By Niall Gartland
IT’S not quite the end of an era – Conor McManus and Rory Beggan are still plugging away to cite two prominent examples – but there was a sense of wistfulness when it was announced last week that Monaghan defensive duo Colin Walshe and Drew Wylie have called it a day at inter-county level. We caught up with Walshe for a chat about his decision to pull the pin on a long and successful career with the Farney County. A tigerish defender with a underappreciated attacking ability, the Doohamlet man prefers to accentuate the positives from a career that saw him land two Ulster Championship titles, an All-Star and a Sigerson Cup.
NIALL GARTLAND: I imagine retiring wasn’t an easy decision to make, was it something you had mulled over in recent months?
COLIN WALSHE: It was something that came about over Christmas. I finished up with the club last year around September time and between then and Christmas I kept myself ticking over. I was hoping to go again this year. Vinny (Corey) came on board as manager and I’d a chat with him, I’d a decent period of training under my belt and then I picked up a small knock. I thought about things and decided it was possibly a sign that it was the right time to go, so I let Vinny know after the New Year that I was going to call it a day.
NG: Was it particularly difficult given Vinny’s your former teammate and it’s his first year in charge?
CW: That was probably one of the most difficult things about it – feeling I could have given a helping hand as such, even just staying on for another year. But I didn’t feel it would be the right call, I’d been frustrated with how previous years had panned out so I thought it was the right time, especially before the McKenna Cup had kicked off. I thought it was best to make the call early.
NG: Did you make it to the McKenna Cup match last Wednesday night [against Down]?
CW: I did, I’m actually living in Castleblayney so I just walked up to the game. There was a good crowd for the first week of January.
NG: Was it a strange experience watching on as a supporter?
CW: It was in a way, but I’d missed a fair amount of games in the last few years so I’ve already spent a bit of time in the stands. That part of it wasn’t too new to me. But on the outside you have no idea about who’s in and out so that’ll be different.
NG: I assume you’ve made friends for life on the Monaghan team, you soldiered alongside a lot of those stalwarts for more than a decade.
CW: I’m massive friends with some of the players, two of the lads were groomsmen at my wedding. I was on the u-14 development squad with Fintan Kelly and Kieran Hughes, I’m going on 33 now, so you’re talking 19 years ago. It’s a long time ago.
NG: So it’s been part of your life the entire time?
CW: Yeah, my year at u-14 was the first year Monaghan brought in development squads. I was on the initial squad and then let go for a while before being brought back in again at the end of 2004. Then I was on the u-16s and minors so it hasn’t really stopped.
NG: Did it take a while for your career to get going – you’d a couple of tough defeats at club and county level in the early days.
CW: My first year on the senior panel was 2010 and we were beaten by Tyrone in the Ulster final. Séamus McEnaney was manager, he left at the end of that year. We’d two difficult enough years after that, we got relegated from Division One down to Division Three. Malachy O’Rourke came in for 2013 and we kicked on from there, we’d a right bit of success in the first few years under Malachy.
NG: You’d a great rivalry with Donegal in the middle part of that decade and it seemed like Monaghan arguably had the edge on them. Did you enjoy those battles, they seemed to be bruising low-scoring affairs.
CW: Some of them mightn’t have been too exciting to watch but they were definitely tough battles. There’s a good rivalry between the two counties and we’d know each other a bit off the field as well. When you go out on the pitch there’s nothing spared. We did get to know each other pretty well and we were nearly tired of looking at each other, we seemed to meet two or three times a year.
NG: I know there were disappointments on the All-Ireland stage but when you look back on those Ulster final wins [in 2013 and 2015] they were magical days from a Monaghan perspective. You’ll not forget those days for the rest of your life.
CW: Definitely not, growing up we’d seen Monaghan lose various Ulster finals. Looking back on it, winning two Ulster titles was massive and there were great celebrations. We’ve gone seven years since winning one so it’s definitely not something I take for granted.
NG: You captained DIT to their first ever Sigerson Cup in 2013, that was a great accomplishment for yourself.
CW: That was in my final year, we’d a serious team at the time. We’d players from all around the country, that was massive for us, we won the league and championship that year. Our Fresher team won the All-Ireland and then four years on we’d players like Aidan O’Shea, Brian Menton from Meath, Mark Collins from Cork, Darran O’Sullivan, David Givney from Cavan, Tomas O’Connor from Kildare. There were a lot of players who went on to have lengthy inter-county careers, it just happened to be a very strong team that came through at the time.
NG: You won an All-Star in 2013 as well, I know players are modest about individual awards but it’s still nice to have.
CW: It was something that came off the back of a really successful year with Monaghan. It was our breakthrough year. Other lads could have won one, Vinny and Drew were top class against Donegal in the Ulster final. Maybe down the years I’ll cherish it more, at the time I was just hoping we could kick on. The club definitely thought it was a great achievement given there aren’t many All-Stars in Monaghan and it was nice for my family as well.
NG: Do you look back with a few regrets over some of those defeats in big games against Tyrone in Croke Park?
CW: Look, there were a lot of disappointments across the career and you could talk about them for days. We’d a lot of bad defeats where we were big favourites and a couple of bad defeats in Croke Park, especially after winning Ulster. It’s natural to have regrets but that’s the way football is, you have to take the good days when they come. What probably hurt the most is that we were beating Tyrone in league games, home and away, and maybe in the Ulster Championship, and then in Croke Park they got the better of us. It hurt because we had beaten them on other days but weren’t just getting the performance right at Croke Park.
NG: You’ve had a few injury problems the last few seasons?
CW: There were a couple of different injuries. It was never anything too bad that kept me away for too long, it was always a niggle here and a niggle there. With the condensed season of the last few years, the games came thick and fast, if you picked up something you were missing a batch of games and you were chasing your tail.
NG: Did you always play in defence for your club [Doohamlet]? In recent years you kicked quite a few scores for Monaghan.
CW: As a juvenile I always played up front. On the county minor team I was a corner-forward. I slipped back to wing-back and from then I’ve played a lot of club football in the half-back line and sometimes at midfield. I’m going the other way now, I’m playing a bit more in the forwards. I don’t know what’s been behind the change but that’s the way it’s gone.
NG: Do you still plan to play on for the club for another few years?
CW: Definitely, in fairness I’d a very enjoyable club season last year. We didn’t ultimately win anything but I played a lot of matches, we got to a league semi-final. We’d a disappointing championship but we’ve a new development and I’ll give another few years to the club surely.
NG: A bit of a random one here – who was the best player you ever marked?
CW: I’ve always said Conor McManus was my toughest opponent, I came up against him regularly whether at club or at training. He’s one of the toughest players you could ever face, but outside of Monaghan, I’d go for Diarmuid Connolly. I came up against him a few times during my college days and when we were playing Dublin. He was a serious, serious player. He could do everything, I remember him kicking frees off both feet and spraying the ball about the pitch, and he was a serious athlete on top of that.
NG: You’ll have had a good look in the last couple of years at the younger lads coming through, do you think they have the ability to follow in the footsteps of your generation?
CW: Yeah I do, Monaghan’s had decent success at underage level in the last number of years. Making that step up is probably the most difficult thing. When you’re 18 or 19 you’re not as developed physically, you have to put in a number of years hard training, you can’t just slot in. The players have to be patient, to get to that level. It’s very rare that it happens for lads in the first year. There’s plenty of talent there and it’ll be great to follow them in the next few years.
NG: I’m sure you got a sense in recent months and even during your playing days of what Vinny Corey will bring to the table as manager.
CW: Vinny has been in as a selector. He retired in 2019 and came back in as a selector in 2021. He’s great on the training pitch and great in the dressing room. He’s always been the type of player everyone looked up to and listened to. He’s a hugely driven and committed character. He’ll be hoping to get the best out of everyone. Monaghan’s in good hands and he’ll definitely do his best to bring success to the county.
NG: What’s next for you, do you envision going into coaching?
CW: Coaching is something I’ll definitely consider, I’ve a good interest in that side of the game so I could see myself going down that route. I don’t know if I’ll go straight into, this year I’ll probably just focus on the club but in the next few years I’ll likely get involved in coaching.