All-Ireland SFC Final
Ray Silke tells a story about Shane Walsh playing for St Jarlath’s juveniles that shines a light on how, even in childhood, genius carries its blessed to an advanced place.
As he remembers it, St Jarlath’s were maybe a point up against St Mary’s when a stunning slaloming run took Walsh past three defenders before nonchalantly rounding the goalkeeper. Faced with an empty net, he doubled back, soloing around a posse of defenders again before – only then – roofing a venomous finish.
1998 All-Ireland-winning captain Silke was incredulous, upbraiding his star player at half-time.
“Why the hell did you do that?” he asked. Walsh just stared back impassively, replying: “Because I love it!”.
To many, the Kilkerrin-Clonberne man is an exotic bird that cannot be caged. As Silke puts it: “The ball is his playground. Talent-wise, Shane Walsh is – pound for pound – better than any footballer of the ’98 team. He’s outrageous.”
Pádraic Joyce is remembered as the marquee forward of that All-Ireland-winning side and the 2001 team he captained three years later. Michael Donnellan was perhaps the most spectacular, but Joyce was the enforcer, the relentless scoring threat.
In a hierarchy of Galway’s greatest footballers, perhaps only Sean Purcell has the edge. But for 15 years, Joyce’s presence in maroon had an inestimable majesty.
An innately confident figure, the three-time All-Star now runs a thriving recruitment firm, PJ Personnel, but managing Galway has forced him to delegate in a way that perhaps hasn’t come entirely naturally.
Having originally included just two old college friends, John Divilly and John Concannon, in his backroom team, the addition this year of Cian O’Neill and former world boxing champion Bernard Dunne have been seen as pivotal to the team becoming steelier and more street-wise.
Walsh admitted last month that a key metric for the Galway manager this year is work-rate off the ball.
“You only come to life when you get the ball,” Joyce challenged his star man recently. “Can you do more off it?”
For a great ex-player, management can present the twin traps of impatience and hubris.
Famously, Glenn Hoddle was a manager inclined to embarrass his own players in training by depicting them as having less skill and basic football intelligence than he – even in middle age – could deploy.
Former Republic of Ireland international Stephen Kelly, who worked under Hoddle at Spurs, recalled: “I remember in one session Jamie Redknapp and a few guys were taking free-kicks. Glenn Hoddle steps in and says, ‘maybe you should hit them like this!’. He just starts whipping them in the top corner, with both feet! I remember thinking, ‘that’s not the best way to get the players on board’.
“Senior players didn’t like it and weren’t encouraged by it. They felt he was undermining them.”
Hoddle once even told David Beckham that his free-kick technique was sub-standard, yet it takes quite a leap of the imagination to see Joyce undermining Walsh or any other Galway player in such a conceited way.
On the contrary, his management – anecdotally at least – has been empathetic and humble.
Joyce clearly understands that great players don’t arrive with any special licence into management and that he must be careful that the leadership doesn’t become some kind of maudlin love letter to the past.
Christy Ring, broadly acknowledged as the greatest of all hurlers, was seen as someone who sometimes struggled to summon the requisite patience for management of comparably ordinary players.
His first year as a selector with the Cork hurlers in 1974 proved less than successful, with Gerald McCarthy explaining to Tim Horgan for his 2007 biography of Ring: “I think Christy found it a little difficult at first making the transition from star player to county selector.
“He felt a bit remote from the players and the following year, when five people went for four positions on the selection committee, Christy was the one who lost out. It seems hard to believe now, but that’s what happened when it was put to a vote in the county board.”
For all that, there is a reflex collegiality among the greats that can often seem hostile to those on the outside too.
Jack O’Connor, Joyce’s direct opponent tomorrow, clearly felt that way after replacing Páidí Ó Sé for his first run as Kerry manager in late 2003. Believing that he was seen as some kind of unworthy upstart by the marquee figures behind those eight All-Ireland victories between 1975 and 1986, he felt especially disregarded by Mick O’Dwyer.
O’Connor had worked as a selector under Ó Sé in the late 1990s, remembering a challenge game against O’Dwyer’s Kildare in Newbridge. He recalled the Waterville man coming out to welcome Ó Sé, “his prince”, whilst also greeting the other Kerry selectors warmly. But there was no welcome for O’Connor.
“I don’t really care what Micko’s reasons were for snubbing me,” he wrote in his book, Keys to the Kingdom. “He was a neighbour and it shouldn’t have happened. A few years later, when I got the Kerry job, I thought that Mick O’Dwyer, after all he’d won, could have given an old phone call, politely offered some advice over a cup of coffee.
“There was nothing. No goodwill. No word. Not one of the 1970s team or the four-in-a-row men called up. There was just a silence for the poor rustic from Dromid as they waited for him to screw it up.”
Now in his third incarnation as Kerry manager, O’Connor chases his fourth senior All-Ireland crown tomorrow.
He has, in other words, built his own legacy through an era of high flux in the Kingdom. An era where rampant talk about the past often seemed to reflect only an unpromising-looking future.
Far from still seeking some theological approval from the old gods of the county, O’Connor today has the confidence to communicate broad indifference towards them.
Yet confidence is infectious too, and Joyce has it in spades.
Asked on his appointment in 2019 what kind of time-frame he was putting on bringing the Sam Maguire Cup west for the first time since 2001, he assuredly replied: “Hopefully 10 months!”
You can’t presume that players hear the music in a manager’s head but, slowly, the sense has grown that Joyce and Galway now have established clarity between them.
His way will be to arm them with small certainties about tomorrow, but only time can truly answer how real those certainties prove to be.
Because in this specific battle, the old superstar is the outsider.