“Drugs ban was the start of my turnaround” – Craig Walsh opens up to Between the Stripes.
Having risen to prominence on Sky’s inaugural edition of ‘Footballs next top star’, Craig Walsh has had a more dramatic career than most players his age in Irish football. The twenty-five-year old midfielder has already represented five different League of Ireland clubs, four of those been based in Walsh’s native Dublin, with a loan spell and a permanent stint at Longford Town in between. Walsh arrived at Flancare Park, as it was then called, thanks to the Shamrock Rovers connections still held by then Town boss and former “Hoops” striker Tony Cousins. The third placed contestant on ‘Footballs next top star’ had found first-team chances hard to come by with the Tallaght club and as a result he was shipped out to the Midlands in order to gain some much needed senior experience. Walsh went on to make eight first team appearances for “De Town” in the second half of that 2010 season, doing enough to earn himself a permanent move to the First Division side. While the 2011 season was a modest one for Longford, who eventually finished 6th (out of 12), Walsh had his best season in terms of first-team minutes as the Dubliner played twenty-four times. However, 2012 would prove to be Walsh’s final one in the Red and Black of Longford as he played only six times under the guidance of Tony Cousins, who left Walsh out of the squad totally for the First Division play-off final defeat against Waterford United. That was an experience that left Walsh deeply scarred.
“I enjoyed the 2011 season, I played a bit and got a few goals too. I was confident going into the 2012 season but in pre-season I broke my metatarsal and was out for a while. Coming back Tony brought in few Monaghan lads and there was other experienced lads in front of me. The play offs was a disappointment, me and Tony had different views when I asked why I wasn't getting much of a look in, unfortunately that happens in football but I'm grateful to Tony giving me a chance playing for Longford which was my first real run of games playing senior football.”
Despite that set back in a fledgling career, Walsh soon found a new home at the UCD Bowl with first-team minutes and impressive performances aplenty. Some long range wonder goals and back to back man of the match performances against former club Shamrock Rovers grew Walsh’s stock and it wasn’t long before one of the Capital’s big boys once again came calling. Then Bohemians manager Owen Heary signalled his intent to sign the craft midfield player, who had no qualms about joining the “Gypsies” despite his previous Rovers ties.
“UCD was great; everything about the place was brilliant. I bought straight into what it was about and Martin was great to me, I got on great with the lads too. I had a few offers (at the end of the season) but Owen Heary had good plans for the season ahead and I liked what I heard. The Rovers thing never came into question as “Bohs” are as big as them and I was looking after what was best for me.”
Similar to his spell with Longford, Walsh enjoyed regular game-time but a mid-table finish was far from the heights the Dalymount Park faithful were familiar with. As a result Walsh was one of a raft of players to leave the club and having travelled away with the PFAI team to Oslo, Walsh finally found employment under current Longford Town coach and then “Shels” boss Kevin Doherty. In what has become a familiar pattern in Walsh’s storied career, the Midfielder again made over twenty league appearances but failed to achieve anything of note on a team basis as the “Reds” missed out on a play-off position. If that was heart-breaking, the next turn in Walsh’s story can easily be marked as when he hit rock-bottom.
The Dubliner tested positive for cocaine after Shelbourne’s 0-0 draw with Cabinteely on September 5th 2015. A one-year ban would follow but that was only a small paragraph in this desperately sad chapter in Walsh’s career and life. A horrible gambling addiction had gripped Walsh and with debts racking up and the subsequent stress with it, a moment of madness would cost Walsh dearly.
Releasing a statement through the players association (PFAI) shortly after his ban, Walsh tried to openly and honestly both express his remorse and explain his actions:
“It is a source of great regret that I have to make this statement to explain the reasons behind my one year suspension from playing football. In first instance, I would like to point out that I take responsibility for my actions and wish I could turn back the clock.
I can’t and so I feel that I should, at the very least, provide some clarity for my actions which were completely out of character for me.
I suffer from a severe gambling addiction and have done for some years now. It is debilitating and all-consuming and, like most addictions, when it unleashes its full power, it becomes impossible to control. It has also caused me to suffer depressive symptoms as a consequence.
On the night of 3 September 2015, I hit rock bottom. I had lost far more money than I possessed and I lost control of my senses.
My gambling problem had become more and more acute and I didn’t know where to turn.
My judgment was impaired to such an extent that I drank to excess and then took a small amount of cocaine which was offered to me during a period when I was unable to exercise any level of self-control.
This is the first and last time that I have taken that, or any other, drug, and I regret it hugely.”
Looking back on this dark period, Walsh was again happy to disclose his thoughts and feelings to Between the Stripes:
“The ban….. After “Bohs” things weren’t right off the field. I was struggling with gambling and doubting mysef…. I had no confidence. I had signed for “Shels” but got a job working with a top bookie firm in their main office, good job I thought at the time but it proved to be my downfall. I struggled on and off the pitch, I failed a random drugs test which from that night on actually proved to be the beginning of me getting all aspects off my life together. I was banned for 2 years but appealed the ban and got a year knocked off, I'm grateful to the PFAI and their solicitor for their help in the whole saga and also Kevin Doherty, who was my “Shels” manager at the time and my family and girlfriend who helped me through it all.”
Thankfully those issues are now long behind Walsh who has since made his comeback to football. Playing out of the fourth-tier of the Leinster Senior League, the former Longford man has bagged an incredible fifteen goals from deep for Inchicore Athletic, including a recent wonder goal against Hartstown/Huntstown (video below). While the standard may not be as high as the former League of Ireland man is familiar with, Walsh is in a good moment both personally and sporting.
“I’m flying, in the best shape of my life both physically and mentality…..things are good for me.”
With that in mind it would be easy to think Walsh may not want to step back up in the spotlight and heat of LOI football, However the Inchicore Athletic midfielder is working hard to rise back up the leagues.
“I started back playing on September 16th 2016 with my local side Inchicore Athletic (LSLl 1B intermediate level). It’s a progressive club coming through the ranks at the minute with some ex-LOI players on board. I'm loving it, I have a spring back in my step and I'm scoring for fun…15 league goals so far and we’re top of the league at the moment. I had an offer to go back LOI last week but unfortunately the club and I couldn't agree on a deal, but I will continue to train once a week with the club and keep myself ticking over until Inchicore’s league is over and a LOI return will happen in June. I know there's other clubs inquiring about me but it has to be right. All I can say is I'm in the best shape physically and mentally I’ve possibly ever being in.”
Focusing back on his former club Longford, “De Town” still holds a special place in Walsh’s heart. “Looking back at my time with Longford I loved it. I learned a lot, made great friends and I’d just love to see them back in the Premier and establish themselves.”
In fact Walsh still holds such an infinity with the Midlands club that he failed to rule out a return to the two time FAI Cup winners: “Look I would love to play for them again, there’s still a few lads there from my time, so who knows what might happen.”
Finally, Walsh gave his views on how this season’s First Division may play out: “It will be a hard one to call, I think Waterford will be decent but Longford have a decent squad there. I'm thinking Dylan McGlade can shine; I played at “Shels” with him and saw his ability. If he keeps his head down and works hard he can be the difference. Shelbourne will be up there, Owen (Heary) will put his stamp on them, and they will work hard and be hard to break down, while there’s a good mix of experience and youth. After that UCD always surprise a few which makes for an interesting season. Hopefully I’ll be playing at some point!!!!”