THE BROAD SMILE was there for all to see, even if the owner still had a look of disbelief in his eyes.
Given all the celebrations going on around him you could forgive Walter Walsh if he seemed staggered by what had just happened.
Catapulted into Kilkenny’s starting line-up for Sunday’s All-Ireland final replay, the Tullogher-Rosbercon man was blown away by his dream debut for Brian Cody’s Cats.
“It still feels like a dream,” he beamed as we spoke in the midst of a dressing-room in full celebratory mode. “It’s the best feeling in the world, but it’ll take a while to come to terms with it.”
In what felt like the blink of an eye, Walsh suddenly became the centre of attention in the GAA world. Less than 48 hours earlier Walsh had been part of the Kilkenny panel - for the drawn final he wore 24 on his back. Fast-forward to Sunday and that shirt had been upgraded to 14 and the role of full-forward in an All-Ireland final. His day got even better, as Walsh trooped back into the dressing-room with the Liam MacCarthy Cup, a personal haul of 1-3 and the Man of the Match award - not a bad day’s work for the 21-year-old.
Brian Cody sprang a few surprises when he named his team on Friday evening - even Walsh himself was caught on the hop!
“I didn’t know I was starting until we had our team meeting on Friday,” he said. “I got some shock when the chart with all the players’ names was flipped over and I saw I was at 14.
“The boys told me that I would be ready for it, that I had been going well in training,” he added. “Players like David Herity and Henry Shefflin had a good word for me about starting. They really helped get me ready for the game.”
Winning the All-Ireland final caps the end of a remarkable year for Walsh. Not only has he won a senior All-Ireland, he also completed the rare feat of representing the county at three grades, having already played for the under-21s and intermediates (he won Leinster titles with both).
“I’m just delighted to get the chance to play with any Kilkenny team,” he said. “It’s a privilege and an honour to represent the county. It’s just a great feeling to get on this side too.”
Naturally, the newcomer had some butterflies as he prepared to take the field for Sunday’s replay with Galway.
“I was very nervous before the start of the game but the players spoke to me and told me to treat it like just another match,” he said. “They told me to do what I always do and to work hard.
“The main thing was to keep working,” he added. “We did that - that’s why we got the result that we did.”
It’s one thing to put in the work when in training. Something else when you have to do it in front of more than 80,000 screaming people!
“The noise was overwhelming,” Walsh admitted. “It was so tough out on the field. In training you’d be used to hearing the lads calling for the ball or shouting, but in the final you just couldn’t hear players even when they were five yards away. The lads had warned me about that, but it still took some time to get used to.”
Keen to bed into the game, Walsh was determined to get his first touch, but had to get to grips with the fast-paced action.
“It was the quickest game I’ve ever played,” he said. “I dropped the first few balls that came in - I was trying to get them into my hand. The ball was in and out so fast but I tried to keep working hard. Thankfully I got a few scores early on, which helped me through the game.
First senior point
“The first score really settled me down,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘I can score more’ and hoping that we’d go on and do the job. It was great to see the ball go over the bar for that first point - it was my first score ever with the Kilkenny seniors. It was a nice feeling, but I was quickly looking forward to getting the next ball.”
Galway may have scored two goals in the first half, but Kilkenny hit back with a burst of scores - that, the 6’4” forward reckoned, was a key element in their victory.
“The lads really stepped up after Galway got their goals,” he said. “Maybe we panicked a little the last day when they scored their goals, but this time we were prepared for it and drove on. After Richie Power’s goal we continued to catch some great ball, with the likes of Richie Hogan and Henry tipping over scores.
“We drove on in the second half and got a few crucial scores,” he added. “Galway came at us and got the gap down to four points but we worked hard again after that and pushed on.”
Walsh all but helped put the ribbons on the trophy when he grabbed Kilkenny’s second goal in the 58th minute, sweeping the sliotar home after T.J. Reid’s shot was stopped by sub-goalkeeper Fergal Flannery. Staring at a gaping goal in front of thousands of Kilkenny fans on Hill 16, what went through his mind?
“Just hit it!” he smiled. “The sliotar was right there - it bounced up nicely in front of me. I hadn’t much to do but clip it in. As long as I made good contact with it I knew it would go in. There was a lot of noise coming from the Hill at that stage, so it was nice to celebrate in front of them - I’m still coming to terms with it.”
Walsh was still buzzing after playing his part in all the post-match celebrations with his team-mates.
“It feels so surreal,” he admitted. “After the match the celebrations were brilliant. Doing that lap of honour was such an experience. I’m delighted to be part of this team.”
For most young hurling fans in Kilkenny, getting to play in an All-Ireland with the Cats is a burning ambition. Walsh has now realised that - not bad for a debut.
“This is what I’ve always dreamed of - to play hurling for Kilkenny,” he said. “Hurling with the greats like Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and J.J. Delaney is a privilege. I’ve looked up to these players since I started playing the game. These are my role models - to be on the same field as them is an incredible honour.”