Young gods of the game need to rise again
Clare’s Tony Kelly and Waterford’s Austin Gleeson are the only men in history to be crowned both Hurler of the Year and Young Hurler of the Year in a single season. Yet living up to that status hasn’t been easy for either. Both will be in Ennis tomorrow for a game that could go some distance towards revealing who can look forward to the summer with most optimism
In Munster's Old Testament, all that worry squatting above Ennis tomorrow could be neatly siphoned down into a duel between hurling's brightest prodigies.
Between the townie and the country boy.
But this new world changes everything. A year ago, Derek McGrath wouldn't have entertained the idea of holding anything in reserve, but Austin Gleeson's ankle - damaged in a Parnell Park challenge game against Dublin just over three weeks back - was still tender at Tuesday night's training. With four games condensed into the next four weeks, starting Gleeson was a gamble it would have been hard to justify.
The Mount Sion wizard may see some action in Cusack Park then, but Waterford need all of Gleeson now, not some wan facsimile.
He had a difficult 2017, much as 2014 proved quarrelsome for Tony Kelly. The unspoken subtext to winning Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year in a single season is that you become pitched into the national consciousness when still, essentially, finding your feet in an adult world. Gleeson and Kelly are the only two hurlers with that distinction and are, accordingly, cursed to hurl beneath the press of often irrational expectation.
Kelly was just 19 when the world tilted to his bidding. Everything that was there to win, he did in 2013. Louis Mulqueen has often spoken of Kelly's insouciant air as Clare began torqueing towards the mountain-top that summer. "They're all here to see you Tony," Mulqueen said to him of the 63,000 packed into Croke Park for their All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick.
And the response? "I know, throw me a ball there!"
Kelly's story captures one of the miracles of a modern GAA life. He comes from Ballyea, a tiny homeland south-west of Ennis, and a place of which his former club hurling manager Robbie Hogan said last year, "We're not even a village, we don't have a speed-bump or traffic lights in Ballyea!"
Yet Hogan was at the helm of a team that reached last year's All-Ireland Club final, Kelly its on-field talisman. And it was, remarkably, Tony Kelly's first game in Croke Park since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay.
Implicit in that statistic is the pressure building within Clare now. Last Sunday's loss to Cork was, remarkably, the county's tenth defeat in 11 Munster Championship games since they last reached the provincial final in 2008. This in a period during which they farmed four All-Ireland U-21 crowns.
Yet it was a game that also registered Kelly's first championship goal since his debut season in 2012. A portent of changed fortune?
For Gleeson, the past 12 months have, maybe, not been as worrisome as is conveniently portrayed. He has blamed himself for falling victim to "a stupidity mindset" that left him trying too hard to be the player his new status trumpeted. Compounding that frustration was Waterford's struggle to settle on his best position.
To this day, they haven't really done that.
Yet, his transcendent talent will always obscure any sense of struggle. He was quiet much of last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, yet then arced a sublime cross-field pass to Jamie Barron for a Hill end goal before, 90 seconds later, knifing a regal addition of his own.
For the latter, he should really have passed to an unmarked 'Brick' Walsh inside, but that very ungovernable quality gives Gleeson an irresistible presence on big championship days. In a split second, he can change from a guttering candle to a firework show.
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Robbie Hogan tells a story italicising the hidden conflict between celebrity and reality in a high-profile GAA life.
As Ballyea made their way to Dublin for the biggest day of their lives 14 months ago, their star man had his head in a pile of books for the entire journey. In 2015, Kelly changed college courses, moving from Limerick Institute of Technology to University of Limerick to pursue a career in teaching. And now the All-Ireland final against Cuala arrived slap-bang in the middle of exams.
That move to UL would have piqued public interest only in Fitzgibbon hurling terms. It meant moving college allegiance from Davy Fitzgerald (his Clare manager at the time) to Brian Lohan (a former county team-mate of Fitzgerald's, but no longer on speaking terms with him).
Kelly had been a key man on Fitzgerald's LIT team that beat Lohan's UL in a famous 1/6 upset during the 2014 Fitzgibbon, yet 12 months later was victorious on the other side. That fed a prurient narrative within sections of the Clare hurling public, deaf to the reality that - cognisant of Kelly's desire to teach - he'd left LIT with Fitzgerald's blessing.
When, in 2016, Kelly suffered a bad ankle injury during Clare training, ruling him out of the entire Fitzgibbon tournament, the Fitzgerald-Lohan narrative went into overdrive.
But the move to UL had been entirely for academic reasons, reasons now all too evident on Ballyea's journey to Dublin in March 2017. As Hogan puts it: "You have to remember that these guys are going through a time in their lives when they're trying to set a foundation for their futures in college.
"Going up to that club final on the bus, Tony was studying all the way. You know we forget that lads have lives outside hurling. They've college, they might have part-time jobs, they have girlfriends and the strain of trying to find that balance can sometimes be forgotten."
Kelly would be held scoreless by Cuala's John Sheanon in that final, an occurrence generating almost as much comment as the Dublin side's emphatic 12-point victory.
So it is with prodigies.
He was, after all, playing U-14 hurling as a nine-year-old, hurled for Clare minors in a Munster win at 16, captained them to a repeat the following year and all but became the poster-boy for that golden generation of U-21 Banner hurlers who, it seemed, were the blocks upon which a modern hurling dynasty was being built.
In his entire underage career, the only Munster defeat suffered by Kelly would be in the 2011 Munster U-21 semi-final against Limerick.
And, when Fitzgerald gave him his senior championship debut with Clare in 2012, he goaled against both Dublin and Limerick inside a single July week.
Fourteen months later, as Clare seniors won that spectacular All-Ireland final replay in 2013, Fitzgerald was quick to highlight the part Kelly's unselfish running played in ripping open the Cork defence.
But Clare never did quite reclaim that spark over the next three summers, failing to win a game in Munster and eventually parting company with the Sixmilebridge man in 2016, despite winning only their fourth National League crown and losing just two games all season.
That league win highlighted both Kelly's importance and commitment to Clare. With his ankle in a boot for five weeks, he attended every session, taking himself to the gym room in Caherlohan. Having missed the entire group stage, he then scored points with his first two touches in the semi-final destruction of Kilkenny.
And, by the time Clare got the better of Waterford in a final replay at Semple Stadium, Kelly was back to his best with a compelling 1-6 contribution, including the winning point from the toes of the Ryan Stand.
Yet, the subsequent replacement of Fitzgerald with U-21 joint managers, Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, hasn't - thus far at least - worked the oracle. Clare have lost three of four championship games played and for Kelly, now 24, so many assumptions have been ground to dust.
He remains, undeniably, a stand-out figure and last week's goal against Cork, created by a clever O'Donnell pass, suggested Kelly now has the midfield licence he has always craved to roam. Robbie Hogan believes that licence is a fundamental in getting the best out of the Ballyea man now.
"We tried Tony centre-forward and corner-forward," he says "but the most success we had was with him operating around the midfield area, where he had the freedom to move around. He's a guy who likes that because he's a very good reader of the game.
"You have to just trust him that he'll make the right decisions."
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Tomorrow presents Waterford's first competitive game since March 18 and, having suffered relegation in the league, they go into this championship denied the comforts of home in the weeks ahead.
Pressure is building then and, for McGrath a compromised hand in Ennis is not one that he will much appreciate. Yet, even if Gleeson was fully fit, the debate was sure to rage about where Waterford would be best advised to play him.
Last year, McGrath deployed him in a notional wing-forward role without the Mount Sion kid ever quite looking like he was on top of his brief. During their Munster Championship defeat to Cork in June, the Waterford sideline was in what looked constantly animated discussion with Gleeson about his responsibility to track Conor Lehane on Cork puck-outs. Eventually, he was replaced. If the modern county game was a simple matter of easy self-expression, Gleeson would be untouchable. But tactic has maybe never carried greater traction and, in this, Waterford have a puzzle to solve.
Simplistically, Gleeson's position should be as a number six as it was on the Waterford minor team that, five years ago, won the county's first All-Ireland since 1948. From there, he communicated all the attributes to become the modern version of his hero, Waterford and Mount Sion great Ken McGrath.
But the game has changed profoundly from when McGrath was a virtual force of nature on big Munster Championship days.
For starters, most teams purposefully avoid directing ball down on the opposition number six now and, just as significantly, few modern number 11 are inclined to stay in one position.
Gleeson was man of the match when Waterford beat Tipperary in the 2016 Munster U-21 final, yet the circumstance of that performance is worth exploring.
Starting at centre-back, he conceded 0-4 from play to his marker in the first half, thereafter being shifted to midfield where he, essentially, ran amok.
Because freed from the specifics of a man-marking duty (Conor Prunty filled in at six), Gleeson was a different player, often drifting back in behind his own full-back line to collect ball and instigate Waterford attacks.
His performance in that second half was a virtual tour de force, yet what did it resolve?
The best hurler Waterford have produced since McGrath and Paul Flynn and Tony Browne came in a single batch, is still - essentially - without an accepted best position.
That's disconcerting given it's six years now since he made his senior championship debut with Mount Sion, a second-half substitute at wing-forward against a De La Salle team including two of his school teachers at the time, Derek McGrath and Kevin Moran.
De La Salle won and Gleeson has spoken since of the strangeness of shaking McGrath's hand afterwards and uttering the immortal line: "Well done, sir!"
This will be his fourth season as a Waterford senior and there is no finer sight in the game than Gleeson soaring to a high ball.
Former Waterford player and selector (and current Wexford selector) Pauric Fanning is a fellow Mount Sion man who believes the best of Gleeson is yet to come.
"I'd say it was more the pressure he put on himself last year," says Fanning.
"Austin was always a fella who liked to hurl off the cuff, didn't think too deeply about things. But now, suddenly, he was being analysed and the expectation was huge. He had a few injuries that came at him at the wrong time too, but I think he dealt with it all okay.
"Better than people actually think he did.
"I mean there were still some games last year when he was actually magnificent. But he can be very hard on himself. Overly hard on himself actually."
Gleeson is Mount Sion's captain for the year ahead and is seen as a man who wears his fame lightly in the club. Last year, his uncle - Darren - managed their minors and U-16s and hardly a training session or game passed by without Austin Gleeson being on the line with water bottles.
"Just think what that was like for the young fellas," reflects Fanning "to look around and see the Hurler of the Year carrying their water bottles. He's just a class act Austin and I don't think we've seen the best of him yet."
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So two young gods of the game go to Ennis tomorrow, every neutral surely hoping it pitches both into a long summer.