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Gleeson's judgement day

Midfielder must be on guard against old pal TUESDAY in Templemore. There is a stillness across the southern plains.

It is the heavy, nervy quiet that precedes an electrical storm. The birds have left the trees, the cattle are gone to shelter. And hurling men keep their voices low.

In Polly's bar, just by the gate of the training college, Conor Gleeson settles down with a Lucozade, his legs stretching at an angle beneath the table like fallen cranes. He radiates athleticism in the feeble gloom. Six foot, three. Fourteen stone, plus. Square shoulders. Cheek-bones you could cut paper with.

Gleeson wears track-suit bottoms and a Garda polo-shirt but, even in slippers and smoking jacket, he could not pass for a dilettante.

In the week of Tipperary-Clare, a game that gets the hurling world weak at the knees, there is no giddiness in his bearing. Four summers ago, Gleeson was captain of a team that made unwanted history. They lost twice in the one Championship. Worse, both losses were to the same team.

It was a curious time, that summer of '97. In both the Munster and All-Ireland finals, Gleeson's direct opponent at midfield was Ollie Baker, a man he had partnered during the Garda college's Fitzgibbon Cup challenge that spring.

If Tipp-Clare was defined by hard-core physicality dusted with the faintest spite, Gleeson and Baker were commissioned to operate at the epicentre. Friends re-invented as cussed foe.

Tipp lost both tussles by a single score and their captain, the first Boherlahan man to lead the county since 1925, ended the All-Ireland final by spilling an 80-yard bid for parity wide. He hadn't played well in the game and, in a sense, that injury-time miss proved a kind of metaphor for his day. Seemed it just wasn't meant to be for Conor Gleeson.

Four years on, he has still not nailed his name across Tipp's story. In fact, Gleeson was not even part of the county panel last summer. As Nicky English's team torqued towards the mountain-top, Gleeson brooded in gloomy exile, discarded by a manager who doubted his condition.

An ex-county hurler at 27?

It wasn't mean to be this way. The tall, rangy centre-back that impressed Fr Tom Fogarty in late '94 during a county U21 final against Knockavilla, looked to have greatness in his bearing.

Tipp's need for a towering number six had prevailed throughout the entirety of 'Babs' Keating's tenure. Bobby Ryan played there in the All-Ireland wins of '89 and '91, a great, flaring presence right enough, yet armed with neither the height nor length of delivery to be anything but a bantam asked to fight at middle.

Fogarty remembers "Tipp were crying out for a big centre-back when I replaced 'Babs'. Over the years, we had tried John McIntyre, John Kennedy, Bobby and a few others and no-one had really made the jersey their own.

"Conor looked like the answer to our prayers. He was a big, athletic player with plenty of hurling. Good under a high ball, he could strike off either side and had great presence.

"But, maybe we were asking an awful lot of him. Because he was very inexperienced. I found him a happy-go-lucky type who seemed to lack the killer instinct."

So, too, did Fogarty's successor, Len Gaynor. Gleeson had an ambling quality. Powerful, yet strangely passive. Perhaps too gentle for the whirling summer dance.

In October of '99, after Tipp's Championship campaign had atrophied so brutally in the sequel against Clare, English recalled the squad to winter training.

By January, they were labouring in the salt mines, hard runs across the Devil's Bit mountain designed to pare away diffidence. One foul Saturday, they scraped themselves off the hill to play an evening challenge against Waterford IT. Gleeson, a second-half midfield substitute, hurled poorly.

That night, English advised him to take a break from the panel and set about improving his physical condition. He had done much the same a year earlier, monitoring Gleeson's progress by meeting up for an occasional run in the Dublin mountains.

In '99, the arrangement led to a recall and dramatic inclusion at Declan Carr's expense for the first game against Clare. But in 2000, the phone-call never came.

Gleeson recalls "I wouldn't be the most stylish hurler in the world and I just think Nicky had someone else in mind to do the mullocking. He thought my attitude was wrong, that I wasn't interested enough.

"But I had missed just two training sessions in the three months before Christmas and I had a good reason on both occasions. Anyway, he told me to go away and train, that he'd give me a shout back. But he never phoned.

"I was waiting and waiting and waiting and it never came. That made it even harder because I felt I was as good, if not better than, a few people on the panel.

"But I sensed all the time that I was going nowhere if I stayed in Dublin."

The suspicion was largely justified. English believed that Gleeson's hurling was forever doomed with equivocation while he commuted from the Capital.

He recalls now "It's difficult for anybody working in Dublin, given the kind of athlete that we want in Tipperary. I never doubted Conor's heart or desire to play. I just felt he wasn't in a position to get into the proper shape.

"But he's in the right kind of environment now and playing really well. He's matured a lot and is really leading the show this time."

Still, more than six years on from his introduction to county hurling, Gleeson has yet to make the impact Fr Fogarty first envisaged.

He is 28 now, a year older than his great adversary, Baker. Yet, with none of the garlands that have fallen at the feet of the Barefield man. The move back to Templemore persuaded English to recall him to the county panel. But Gleeson remains, fundamentally, a work in progress.

He admits as much, confirming "I've never been a certainty on the team. Even at the start of this year, if you asked anyone who they'd pick in Tipp's midfield, I wouldn't have been included.

"I suppose the position is there for the taking. Nobody has nailed it down over the years. But my circumstances are much better this year. Physically, I'm in much better condition. I suppose mentally as well. I'm prepared for it as well as I could ever be.

"So I've no excuses. If I don't hurl well this year, then I'm just not cut out for it."

Fogarty describes Gleeson's performance in the recent League final against Clare as the best he has seen him give in a Tipperary jersey. He sensed a dimension to the midfielder's play that day which, previously, had been merely threatened.

Lean in physique, sure of touch and clever in delivery, Gleeson seemed to out-last the Banner pairing of Baker and Colin Lynch. But Championship, as ever, will be the final arbiter.

He is cocooned blissfully on gym-duty in Templemore now, surrounded by hurling men like current Tipp selector, Ken Hogan, and former Offaly great, Joachim Kelly. Men who understand the emotional dynamics of this kind of week. Who know when a man wants to talk and when he doesn't.

Nerves have been slow to take root though Gleeson did feel a strange frisson down his spine watching Limerick and Cork last Sunday.

He detects a kind of stoic resolution in Tipp supporters just now, a sense that they like the look of what English is building, yet remain wary of the tripwires. Young fliers like Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly have dancing feet but, then, Tipp have never been short of dancers. And, in Championship, Adair tends to be a safer bet than Astaire. Tomorrow will bring Corbett and Kelly to a place they've never been before.

Yet, Gleeson believes they will meet it in their stride.

He observes "I think Tipp people generally are cute enough this time. We've been beaten sorely a few times over the last number of years so no-one's getting cocky. Who knows what's going to happen? But the two young lads, it's hard to explain, they just seem to have it.

"I think they have what it takes to be Championship hurlers. I wouldn't worry about them at all. It's going to be a tough, fast, physical game but I think they'll be able to deal with it.

"They're not cocky by any means. But the two of them are confident. And, more importantly, they're tough."

Recently, Gleeson sat at home with his father, watching a video of the League final. Afterwards, they put on a recording of last year's Championship game with Clare. The difference in tempo was startling, "like someone pressed a fast-forward button" he says.

So nothing that has gone in the League will mislead him about what's coming. Clare have patented an intensity for summer that burns away ambivalence or pretence. And Baker remains a cornerstone.

Garda lost that Fitzgibbon final in '97 to UCC, but friendships still prevail. "Ollie and myself get on fine, we get on well," confirms Gleeson. "But I can't imagine we'll be having a big conversation on Sunday.

"I'm playing for Tipp and he's playing for Clare. We'll be doing our very best for our counties. There'll be no problem having a chat afterwards, but not before.

"This is serious."

Serious and unforgiving. Tomorrow's winners inherit the earth, the losers take leave of summer. Fr Fogarty believes the collision of midfield giants might well define the story. He senses Gleeson is ready to deliver.

"He looks to have matured, to have a greater sense of purpose this time," suggests Fogarty. "I thought he dominated the League final after the first fifteen minutes. He's more focused. A powerful man beginning to use his power."

Size matters then. But serenity is what sets it free.