Ireland Correspondent: Saints’ new Irishman likened to big Cat

By Peter Lenaghan

The speculation chased Tommy Walsh for the best part of two years, across Ireland, all the way to Australia and back home to County Kerry. Each month a story would appear in the Irish press and headlines would declare that the imposing and gifted youngster was “considering a deal” or “on the verge of signing an AFL contract” or turning his back on the riches on offer Down Under and “pledging his future to Kerry”.

The saga was beamed into Irish lounge rooms this year as part of an RTE Television documentary looking at the AFL player manager, Ricky Nixon, and his efforts to plunder the Gaelic Athletic Association’s best young talent. Walsh was spirited out of Ireland for a trial with St Kilda in December last year. It was a huge coup for Nixon to ship the young gun to Australia, but in the end Walsh opted to return home for the 2009 GAA championship.

Glory beckoned for the man voted the GAA’s best young player in 2008. Walsh, much like his Kerry team, improved as the season progressed and his form peaked on All-Ireland final day in Dublin. He kicked brilliant, crucial scores as the Kingdom defeated Cork and claimed its fifth football title for the decade. Walsh climbed into Croke Park’s Hogan Stand and he and his younger brother, Barry John, lifted the Sam Maguire trophy together.

Within weeks, Tommy Walsh was a Saint. This time the newspaper reports were fact – the 21-year-old had signed a two-year International Rookie contract to play in the AFL with St Kilda. In Australia, Mark Robinson wrote in the Herald-Sun that Walsh was “comparable in excitement to the AFL’s Buddy Franklin” and quoted Ricky Nixon as saying the Irishman was “built like Wayne Carey”. Earlier this year, I studied Walsh’s bulging biceps, chiselled jaw and blond, flat-top hair cut and concluded that he resembled Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

But for St Kilda fans wondering what to expect, perhaps the best comparison to draw is with another blossoming tyro who also collected silverware in September – Geelong’s Tom Hawkins. The young men share similar physiques, talents, weaknesses and reputations. Each has had to deal with the weight of enormous expectations, but neither is believed to have fulfilled their seemingly limitless potential. The breeding is also of the highest quality in each case. Walsh’s father, Sean, collected a swag of All-Ireland medals with Kerry in the 1970s and ’80s. If young Tommy can learn to deal with the oval ball’s vagaries and force his way in to the St Kilda side he can add further power to the Saints’ already formidable attack.

Back at home, the reaction to Walsh’s move was less outraged than might be expected. Kerry’s manager, Jack O’Connor, told the Irish press that Walsh’s defection to the AFL was a “huge blow” to his team. Writing in the Irish Times, Tom Humphries argued that the loss of players to Australia was not a big problem for the GAA because most of them would eventually return home. “They came back as stronger, more rounded athletes,” Humphries wrote of more than a dozen GAA footballers who had tried their hands at Aussie rules. “They all decorate the inter-county scene. Is this not a triumph for the GAA and the sense of place which is part of a GAA man’s DNA?”

In the Irish Independent, Eugene McGee spotted an opportunity for Irish officials and suggested some sort of transfer fee should change hands between the AFL and the GAA, as happens in soccer circles, “thereby ensuring that when one of the major AFL clubs signs an Irish player, there would be a substantial contribution towards that player’s home GAA club?”

A reporter at the Irish Independent, Colm Keys, drew on the experience of another of Kerry’s favourite sons to warn how tough the move Down Under can be. The direct quote from a newly released book used in Keys’ story read: “Each night I would cry myself to sleep. I would hide in my room and ask myself over and over again, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

The quote’s author was the former Sydney Swan, Tadhg Kennelly, recalling his early days in Australia as a 19-year-old. But it would be another stanza from the All-Ireland and AFL champion’s autobiography that would become the biggest GAA story so far this autumn in Ireland.

Tadhg Kennelly should have been sent off in the opening minute of this year’s All-Ireland football final. As the referee threw the ball in to start the match, Kennelly dashed off Kerry’s half-forward line, tucked in his elbow and dealt out a vicious, high bump to Cork’s Nicholas Murphy. The Rebels midfielder escaped serious injury, but Kennelly should have played no further part in the match.

A few weeks later, Kennelly’s recollection of the incident, as retold by his autobiography’s ghost writer, Scott Gullan, was reported in Ireland’s Sunday Independent newspaper. “My eyes were almost rolling around in the back of my head,” the extract from Kennelly’s book said. “I was like a raging bull.” Kennelly noted that he had timed the premeditated bump on Murphy right and caught his opponent “perfectly on the chin”. The newspaper then wrote that Kennelly’s message to Cork was: “Cop that, it’s different this time, boys.”

The passage sparked an immediate furore in Ireland. The Kingdom’s manager, Jack O’Connor, told reporters that Kennelly’s comments “were not the Kerry way”. Kennelly was forced to clarify the book, saying that he never intended to injure anyone. He also admitted that he had not proof-read the final text of the book before it was published, and that he should never have allowed the incident to be described in such fashion. “This is the worst few days since my dad died,” Kennelly said in a statement. “I desperately wanted to win an All-Ireland for him, not for me… I wouldn’t go out to deliberately do anything to sully his memory or the good name of Kerry football. And I never have. I’m not that type of footballer.”

Compounding a difficult few weeks for Kennelly has been continuing speculation about his potential return to the AFL. In the wake of the All-Ireland win, Kennelly told the Irish press he was likely to stay with Kerry. He then retracted that comment, saying in his autobiography that he was only telling the Irish press what it wanted to hear. The Irish Examiner reported this week that the 28-year-old had “intimated to a couple of close friends in the Kerry set-up that he won’t be around next season”. Paul Roos reportedly said, as he has reportedly said a dozen times or more, that Kennelly is welcome back at the Swans and that the decision is in Tadhg’s hands.

With his future still up in the air, Kennelly is due to fly to Australia next week to promote his new book, Unfinished Business. Time is running out for the Kerryman to decide if his next chapters will be written in Ireland or in Sydney. A decision has to be made in the next few weeks. May the speculation continue.


  1. Great article Pete,
    The word from Morabbin is that he is earmarked for early games and very impressive.Certainly hope he turns out much better than “puppy fat ” Hawkins as it would be hardly worth the effort if he didn’t.I’m interested to hear the stories about Kennely and his efforts early in the final game and must admit I am not one bit surprised given his education under Paul Roos,an expert in many ways to win a game of football (or not winning)including tunnelling,extra men on the ground etc etc.So a solid bump off the ball should be no surprise (except to the unsuspecting recipient.I know it is not the Irish way (but I guess it is now)

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