Austin Gleeson: ‘We’re very close, like a club team, but it’s more than a club team’

From that helmet tug to that goal, to his relationship with manager Derek McGrath... Waterford’s Austin Gleeson sat down with Examiner Sport.
Austin Gleeson: ‘We’re very close, like a club team, but it’s more than a club team’

AUSTIN Gleeson strolls into the lobby of a Waterford hotel and relaxes into an armchair. The still point in a stormy world.

A couple of days beforehand, in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final, Gleeson scored one of the great Croke Park goals, slaloming through the Cork defence, before improvising his flicked finish, beating the best goalkeeper in the country.

He’d created another goal in that game, by picking a Cork defender’s pocket and spraying a pass the width of the stadium to Jamie Barron.

He also separated Luke Meade from his helmet, of course, and became the key reference point in a debate about GAA discipline that is raging across all media.

On top of all of that, there’s the minor matter of Waterford making a second All-Ireland senior hurling final in half a century, a chance to crowd the Gleeson sideboard further, to add a medal to last year’s ‘Young Hurler of the Year’ and ‘Hurler of the Year’ awards.

“Well,” says Gleeson. “Any news?”

By then, the Mount Sion man had been cleared to face Galway in the All-Ireland final. The rumbling over Meade’s helmet was beginning to recede, but Gleeson brings it up immediately.

“Look, it was an accident, I’d never harm a player deliberately. I’m just glad it was dealt with by the authorities and to be preparing for the All-Ireland final, to be honest.”

Like his contemporaries, he cites an obvious formative influence on his hurling career: “The Waterford team of Dan (Shanahan), Ken (McGrath), Tony (Browne), (John) Mullane, they were the example, really, simply because of the age profile.

“Take the 2009 Waterford minors, the likes of Philip Mahony and these guys, as well as our minor team in 2013. You’re talking about young lads who would have been between seven and 13, 14, when that Waterford team was in full flight. That’s the age when lads probably pick one sport and stick with it. You’re hitting 14 or so and it becomes a choice — soccer, Gaelic, or hurling.

“The fact that that Waterford side was flying high, I’ve no doubt that influenced lads in making their choices. I played hurling and soccer myself, together, ’til I was about 16, when I concentrated on hurling. But hurling was always number one, anyway. If I had an U12 hurling game and an U12 soccer game on a Saturday morning, I’d always have picked the hurling game.”

In 2004, Gleeson was nine, a small voice on the Killinan End for that year’s epochal Munster final.

“I could pick out for you where I was, in Thurles, that day. Right up in the corner of the terrace, with my father and my grandfather.

“It was an unbelievable day — the heat, the sun, the crowd, the atmosphere. It’d always stick in your mind. And to win it after John (Mullane) getting the red card, the other players standing up, then, to win the game for Waterford . . . it was unbelievable.

“We didn’t go onto the field after; the grandfather wasn’t too keen on going out, so we stayed together, up in the terrace.

“When you’re growing up, looking at those lads, they’re like heroes. Giants. Then, you get to 16, 17 and they’re there in the dressing-room. In my case, I was lucky enough, once I got to 17, that I was brought into the Mount Sion senior set-up. I played with Ken and Eoin McGrath and Tony Browne.

“That was massive for me. They were trying to help you, to improve you, and if one of them said they saw some potential in you, sure you’d be trying to drive yourself on, then, all the time.”

The influences aren’t limited to the club. Gleeson attended De La Salle college, where a Mr. McGrath was prominent on the staff.

“From first to third year, I didn’t have Derek as a teacher. When I was in transition year, he was the PE teacher, so I got to know him then.

“As a manager, he was over the White Cup team (U15 Munster Colleges), but we got beaten in the first round. The following year, we got to the semi-final of the Dean Ryan, though, where we came up against a Blackwater team with the Bennetts and the Kearneys, up in Clashmore, a horrible, wet day.”

The conditions are important. It was a day when a good deal went wrong for De La Salle, but Gleeson caught a glimpse of the future Waterford manager’s determination. “Looking back... we forgot the water bottles, we forgot the first aid, we forgot the jerseys, even. We had to borrow Clashmore club jerseys for the game. Derek was good to get us focused on the match itself, though. He kept up with, ‘put all that out of your heads, forget the jersey you’ve on, you’re representing De La Salle. Give it your all’.

“You could see then, though, that he was determined about getting going on the field, never mind what was happening away from that.”

Much of what’s happened away from the field, this summer, has been a wringing of hands about sweepers, with Waterford indicted for spoiling everyone’s expectations of 15-on-15 action. Gleeson doesn’t pretend he hasn’t noticed the debate.

“You’re aware of it. You might catch a glimpse on the paper or on the television, without getting into it too much.

“As I’ve said a hundred times before, we believe in the management. Anything they say to us to do, we’ll do it. I think we’ve an average score this season of 2-23, or something like that — for a supposedly defensive team, it’s not bad. You wouldn’t think a defensive team would be scoring like that.

“It’s been said, a couple of times, that we’re very close, like a club team, but it’s more than a club team. We’re together so much at training, and, when we’re not, fellas keep in touch with the WhatsApp groups and have a laugh there — we’re together nearly every day. For want of a better word, it’s like a family, because you’re with the other players more than you are with your own family.”

Before we leave the semi-final altogether, where did that goal come from?

“I was lucky,” he says. “Lucky I dropped the ball. Paraic (Mahony) gave me the handpass and I swung the hurley to take the shot, but I dropped the ball. Mark Ellis came in to block me, but, when it dropped, that took him out of the equation.

“I caught it and took off, but, looking back, I could have been absolutely ridiculed for not passing the ball off to Brick. If it happened in the Cul Camp, I’d have been telling the kid to pass it off, certainly. It just happens like that. It opens up. You go for it.”

Gleeson and and Tadhg de Burca were doing the Cul Camp, up in Ardmore, the week after the Cork game.

“At one stage, Tadhg turned around to me and said, ‘we’re in an All-Ireland final’, as if to say it’s like another game.

“It didn’t hit yet, really. Maybe, when we get closer to the game itself, it will, when the city and county really starts revving up for it. The week after the All-Ireland semi-final win, there were a good few at some of the training sessions, but that’s shut down now. We’re going to just worry about ourselves.”

In 2008, their last All-Ireland final appearance, Waterford had nobody in the dressing-room who’d gone down the tunnel to play an All-Ireland senior final. This time, they have.

“It’s unreal to have Brick (Walsh) and Kevin (Moran) around, and not just in terms of their experience off the field, but their experience of getting ready for the 2008 All-Ireland final.

“Go back to Brick. He was phenomenal early on against Cork, with that goal, and against Wexford he settled everybody early on. He was outstanding in the first quarter, in particular.

“Kevin was brilliant against Wexford and Cork, as well, and maybe there’s a bit of hurt driving them on. They were ridiculed in their own county after the first game against Cork, in the Munster championship, fellas saying their legs were gone — they’ve been proving everybody wrong all summer.

“Brick spoke the last day, at half-time, and everyone realised, really, what was at stake. He said that it was now or never, that we had to go out and defeat Cork, and it sank in; we had to go out and give it our all.”

A narrative has already formed around this Sunday: Joe Canning versus Austin Gleeson, the shoot-out of the season. It’s unlikely, however, that the two players will line up against each other. Gleeson himself points that out, adding he’ll be looking to fulfil his appointed role.

“Look, whatever job Derek and the lads have for me on Sunday, that’s what I’ll be focused on, totally.

“To be even mentioned in the same breath as Joe Canning . . . he’s one of the players I looked up to as a kid, and I think this will be the first time I’ve played against him in a proper championship game. It’s going to be unreal.

“The way both Waterford and Galway have been playing all year, we mightn’t even be near each other, so that might be something people won’t see. But just to be playing against Galway, anyway, a fine, big, physical team — they’ve won the league, they’ve won Leinster, so they’re looking to win it all this year.

“Whatever the lads want me to do, though, I’ll do it. If they tell me to go in corner-forward, then that’s it. You see Aidan O’Shea playing for Mayo against Kerry. He’s not used to playing full-back, but they asked him to do a job for the team and he went and did it.

“That’s the thing in any county team, hurling or football; the team is the focus, not yourself.”

It’s a point missed by many observers, not least in his own county, where the criticism can be pretty sharp — and personal.

“It surprises me, definitely. I know Derek since I was 12 or 13, but, obviously, I’ve gotten to know him better in the last few years, since he’s taken over Waterford.

“He’s not a team manager, he’s a player manager, really. He wants the best for his players and does all he possibly can for all of us. Because of that, we’ll give everything we can for him.

“I know he doesn’t take much notice of the criticism, but I’d take it in, and the other lads on the panel are the same. We feel we owe it to him to perform when we go out, because he can get ridiculed by people who might be sitting beside him at a match, all friendly, and then take a bite out of him when his back is turned.

“We’d use that as motivation among ourselves going into games.”

Motivation won’t be a problem this Sunday, though.

“No,” says Gleeson. “We’ll be up for that one.”

Littlewoods Ireland are showcasing the most skilful and stylish moments of this year’s hurling All Ireland senior championship through their #StyleOfPlay moments campaign. Check out the best videos from this year’s championship on the Littlewoods Ireland Facebook page.

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