Austin Gleeson: We almost lost interest after under-21 defeat to Clare
Waterford’s most versatile asset Austin Gleeson has wasted no time in establishing himself as one of their bright young leaders
Austin Gleeson confesses to being afraid of heights. The 108-storey Sears Tower in Chicago, where he was visiting an uncle some years ago, unnerved him.
The ascent of scaffolding that he had to undertake as part of a labouring job with another uncle got the heart beating just a little quicker.
"It's the fear of falling really. I'd be holding on for dear life," he admits.
There's a touch of irony then in such an admission when set against the altitude he has soared to on the hurling field over the last 15 months.
Since scoring that wonder goal against Cork in last year's drawn Munster quarter-final, the 20-year-old has scarcely taken a step back, the embodiment of the flourish of youth and enthusiasm that has neutrals taking Waterford to their hearts again this year.
Right now he heads the betting list for Young Hurler of the Year, a contest that is shaping to be of the highest standard yet since its inception with the form that Gleeson, together with his Waterford colleagues Tadhg de Búrca and Shane Bennett and Galway's Cathal Mannion, have been in this summer.
But Gleeson's versatility sets him apart, Derek McGrath's very own flexi-card.
From wing-forward for last year's Championship, he has spent much of this season at the heart of Waterford's defensive web but for the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Dublin he was switched to midfield.
Inevitably, the comparisons with his Mount Sion clubmate Ken McGrath, now coach to the city senior team, are regularly made.
McGrath himself won All-Stars as a defender, midfielder and forward, a feat matched only by Tommy Walsh.
When they examine the legacy of that breakthrough 2002 Munster final triumph in Páirc Uí Chaoimh or the successes of the teams that followed in 2004, 2007 and 2010, they can hold Gleeson up as the exemplary product.
He had connections with Mount Sion, cousins, uncles, a passionate grandmother Mary Kennedy but when he looks up there is no fear of the elevation of the plateau that McGrath reached as a hurler, just admiration.
"I was eight or nine and he was the man, the captain in 2004. That was a really big thing in our lives. I always looked up to him," he recalls.
"I even had the chance to play with him in my first year as a senior. It was a massive opportunity for me to be even be on the same field as him. Growing up, Ken and Tony were the two that I'd hope to be playing beside them."
The legacy of that decade of uprising is seen in all pockets of the county.
Gleeson has flourished with a pool of players from city and out west with the bedrock of 2013 All-Ireland minor success beneath them.
He was the star of that team, the first to make the next step, but Stephen and Shane Bennett, Patrick Curran and Tom Devine have also pushed through over the last seven months providing a mix that Gleeson is really comfortable with.
"The likes of Kevin (Moran), 'Brick' (Michael Walsh), Noel (Connors) and Shane (Fives), they're the main leaders in the group. Myself Tadhg (de Búrca) Colin Dunford, we'd be pushing them.
"With such a young team it's easy to lead because we grew up playing with each other. You're comfortable with that.
"There is no one key leader on the team. Kevin has driven us on a lot in the games but other than that, everyone drives it on the in the dressing-room.
"The difference in the last 12 months for us is incredible in every way. We got different lads in as a team, just gelled together and got that winning feeling. We just wanted to keep winning and winning."
They remained unbeaten for nine competitive matches through the League and their opening game against Cork in the Munster Championship.
But if losing the Munster final to Tipperary was a bump on the road, defeat to Clare in the under 21 semi-final three nights later was a crater he felt, for a few days after, they might not pull themselves out of.
The impact of both defeats was incomparable, he reflected, the lesson in Ennis far harsher than the bigger day in Thurles.
"On a personal note losing that under 21 game was two or three times worse than losing the Munster final. We knew we had a good under 21 team. If we won that we had the possibility of having a home Munster final.
"Losing the Munster final we always knew we had a second chance. Under 21 is straight knockout, it was a lot tougher to take.
"The better team won, we didn't really play. They had their homework done. They knew to keep the ball away from Tadhg. No complaints. Losing a Munster final is hard enough then three days later, it tops it all off."
After a season of near perfection, it felt like a crisis in their young lives.
"Thursday and Friday were tough. We almost lost interest. We needed a break for a couple of days to get the heads right," he reflected.
"We went in with the seniors on Friday night, trained again on Saturday morning. We all got together that Friday in the dressing-room, agreed to park the hurt that we had and move on.
"In hindsight losing that under 21 match played a big part in getting our minds right for Dublin the next day."
As he dealt with the loss to Tipperary, a simple conversation in the minutes afterwards he had with a young Waterford supporter who had asked him to sign a Cúl card in Semple Stadium as he knelt, head bowed, made its way into the public domain and was extensively covered.
Gleeson was held up as a shining example, his facility of an 11-year-old seeking an autograph at such a time and assurance that the young man shouldn't be downhearted over the defeat earning him great kudos.
His rationale was simple. "I'd be conscious that I was there myself only a few years ago, standing on a pitch like him and I could remember what it was like to be refused. I wasn't the only one doing it. All the lads obliged. My one just got out of hand."
He's a popular draw around Kellogg's Cúl camps too, his capacity to convert sidelines a thing of great fascination for those attending.
"They're constantly asking me how I do it. I honestly can't tell them. I just take a step back and go for it. At training I'd miss more than I'd catch. But whatever it is about Thurles, whatever it is about the sod there, they just fly over."
Playing Kilkenny in Croke Park is an opportunity to savour. For Gleeson, Kilkenny provided opposition for his debut match in March 2014, that infamous day when they were hit for four goals in Nowlan Park and Derek McGrath closed the dressing-room for an hour as they asked hard questions of themselves.
Gleeson reflects on that day with some mixed emotions. They had lost heavily but the bug had bitten him hard.
"They blew us out of the water. Everything they did that day, they were streets ahead of us.
"On a personal level, it flew by. It was my first game playing such a big team I can't remember much of the game except it was such a great feeling. To be involved and play along side lads I looked up to so much.
"It left me wanting more, even though the result and everything that day didn't go for us. But I wanted it more and more."