Austin Gleeson: ‘I am learning now that it is not all reliant on me.’
Austin Gleeson is eager to make the most of his abundant natural talent
Hurling's modern preoccupation with tactics isn't for everybody, some pining for a time when the game was mapped along simpler lines of engagement: man on man, toe to toe, hip to hip. It is 20 years since the Leinster final produced an opera of hurling off the cuff, a form of random therapy now virtually obsolete. Ten years ago, another shift: Kilkenny's suffocation of Cork in the All-Ireland final reached new frontiers on the art of defending and reducing space. Now Waterford are at the cutting edge, advertising a system of play in which pre-meditation and planning are essential components.
If they have created their own unique stamp, the underlying principle is widely endorsed: possession and work-rate have become the game's lingua franca.
But even the purist hankering for times past can see it can't stifle or censor a player like Austin Gleeson who, on the cusp of turning 21, is in his third season as a senior inter-county hurler and already one of the most gifted. If Waterford subscribe to a carefully rehearsed plan Gleeson is, by nature, the polar opposite of process and confinement. He likes to express himself and there is room in the structure for the spontaneous spirit. When there isn't, he often makes room anyway.
Waterford knew the importance of not destroying the essence of what makes him the player he is. Derek McGrath, his manager and teacher at his old school, has known him since the day he walked into De La Salle College aged 12. Three years before, on his ninth birthday, Gleeson watched the first Waterford match that jumps from memory, the 2004 Munster final against Cork. From the Blackrock end he recalls moments that made it one of the greatest provincial finals of all time. He seems to belong more to that time than now but he is good enough to adapt to any.
"(Paul) Flynn's goal," he recites. "Ken's (McGrath's) catch, obviously. (Eoin) Kelly's goal, getting it on the sideline, being hooked by Jerry O'Connor, hearing people saying, 'ah no' and then he taking off again. I suppose (John) Mullane's red card. I remember watching him walking off the field and people around us saying, 'we're done now'. Then everyone stepping up the plate on the field. Seamus Prendergast's point as well towards the end of the game."
We have come to expect great things from Gleeson, things that are not rehearsed or coached, and maybe demonstrated once and never again. But we already expect something out of the ordinary.
It is an expectation he has grown accustomed to from an early stage, being on Mount Sion teams which, by the club's standards, were not anything like the quality of underage sides in the past. They played in B championships at under 14 and under 16 and within that he took on a huge amount of ownership and revelled in it. And while Waterford have plenty of richly talented players he has a star quality that sets him apart from the rest, even if it is not his wish to be treated as such, not to be made different.
You expect him to say that he is happy to play anywhere or do whatever he is asked but it would appear a genuine expression of humility. He says their manager encourages them to hurl "with freedom" and to enjoy the game.
"That's the main thing. I suppose the first year I was involved - that day against Cork (in the Munster Championship of 2014) - I probably hit more shots in the first half than I did all year. I suppose I am learning now that it is not all reliant on me. I am becoming a team player. I am enjoying taking the pressure off myself. And offloading it to fellas that are well capable of taking over."
He has virtually everything: a beautiful striker, a lovely touch, exceptional long range from play and dead balls, an expert at sidelines, strong in the air, brave, fast, versatile, daring, a player for the big occasion. Quibbles come with that territory and there are even comparisons here to the player he is most closely associated with in terms of nature and style: Ken McGrath.
His predecessor, from the same club, had a similar repertoire of skills and presence but those mad shots he sometimes went for, that streak is in Gleeson too. He can't help himself, as if, for a moment, he forgets where he is and he is on his own. That freedom is his own creation.
It doesn't always serve the best interests of the team and he is the first to admit so. Gleeson has shown he can nail a score from 80 or 90 yards but he can miss one from there too, and sometimes the better percentage option is to hit one of the forwards or the space around them. At times, then, he is headless. But he is learning and willing to learn.
He was introduced to the county senior panel three years ago, the season after winning an All-Ireland minor medal, but the management team took their time with him. Derek McGrath (pictured) spoke to his parents first, to see if they were comfortable with the idea and to ask if it were acceptable to them that he be extended the invitation. Once McGrath got their blessing there was no immediate hurry to blood him.
His first league appearance was in their final regulation game, a tough baptism against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. They lost by 20 points, having trailed by two at half-time. "It was nerve-wrecking, it was like 'am I really here?' But once you get out on the field and the ball is thrown in it's another normal game," says Gleeson. "I was on Paul Murphy that day. That was a nice introduction to senior hurling."
He felt he did "okay" and in spite of the result, he felt good to have played his first match. "I was 18, I'm 20 now (21 in June), and the difference between those two years is massive. That was the starting point and eventually you get more confidence in yourself. The belief just starts to follow you then."
Waterford were relegated after losing a play-off to Dublin but in the Munster Championship Gleeson showed the transition from minor to senior to be seamless. His goal after 44 minutes put a seven-point wedge between the teams that Cork just managed to claw back to earn a replay.
Like all exceptional goals it is never quite as good as when seen in real time. From a disputed sideline ball Aidan Walsh made an unclean connection and to those who coach teams on re-sets what followed might serve as the ultimate in useful lessons. The ball was stopped by Gleeson, unmarked a few yards away, and after gaining quick control he sped off, meandering his way in the general direction of the Cork goal, red shirts in his slipstream.
Two Waterford players fanned out ahead of him, one going left, the other right and the space opened up. From a narrow angle he struck off the hurl, off his left side to the far side of the goal, past Anthony Nash. If Cork made a basic error in leaving him unmarked, few players could have made them pay the way he did.
"I didn't think I would be able to get a strike out early, because I knew there were a couple of lads chasing me," he says. "Eventually I got closer to the goal and I was running out of space so I said I'll throw it up and see what happens. Ah it was unbelievable. Unbelievable. To do it on your debut in the Munster Championship in Thurles against Cork after the decade before that . . . big games between Cork and Waterford were the highlights of those years. So to do it that day was great."
That goal on his debut, embellished by two points, and frequent time on the ball, meant he would not pass quietly on to the main stage. But Waterford were not a force in the summer, losing the replay easily, then heading out in the qualifiers to Wexford. At the end of the year Gleeson had nearly had enough hurling, and after losing a county under 21 final to Roanmore, he told McGrath so. Earlier in the year he was sent off in a heavy senior county final defeat by Ballygunner.
"He texted late that Saturday night to say he was going to take a break," says McGrath. "We met the next day and went for a drive in the car. Like any fella, you make spur of the moment decisions, hasty decisions. I said we were not starting back for maybe six weeks, we would be in the gym over that time and he got involved in that, it was a break from hurling.
"I would say it was because he was a fella that was on the go the whole time, going to every club and school game, and then the county, you are built up as being the next big thing. I think that brings a certain frustration when things don't go well. He has done remarkably well to come from a career where you are flagged as much as he was to be able to develop into a senior county player."
The players Gleeson was following as a child provided marvellous entertainment and were part of memorable wins in Munster and in the league nine years ago. But the All-Ireland eluded them.
Their legacy is in the players they inspired to follow and the impetus they gave to the work underway at underage level in the county. Gleeson has arrived at a time when Waterford are serious championship contenders. Ken McGrath arrived when they were often without hope, hammered 21 points by Tipperary in Munster the year before he made his debut.
"The likes of Ken and Tony (Browne), Mullane (above), and all them, that actually turned it around for Waterford. . ." says Gleeson. "We owe a lot to them. They didn't make that step to winning an All-Ireland but a lot of the players now took up hurling because of them.
"Otherwise we might have taken up another sport. So the success of that team has built the team that is there now because we enjoyed watching them play, being out in the back garden trying to be those players, messing around."
Waterford share many similarities with today's league final opponents, but Clare have won the MacCarthy Cup; Waterford are still aspiring. Last year they made major advances in winning the league from Division 1B and going on to defeat Cork and Dublin in the championship before bowing out to Kilkenny.
After that match Gleeson spoke about a hit he took from Michael Fennelly which shook him up. He will admit he was slow to embrace Waterford's gym programme and management weren't dogmatic about pressurising him.
McGrath laughs at the mention of it. "Slow to embrace it or not turning up for the odd gym session? He is a very natural athletic player in terms of covering the ground. When a fella grows up where natural ability can result in brilliance on the field, he might have not looked at the gym as being terribly important. Austin, being Austin, and I mean that in a complimentary way, we wanted to let him develop in his own way."
In De La Salle, Gleeson developed in every way, his hurling and personality. Up to 15 he played soccer and some of his friends went for trials across the water but his first game was hurling and from then on it was his only one. "In De La Salle it was all about discipline and having respect for yourself, your family, the school, everything like that," he says. "We owe a lot to the school coaches. You start realising things you were doing when you were younger were just childish. That was the starting point of where they tried to develop you as a person more than a hurler."
He used the word lazy to describe some of his earlier ways. Were you lazy? "Ah I was, to be honest with you. I didn't really want to do much, even in school. I didn't realise what would happen if I put my head down. It was a turning point."
McGrath would go for "easy-going" rather than lazy. "I think the seriousness of the approach in De La Salle - for us the Dean Ryan and the Harty are everything - probably helped, as well as being a minor-winning player with Waterford. Austin had lots of friend and while they were into the hurling, they were more casual observers, he had loads of friends like that.
"I wouldn't say it was obsessional with him. He was more relaxed than others. What I would say is everything came very easy to him. He can be what he wants to be, but it is up to himself now. It is up to him to push it to the limits of what he is capable of being. He is not there yet in terms of what he is capable of. And to realise there will be days when he will be very, very frustrated and being able to deal with that."
The streak of frustration surfaced in this year's Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-finals while hurling for Waterford IT, when he was sent off for striking in a match against Limerick IT. "That was pure stupidity on my own part. I hit him with the hurley off the ball. Pure frustration over having had a bad 20 minutes, even though we were still involved in the game.
Even now I regret it; I let the management and all the players on the field down. I suppose there are moments I shouldn't do things and I end up doing things, it is part of the game I am working on a lot now, because when taking punishment I always tend to react, that is the main part of my game I am trying to work on. To take it and move on."
He is also keen to improve aspects of his defending, but McGrath points to last year's first round match against Limerick when they put him on Cian Lynch and he did the man-marking job they required perfectly. In the next round against Laois he put the shackles on Willie Hyland. In the quarter-final of the All-Ireland later in the year he was wing-forward against Dublin. Around the middle of the field suits him best, he feels, but he will happily play anywhere he's asked.
Waterford must face Clare again in the championship, a carbon copy of last year's experience with Cork. "It is going be a great game between two teams that are at the top of their form," he says. "Clare played with intensity in the semi-finals, they played with fire. It was the Clare of 2013 for all the world. They were rightly up for that game and they showed what they can do to any team in the country. When they are in form they can do that to anyone. We know that. We have a lot of work to do."
What kind of game do you expect it to be? "Well, a fiery enough game I suppose."
Is it important to win it again? "We want to win it. We are not going to be changing our tactics to throw Clare off for the fifth of June. We are going to play our game. There is going to be no controversy about tactics or anything like that, we are going out to win the game."
Whether they do or don't, Gleeson is unlikely to pass unnoticed.
"Let no-one say the best hurlers belong to the past, they're with us now and better yet to come."
Sunday Indo Sport