonetheless, his returns were prolific with 0-7 in the Connacht final loss to Mayo, 0-5 against Tipperary and the same against Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat. One score against Tipp, when he stunned a long, dropping ball with his right foot, gathered possession with his back to goal and then hooked a left-footed score served as a handy compilation of his instinct and ease on the ball.
His next season was rendered inconsequential, in many ways, after he was involved in a fatal car accident on his way home from a challenge game. In the summer of 2016, in an interview with John Harrington, he reflected on the difficulties of recovering from that traumatic experience and the importance of the Galway squad when he paid a visit to the dressingroom before the 2015 Connacht final.
“They’re such a joy to have with me and it just showed that they’ve been with me through the bad as well as the good times. It nearly brought a tear to my eye going back into the dressingroom afterwards last year before the Mayo game.
“I remember just going in to see how the lads were ready, and it meant the world to me, to be honest, just to be there. Everyone says football is a drag and it takes so much out of your life, but to be honest it just makes so much of mine to be part of a team and to have it shown just how much I mean to them.”
He was back in Croke Park for the 3-12 to 0-11 fourth-round qualifier defeat to Donegal that ended Galway’s summer that year. Since then, Galway have been a work in progress under Kevin Walsh’s management.
Finding a role for Shane Walsh’s range of skills has been one of the tasks. It’s not that simple as Walsh is many things: an exceptional ball carrier with frightening speed, a long stride and terrific balance; a good playmaker, a free-taker and a footballer capable of kicking a brilliant score from nothing. But for all that you rarely saw the kind of scores habitually posted by bracket fillers like Conor McManus or Paul Geaney.
In Galway’s Croke Park championship knock-out games over the past three years, Walsh has fired 0-1 against Donegal, 0-4 from frees against Tipperary and 0-1 from a free against Kerry last summer. That’s partly because he has been one of the most closely guarded Galway players and partly because Walsh himself has never seemed that greedy for scores: he is a team-player trapped in an individualist body.
But 0-8 against Roscommon was the kind of sustained individual display that they have been waiting for in Galway. The manager’s reticence in gilding it was understandable but in any case, there was no need. He had been sensational throughout an awkward afternoon.
In the RTÉ studio, the panellists debated as to whether Galway needed to abandon the system that had made them such a difficult prospect in the league and just return to straight up man-to-man football. Colm Cooper listened keenly to all of this before pointing out that in the years past, Galway had, as he diplomatically put it, been “conceding a lot”. Correcting that was paramount for Galway if they were to achieve anything this year. The emphasis has been on giving nothing away easily: once in possession and on the move, Galway trust themselves.
The contradiction is that the more straitened system may be giving the cavalier Walsh the best opportunity to thrive: the potential to attack at pace is what his game is based on.
After the league, anyone preparing for Galway figured that if you could stop Damien Comer, you went a large way to stopping their attack. It isn’t that simple but Roscommon went a long way to thwarting the target man in the final and there were moments when Galway were in desperate need of someone to step into the void.
Again and again, Walsh provided the inspiration. Sunday brings him full circle: back to face Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final with five years of senior experience behind him. The good news for Galway football is that after that startling arrival, Shane Walsh may just be settling in.