Dessie Hutchinson lit up Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Saturday evening for Waterford, ending the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final against Clare with 2-2.
His background in professional soccer with Brighton is well known. His introduction to inter-county action with Waterford? Not so much.
“Dessie had fallen in with Gaultier in the club championship,” says former Waterford football boss Benji Whelan.
“That alerted us to the fact that he was home. We invited him in and he trained with us after Christmas, so he missed a lot of the pre-season in 2018-19.
“He figured in a few league games and started then in the championship.”
Whelan found Hutchinson’s sharpness very impressive: “He had a different level of fitness. Obviously with Gaelic football there are different fitness requirements even within the game depending on the position you’re playing, but Dessie was very sharp, very quick.
“He had very good acceleration and deceleration, very good change of direction.
“But in fairness, we probably didn’t see that aspect of his fitness because we played him as an inside forward.
“He was so quick, and so good with both left and right, that we wanted to keep him close to goal. Where we are, scorers are critical. They’re critical for everybody, but we could always do with more finishers, so we kept him where he could do damage for us.
“He’s a shy lad and certainly wasn’t saying ‘this is how you do it’ in the dressing room. When he joined us, he was just getting back into the GAA side of things, so he was quiet in the dressing room.
“I’m sure he has leadership qualities that will come out if he stays with it for any length of time.”
Whelan was not surprised by Hutchinson’s tour de force in Cork.
“No, particularly having seen him in action for Ballygunner in the club championship here for the last couple of years.
“My concern was that against a higher level of defender and with less space in front of him he might have issues, but he’s found space and the lads have been able to find him in space.
“Even if he’s travelling towards the corner flag, once he gets the ball in his hand he has the potential to be devastating — but he needs the other forwards to chip in too, he can’t do it all on his own.”
His club manager was not surprised either. Darragh O’Sullivan has seen Hutchinson blossom in the red and black of Ballygunner.
“We’re delighted to see how well he’s doing with the county, obviously. Every day he goes out he seems to be getting better as well.
“Everyone saw his performance last weekend against Clare and there were a few little things in that game that he mightn’t have tried in earlier games.
“That’s what comes with experience, the experience of playing the game at that level.
“When he’s been out of the game for so long, the reality is that he’s going to improve the more games he plays — just practice alone, getting more games, would do that — but I think the speed with which he’s improving has been hard to believe.
“He’s done very well so far, and last weekend was obviously the highlight to date, but I think he’s still improving, which is encouraging.”
O’Sullivan gives Hutchinson top marks for his work ethic. He says: “What people wouldn’t see is how hard Dessie works. He puts huge time into his game. We’d see that at training, obviously, but if you watch him in a game you’ll see that work ethic as well. The amount of work he’s doing off the ball is phenomenal.
“That’s the basis for everything in every sport, a good work ethic and he certainly has it. I think that’s a huge reason he’s getting the rewards he’s getting now.
“When he fell back in with us after Brighton it was November, the year Ballyhale beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was very late in the year and I’d say the lads [management] didn’t have long enough with him to work out whether to throw him in or not — I’d say if they had their time over they might have chanced him.
“When I sat down with him then as Ballygunner manager he was on the Waterford senior football panel, and I can remember talking to him about senior hurling.
“He came to all our club training sessions that time, even though he was with the county footballers: he didn’t do any physical stuff, he was doing that with the county team, but he worked hard on his hurling in that period as well, and that really helped to get his hurling back up to the level that he needed.”
O’Sullivan acknowledges that Hutchinson’s displays with Ballygunner created an “expectation” about him getting to the next level.
“It’s not a huge surprise that he’s done so well, but I think the rest of the Waterford team is beginning to recognise the way he plays and how to use him — I’m sure Liam [Cahill, manager] and the rest of the backroom are working on that as well, because with Ballygunner, we’d have focused on how to use him to maximum effect ourselves — ‘this is where we need to get the ball to him’.
“Saturday is going to be a different challenge, and I’m sure he’ll come in for some special attention. Even without crowds and with a quiet enough build-up, an All-Ireland semi-final is obviously going to be a pressure situation anyway, though at least they’ve been through the build-up to the Munster final as well.
“In fairness, he seems to be revelling in his role but he’s a lot to learn yet. I wouldn’t be putting him under too much pressure because, as Benji said, he’s only one of 15 players, and Waterford will need them all to perform against Kilkenny, not just one or two.” Will the wide open spaces and decent surface in Croke Park suit him?
“They should,” says Whelan.
“He’s a very clever player and he’ll hold his run, or do a multi-directional run to get separation from the defender - there’s no doubt the skills are there, his second goal showed that last weekend against Clare.”
O’Sullivan says: “Absolutely, though he was very good for us in the Munster club championship last year, in absolutely terrible conditions.
“But you’d think that an open field like that would suit him, the surface in Croke Park and Páirc Uí Chaoimh look very good. But that’s true of every forward now, isn’t it? They all want space and good surfaces.”
They do. Will both be available tomorrow night, though?