Thursday 19 July 2018

Versatility gives Gleeson an edge

Tipp 'keeper's ability to go short or long with puck-outs a huge plus

Darren Gleeson's All-Ireland displays were assured and impressive
Darren Gleeson's All-Ireland displays were assured and impressive

Damian Lawlor

In this year's Munster semi-final against Limerick, Darren Gleeson hit his first nine puck-outs short to his defensive colleagues. Limerick, meanwhile, lost eight of their first 10, the last five on the bounce. It was Gleeson's accuracy and vision that helped set the tone for a good day at the office for Eamon O'Shea's side.

Against Waterford in the final, Tipperary took account of how their opponents had set up, and particularly the form of sweeper Tadhg de Búrca, so, again, Gleeson mostly went short, only this time Tipp worked it down the line and sent diagonal ball into their forwards, to eventually nullify Waterford's sweeper.

Today, one of Tipperary's first tasks will be to defuse Galway's Johnny Glynn, who is the key target for their puck-outs. The Tipperary defence may have enough on their hands without having to instantly position themselves for Gleeson's restarts. Therein lies the glory of what he offers - he can go short, but he can also boom them long, too, with a delivery that can go from square to square.

It was late 2008 when Liam Sheedy called his Portroe clubmate on board late and it didn't take the squad too long to see what he had in his locker. Still, it took six years for his breakthrough into the team, with Brendan Cummins keeping his threat at bay until 2014. When he finally broke in, the early stages of Gleeson's Tipp career were tentative enough. Tipp had no settled full-back, with Paul Curran injured and the league had seen 13 goals conceded in defeats against Kilkenny, Clare and Galway.

Indeed, prior to their All-Ireland quarter-final with Dublin, they had 26 conceded in 10 games, an average of more than two-and-a-half per game. Not exactly what a goalkeeper on a first real prolonged run is seeking. It would get more perplexing before it got better.

In the dying moments of last year's pulsating Allianz Hurling League final, with Tipperary and Kilkenny level at the end of extra-time, Gleeson tried to go short with a free to James Barry, but overhit it. The ball sped over the sideline, TJ Reid played a quick one-two with Richie Hogan, who clipped over the winning point for Kilkenny. After the game, Gleeson met his sister on the pitch. She has been living in the UK for two decades and the look on her face told the younger brother all he needed to know.

"The look on her face, I knew that obviously I'd made a mistake, right, but then I met the manager (Eamon O'Shea) five minutes later," the Portroe man recalls. "He said to me, 'If you're in the position again, I'd expect you to do the same thing'. Because I'd done the right thing in terms of how we want to play the game, I just didn't execute. I knew I'd made a mistake, but you'd hear for a long time, 'Drive it long', but I wanted to win the game.

"I knew the minute it was hit (that it was a mis-hit), but if the ball went into James' (Barry) hand, we had a chance of scoring it. If I launched it 90 yards down the field, a high ball into Kilkenny backs, we know the history there of where it would end. We were there to play."

That belief and confidence has remained intact. Gleeson went on to claim an All-Star at 33 in what was his first season as the established Tipp number one. His displays in the All-Ireland finals were assured and impressive. While they prepared for Tipperary, Kilkenny had their 'keepers place pinpoint short passes into their defenders' hands in order to prepare for Gleeson's deliveries. Not that they needed the red flag, but after Tipp's win over Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, Dónal óg Cusack had described the Tipp number one's display as the "greatest display of tactical puckouts ever seen".

In this year's league, his form improved again, with his display against Galway catching the eye. Against Cork, he hit top form, blocked a rasping Conor Lehane shot and then denied Patrick Horgan with a double save in the dying minutes of their semi-final win. He has been in top gear for his club, too. Last month, Portroe pulled off one of the biggest surprises of this year's North Tipp championship with victory over Toomevara in the quarter-final. Gleeson made a fantastic double save from a Ken Dunne penalty and went on to keep a clean sheet.

The blue and gold number one shirt is his own. Today is only his 11th championship game, but he holds the assurance of a man there a lot longer.

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