SAM Walsh was a victim of his own high standards.
He felt as though he didn’t start the season as well as he should have. In his own words, he “started off a bit slow”.
Come the end of it, he became one of Carlton’s front runners for the John Nicholls Medal in just his second season and completed a clean sweep of every award for young players in the competition.
So much attention has been put on the No.1 draft pick from the 2018 NAB AFL Draft, particularly given its rightfully impending status as a ‘super draft’.
Another year gone, another year where we couldn't have been more impressed with Sam Walsh.— Carlton FC (@CarltonFC) October 8, 2020
Here's our No.18's year in review in a season where he went from strength to strength.
But Walsh proved that he’s still the pick of the bunch, and he puts it down to a very simple reason.
“I just think getting back to playing my best footy is what helped me. There were a few things I needed to adapt to after those first few games,” Walsh told Carlton Media.
“I really started using my work rate around the ground. I started getting involved defensively and offensively, and that’s where I felt I was starting to impact games.
“Hitting the scoreboard as well as something that has helped me get to this position and impacting a bit more. They’re the little things you develop along the way.”
It’s easy to forget that Walsh is still only 20, having played 39 out of 39 games since his debut in the opening round of 2019.
With plenty to learn and plenty more to offer, it was clearly another step forward for Walsh in a year where he polled more AFLCA Champion Player of the Year votes than any other Blue.
Echoing Sam Docherty’s sentiments, Walsh said that while there were promising signs in an up-and-down year for the Blues, what’s to come is the most exciting.
“As a team, we learnt so much this year. I felt like we grew in a lot of areas and we were playing a good brand of footy,” he said.
“But it’s the ability to do it consistently now which is what will be the focus going forward.
“I feel as though pre-season is going to be really big for us in building that synergy more and more and the ability to play four quarters — that’ll be a big focus for us.”
Sam Walsh, the leader
Not since Bryce Gibbs and Marc Murphy has a Carlton player entered the leadership group so early in their AFL careers.
But after just 12 months at the football club, Walsh was voted as a leader by his counterparts — and the first year clearly shows that leadership suits him in Navy Blue.
Looking back, immediate moments spring to mind: his courageous Mark of the Year contender against Port Adelaide, his second-quarter goal to kickstart a memorable comeback against Sydney.
Working closely with Andrew Russell and Patrick Cripps in the leadership space, Walsh said his approach was a straightforward one.
“The biggest thing that got me into the position was being myself. I was able to do that this year and I tried to lead by example on the field,” he said.
“[My first year] led me to be in a leadership position which I was extremely honoured to have, but I knew I couldn’t take it for granted.”
While Walsh arrived at Ikon Park with all of the hype in the world, his motivation and goals were similar to every other fresh face arriving at a new football club.
So, after two seasons of undeniable promise, he’s not letting it get the better of him.
“Coming into my time at Carlton, I wanted to earn the respect of the playing group and I feel as though I was able to do that by leading by example, working hard and having a lot of good support around me,” he said.
“Hopefully I can continue building my leadership qualities along the journey, but also staying true to who I am.”
In his first year, Walsh had the fifth-most centre bounce attendances (CBAs) of any Carlton midfielder.
However, after starting the season as a centre bounce rotation, Walsh didn’t enter the square again until the final four rounds of the year.
Mostly due to his outstanding form on the wing, Walsh was backed to get his job done on the inside of the contest as the season drew to a close.
Just as he had done all season, Walsh delivered.
In the final two weeks of the year, Walsh had the third-most CBAs of any Blue, including 13 against the high-flying Brisbane in the last game of the season.
The results speak for themselves, with Walsh having more disposals (31) and contested possessions (21) than anyone else on the ground. It was also a comfortable career-high for contested possessions for Walsh.
It may very well have been a preview of 2021, with Walsh stating in previous interviews that his goal is to return to the centre square as a genuine on-baller.
“Playing in the midfield, there was a lot that I liked,” he said.
“Playing more of a wing role, I’ve been able to see the consistency of effort: those guys have been putting me in good positions from their sheer work rate and tackling.
“It’s been a big positive from our group and we can only go forward from here.”