Friday 13 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Genius' Austin powers Waterford to make it third time lucky against Clare

'Austin Gleeson roamed the field as if it was a private garden, making soaring fetches, driving people forward like a senior officer.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Austin Gleeson roamed the field as if it was a private garden, making soaring fetches, driving people forward like a senior officer.' Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Down in the cockpit of the stadium, his people swarmed Austin Gleeson, their joy vibrating around him like the rumble of a giant boiler. He lingered there in the crazed drench of their devotion, this boyish 20-year-old, signing autographs, leaning in for pictures, just shooting the breeze as if all he'd just done in Semple Stadium could have been completed in a bathrobe and slippers.

An hour after the last whistle, he was still there, standing on the concrete rim of the dug-out, gabbing with anyone who cared.

"Dan kind of said it to me before the game," he grinned, "that he had a feeling I could have one of those days."

Big Dan Shanahan's clairvoyancy was just one of many things that came good for Waterford in Thurles then.

They emptied their chests in a game that demanded they did nothing less. They made the pitch so claustrophobic for Clare, there were times the Banner looked like men lost in a snowstorm. And Waterford won going away in the end, the hurt of their league final defeat still an agitated wind in their sails.

Victory was a celebration of the collective, but Gleeson had been their emblem.

The first place Derek McGrath sent him was to the edge of the Clare square where, just four minutes in, his presence sent Cian Dillon and David Fitzgerald into mild panic under a dropping ball and the sliotar spun out to Maurice Shanahan whose left-hand pull found just enough purchase to beat Patrick Kelly almost in slow motion.

Gleeson already had a point to his name, his game set to perfect heat. He roamed the field as if it was a private garden, making soaring fetches, driving people forward like a senior officer. His physical power is immense and, on occasion, he is inclined to overuse it.

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Yet, here, he had the self-control of a sommelier.

His second point came after 20 minutes, the Clare defence retreating for one of those trademark line 'cuts' that he is known to land from any radius within 60 yards only to see him jab a gentle one-two before sweeping home a glorious point from the toes of Ryan Stand.

"That bit of genius" as Derek McGrath called it.

Gleeson would finish the day with 0-6, five from play and one from a 56th minute line 'cut' that looked uncomplicated as a pitching wedge to a monster green. "We're a young team with every confidence in ourselves," he shrugged when it was over.

"And, hopefully, there's a bit more to come from us."

So Waterford and Clare gave us the first authentic taste of summer. Hurling is an open market now and what once seemed an hereditary right to win has passed into history. Today, there is a democracy in play and these two are in the vanguard of those articulating it.

Their style provokes a certain snobbery in those left wrestling with the new co-ordinates of a game no longer in the iron grip of history. But what is the crime?

To intellectualise a game previously shaped - in theory at least - by the hidden intricacies of tradition and people assuming a right to win?

These counties are like boxers capable of switch-hitting between orthodox and southpaw. They see systems, not as restrictive, but empowering. To begin with yesterday, Waterford set up as close to conventionally as does not matter, yet McGrath quickly sensed they'd be more comfortable in a more natural (to them), unconventional setting.

So Waterford switched and while they did hit a small flat-spot in that first half, it was never enough to give Clare belief that they had them in any kind of headlock. At times, Gleeson looked unstoppable.

Was it the day he finally arrived as a senior county man?

"Definitely and I'm delighted for him," reflected McGrath. "I push him hard to be honest with you. I had him in class in school and he probably views me as the old headmaster. He's at his best when he's kind of angry and he's bitter and he's almost kind of... then it just flows from him.

"So he doesn't need much instruction with that."

They've both accepted days the kid's compass is faulty and a personal accumulation of wides might imply some kind of carelessness. They accept it because, on his good days, Austin Gleeson becomes a force of nature.

"If you go to the semi-final of the Munster Championship last year, first four possessions? Wide. Next possession? Ball in to Maurice Shanahan for a goal," McGrath explains.

"We can't put our head on his shoulders so he just kind of needs to learn. But he's able to score from 80 yards, so we can't discourage it. He'll learn by mistakes that might be costly sometimes, but today was his day definitely."

With just under 20 minutes remaining, Clare sent in David McInerney in an effort to subdue him, but banging into Gleeson must feel a bit like beating a rug.

In this he was emblematic of the broader group, Waterford's emotions ratcheted to a temperature that would not countenance surrender. They led by four points at halfway but, already, Clare were struggling to get consistent traction from any of their attackers.

"Going in at half-time, we just made a promise to each other that we'd give 40 minutes of absolute... endeavour to try and get over the line," reflected McGrath. "I'm just thrilled for the lads. They've put some effort into it for the last four weeks, given the nature of losing the league. The league was absolutely everything to us. We had built up to that game like it was an All-Ireland final. So to be able to channel that disappointment in a positive manner is very satisfying.

"There was a bit of hurt there initially. But hurt or disappointment kind of stagnates you, you don't move on. So we tried to change the hurt to a bit of anger, not to the point where it becomes hate. And we kind of let the anger flow into the performance.

"We left them (the players) take over in terms of where they wanted to go with it. We had five days in Fota and everyone put everything into it for the five days. Everyone just pushed each other like never before.

"It's extremely satisfying that a group of players would take five days off work in an amateur capacity and just work to the bone. Look at 'Brick' (Walsh), three young kids under four, being down in Fota for five days. And just putting their lives on hold if you like..."

Davy Fitz was a portrait of dignity in the losers' dressing-room, suggesting simply that the better team had rightly won. But you could tell his defiance was still packed like gunpowder.

"Let me make this clear to everyone...," said the Clare manager. "We will be fighting in this championship to come. Wouldn't it be great if ourselves and Waterford got the chance to meet again down the road?

"We're not out of the big thing yet and my immediate feeling is that I can't wait to go again. I think I said during the week that you have to enjoy it a bit more. Feckin' hard to enjoy today (laughing).

"But there's no-one dead or ill or anything like that. We'll bounce again."

And their history suggests they know how.

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