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A jazz musician among the set dancers

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After a few false dawns and plenty of disappointments, 2022 could be the year Galway firmly establishes itself among Gaelic football’s elite for the first time in two decades.

As a result, Kilkerrin-Clonberne maestro Shane Walsh, a man described by his manager as ‘one of the finest footballers I’ve ever seen play’, could flaunt his considerable wares on the game’s biggest stage. .

Walsh has long been recognized as one of the most gifted footballers in the game, a two-footed wizard and the owner of Gaelic football’s most confusing sidestep.

In an increasingly choreographed sport, Walsh is a player apart – a jazz musician among the fixed dancers. If he is in tune tonight, Galway’s chances of overtaking Derry will increase significantly.

Inevitably, this sometimes leads him to be out of step with his teammates.

Running hand-in-hand with his instinctual skills is a propensity for the odd cerebral fart, most notoriously witnessed in the crucial final seconds of normal time against Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final, when he sprayed an absurd Hollywood cross ball into the clutches of Justin Kieran. after several far more cautious options presented themselves. The Ulster side had one last chance out on the pitch, from which they manufactured the equalizer to force an extra 20 minutes.

Galway supporters, so often elated by Walsh over the years, had their heads in their hands at the time (literally in many cases). And yet, Walsh managed to ignore the situation, surviving a bout of cramps in extra time before scoring the opening penalty of the shootout.

Walsh in a signature kick pose against Roscommon

For you take the rough with the smooth with Walsh – and the good of his spectacular attacking ability far outweighs the harm of his intermittent decision-making faux pas.

While he still sometimes looks and has the enthusiasm of a brash young player, Walsh has been around for a long time and turned 29 last month.

He made his senior league debut on perhaps the most heartbreaking day in Galway football history – being introduced as a first-half substitute in that infamous 17-point mayhem at the hands of a ravenous side from Mayo to Salthill in 2013.

Galway football had been adrift in mediocrity for several years before, usually exiting the Championship on a July evening after an abject one-point loss to a mediocre side. The jolt of that 2013 defeat, a humiliating knockdown against their oldest rivals, played live on national television, may have served to wake them from their slumber. The bottom was reached. For the most part, they have followed an upward curve ever since.

Their rise has been uneven in the years since but, through it all, Walsh has been their brightest talent, the most feared member of their advanced arsenal.

In 2014, Galway returned to the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time in six years, Walsh decorating the last 12 win over Tipperary with a viral first-half score, controlling a 45 undercut with his in-step. , football style, then swinging on a point on the pivot.

YouTube is home to a few compilation videos featuring his finest moments, marred – as is apparently obligatory with these productions – by irritating musical choices.

With his acceleration, stylish elegance, ability to solo the ball at full throttle, side step and majestic finishing, Walsh looks at his best like a glorious amalgamation of Michael Donnellon and his manager Padraic Joyce.

Typical of Walsh’s approach is his free-grip attitude, where he switches between hand or ground kicks solely based on how he feels at the moment.

“I play on my gut,” Walsh told GAA.ie’s John Harrington in an insightful interview in June. “So if I feel like a ball should come out of the deck, it comes out of the deck. If I think it should come out of my hands, it comes out of my hands.”

Like Maurice Fitzgerald, he is known for hitting free kicks with the right and left. Walsh credited his elementary school principal Peadar Brandon with forcing him to strengthen his left side.

“He would give me about three or four weeks and when that block would come he would say I wasn’t allowed to kick a straight kick and it would be a free kick against me every time I did it,” he said. Walsh told the GAA website. “I like challenges, I like when people challenge me.”

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the individual awards eluded him. Galway, under the relentless stewardship of Kevin Walsh, left their early 2010s sluggishness behind to win a few Connacht titles in 2016 and 2018.

There was a perception – disputed by the manager – that the elder Walsh had sought to force his mercurial striker into compliance, forcing him to become another cog in a defensive system. Walsh (the player) scored just one point in four games in the quarter-final race in 2016.

In 2018, as Galway reached the All-Ireland semi-final, winning 11 of 15 league and championship games, Walsh was a much more lively and expressive presence, scoring 1-32 on aggregate, largely thanks to play .

His manager was adamant he should have been honored by All-Star selectors that year – Ian Burke of Corofin, in 2018, is still Galway football’s only All-Star of the last 18 years.

Despite protests from the previous manager, the perception was that Padraic Joyce was more inclined to let Walsh be Walsh.

Padraic Joyce described Walsh as ‘one of the best footballers I’ve seen play’

In the 2020 Connacht final behind closed doors, a long-haired Walsh, now wearing an Alice band, was at his most characteristic, alternating between brilliant and frustrating.

As Galway struggled in a scrappy encounter, he slid down the left wing and kicked in two sensational runs, carbon copies of each other. Late in the game, however, he was overambitious from set balls, pushing two sideline efforts off the post and his side were trailed by one.

The following year, he was singled out for brutal attention.

After shaking the net early in Croke Park’s provincial decider against Mayo, he burned through the opposing defense for pace on the outside, feeding Damien Comer for the second. Within minutes he was thrown to the ground following a fight with Padraig O’Hora (how it started is disputed) and was turned into a virtual passenger for the rest of the afternoon, with Galway falling limply in the second. half.

He was also dragged into an MMA-style fight late against Armagh two weeks ago.

Those irritants aside, 2022 has already been a bumper year for Walsh and Galway and he delivered perhaps his most electrifying Championship display yet on the county stage in Connacht’s final against Roscommon.

A first All-Star award will surely be in sight if he lights up Saturday’s semifinal. One advantage for Walsh is that he is very, very far from a one-man squad, but rather a key part of a magnificent Galway attacking set of Damien Comer, Rob Finnerty, Paul Conroy et al.

“In my mind he’s probably the most skilled player in Ireland,” his former manager Kevin Walsh said on the Irish Examiner GAA podcast this week. “Shane loves his football, he never gives up on football. It’s football, football, football. And he’s so skilled you don’t want to take that flair away from him because he has it. He can make things happen.

“But the challenge for him and Galway – and it will be a bigger challenge for him than anyone else – is if he is starved for the ball or is sidelined all day and that doesn’t happen for him, he has to have the patience to be a team player and to make sure the ball isn’t kicked stupidly or sabotaged and just take the punishment.”

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