Friday 23 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Austin Gleeson is the good, bad and ugly that embodies Waterford

 

Austin Gleeson dances through the Cork defence to score Waterford 60th minute goal at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Austin Gleeson dances through the Cork defence to score Waterford 60th minute goal at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Sometimes a player can seem to embody a county's hurling spirit.

Henry Shefflin's remorseless efficiency under pressure and ability to go into overdrive when the going got tough seemed very Kilkenny qualities. The class, confidence and cheek of Jimmy Barry-Murphy were pure Cork. And, once upon a time, the physical indomitability of John Doyle perfectly personified Tipperary's status as the toughest of them all.

Gleeson incident during the first half.
Gleeson incident during the first half.

Austin Gleeson's combination of explosiveness and eccentricity has a distinct Waterford tinge to it. You're never sure what the Mount Sion man will do next, but it's certain he'll contribute something memorable before the day is out.

In this he mirrors the enormously entertaining Déise team of the 1998-2010 era, which was as popular as any side that failed to win an All-Ireland. The very wildness and unpredictability which prevented the likes of Dan Shanahan, John Mullane, Ken McGrath and Paul Flynn from profiting fully from their talents merely enhanced the affection they inspired.

Mention of that team can still provoke both a smile and a shake of the head.

Gleeson is the most extreme manifestation of this kind of Waterford spirit and yesterday he gave us the full range of his hurling personality: the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the first-half he played as badly as any reigning Hurler of the Year has played in a big game. It was hard to see how he could have been any worse, the nadir of his fortunes arriving on the half-hour when he mishit a sideline cut horribly and a few seconds later, after the ball had been returned to him by Brick Walsh, topped his follow-up effort.

There had also been a couple of those wides from almost impossible distances and angles which can prompt cries of, 'why does Gleeson shoot from there?' But this is perhaps the most foolish question in hurling; the only answer being, 'because he's entitled to'. And, with the game nearing the final quarter and Damien Cahalane having just been sent off, Waterford's No 6 produced one of his trademark points, turning and striking in one movement from way out on the left wing without deigning to look at the posts.

Like wisps of smoke issuing from a volcano, this shot presaged an eruption. With Cork having regained the lead and 13 minutes left on the clock, Gleeson hurtled across to dispossess Christopher Joyce and struck a wonderful cross-field ball to Jamie Barron.

It was hard to see how the pass could have been any better. Barron stuck the ball in the net and the pendulum appeared to have swung back in Waterford's favour.

What happened next made the momentum shift irrevocable.

When Gleeson surged past a challenge just inside the Cork half, a point seemed on. Then, as he sped at the heart of the Cork defence, the obvious thing seemed a pass out to the unmarked Walsh.

Instead, a combination of sprint, swerve, and sidestep bamboozled a trio of Rebel backs. Only Anthony Nash was left barring the way and one of the finest keepers in the game was rendered helpless by one of those delicate Gleeson flicks which can leave you wondering if the configuration of bones in his wrists is in some crucial way different to that of every other hurler.

It called to mind some of the great solo goals of Diego Maradona. If no analogy from Gleeson's own sport suggests itself, that's because like all geniuses he shows us things we haven't seen before. Few of even his most gifted peers would have envisaged that sublime slalom, let alone executed it.

The bad was very bad and the good was very good. The ugly wasn't very ugly, but it does mean that both Gleeson and Waterford will, instead of indulging in uncomplicated jubilation, already be thinking of the same kind of disciplinary highways and byways which preoccupied them in the run-up to the semi-final.

There's no logical reason Gleeson shouldn't suffer the same suspension which kept Tadhg de Búrca out of this game. His pulling off of Luke Meade's helmet by the faceguard is so clear an example of the offence in question it could be shown to referees as an example of precisely what the GAA wants to punish. One imagines only some sort of legal jiggery-pokery could facilitate an escape.

It would take a hard heart to warn Waterford off such a course. In 2004 John Mullane opted against appealing a suspension which probably cost his team a place in that year's All-Ireland final and for years afterwards was praised for doing the right thing, as all the while players from other counties squirmed through various loopholes. The Déise may feel technicalities owe them one.

Whatever happens, it's certain that a final without Austin Gleeson would be enormously diminished. Neutrals may join Waterford fans in hoping for a reprieve.

Back when the Rebels were cutting a swathe through Munster there was much chatter about 'Corkness.' Yet there is also a kind of 'Waterfordness' which outsiders harp on about; a quality of not being quite good enough when the heat comes on.

You find this kind of assessment in Brian Corcoran's autobiography, where he tells of a Cork team, also faced with an All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, reflecting on how 'Our Way' was to get the details right and 'Their Way' was to get them wrong.

This must have rankled, but you wonder if over the years Waterford have internalised some of the outside criticism. In 1998, 2004 and 2016 against Kilkenny, 2002 against Clare, 2006 against Cork and 2007 against Limerick, self-doubt seemed to play a part as they lost All-Ireland semi-finals they could have won. For long periods yesterday this seemed like one of those semis they have specialised in losing.

Perhaps this time they did not lose because they simply could not afford to. For the past few years, with Derek McGrath at the heart of it, Waterford have done things the right way.

There have been excellent underage teams and steady progress up the ranks, so they looked like the team best placed to profit should Kilkenny and Tipp slip. Had they been passed out by a Cork team which effectively came from nowhere, Waterford might have believed the naysayers. They might also have lost McGrath.

Instead they now face weeks of both exhilaration and anxiety. They are brilliant and flaky and exciting and frustrating and charismatic and you cannot take your eyes off them for a minute.

They are Waterford and there is nobody quite like them.

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