Phil Walsh: an old-school coach, lifted by grit and inspired by the art of the game

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No matter his talent, Phil Walsh believed it was grit that lifted him from Hamilton, in western Victoria, on to the game’s biggest stage.

Confessing he sounded “a bit like a weirdo”, last month he mused: “Great art comes from a level of frustration.”

He had been struck, on a recent trip to Amsterdam, by Van Gogh’s sunflowers. “There’s a man with great frustration,” he said.

“For a bogan from Hamilton like myself, I could actually see beauty in that frustration.”

Walsh, the youngest of seven siblings, never lost this sense of himself as a battler.

The son of a second world war veteran, he trained as a teacher in Bendigo before making his VFL debut with Collingwood in 1983. He won the equivalent of the Rising Star award for best young player, and was poached by Richmond the following year. He joined Brisbane in 1987, picking up the club’s best and fairest award.

A handy wingman, it was as an old-school coach – “a hard man, a hard taskmaster,” Adelaide legend Graham Cornes said – that Walsh left his biggest imprint on the game.

He became Geelong’s strength and conditioning coach in 1995, joined Port Adelaide as an assistant coach four years later and then West Coast in 2009. Last year he re-joined Port, before applying for the vacant spot at the Crows and winning it.

“He bloomed, it was the opportunity he had been waiting for,” Cornes said on Friday.

This obsessive focus on football left little room for anything else. Asked if he was a good father, he admitted “that’s a really hard question”.

“The bonus of me taking the Crows job is my son is 26 and my daughter is 22, so the collateral damage isn’t so big. But have I been a good father? To my son, I had a disconnect because of footy,” he said.

“In a selfish way, I taught my daughter to surf, and that’s my release, so when I go surfing, I take her. Now I’ve got my son into it as well and that’s what I should’ve done a long time ago.

“A couple of months ago we all went surfing together at Middleton and it was almost the best day I’ve had ... ever,” he said.

“We all got a wave, went to the bakery on the way home, we smiled, and laughed and there was none of this stuff, that I’ve got Melbourne, then the Bulldogs, then Port. Just none of that.”

Single-mindedly was the way you played sport in Hamilton, a town set among sheep pastures in Victoria’s west. The grass never got a chance to grow at the Walsh house, trampled by his five hockey-playing sisters and his own backyard heroics.

“Those days, you were either playing or training virtually every night of the week, except Sundays, even as kids,” a friend, Brian Guy, told the Adelaide Advertiser.

His qualities as a leader were obvious. Walsh was elected school vice-captain at Monivae College, where he is still listed as a wingman in the school’s team of the century.

“I’d say Walshy was limited skill-wise, but jeez, he was fit,” former Collingwood team-mate, Gavan Bell said. “That was his key. He was a good player, courageous, all that stuff. He was a hard working, defensive winger. That’s what he was about.”

A near-death experience in Peru in late 2012 – he was hit by a bus and flown back to Australia for treatment – had broadened his horizons. “I saw the white light, had the drowning sensation,” Walsh said. “I thought I’d die.”

He quit drinking, dedicated himself to mastering Japanese and kept an image of the Peruvian street as his screensaver. “That’s my wake up call every day, as soon as I turn my computer on,” he told the Herald Sun. “Don’t get too angry, Phil.”

Walsh had yet to complete his first year as Adelaide’s coach when he died on Friday, aged 55. The level of esteem he had built over two decades in the coaches’ box was only beginning to be known.

“He spoke at [former Melbourne coach] Dean Bailey’s funeral, and he spoke so beautifully and eloquently and without notes,” Cornes recalled on Friday. “You gained the sense immediately there there was a depth and a side to this man the rest of the world needed to see.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael Safi, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd July 2015 04.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010