A long night in Dublin proved productive for Austin Gleeson recently. The Waterford hurler went up for the All-Stars bash and came home with a few baubles clinking in the gearbag: Young hurler of the year and hurler of the year.
Plus the All-Star award itself for centre-forward. The celebrations were mad (“Yeah, a great night”) and on the road down Gleeson stopped off to watch a Mount Sion junior game. He went back to the club afterwards and the celebrations started all over again.
“We were there for the afternoon, and the afternoon became the evening fairly quick,” he says now.
“It was great. Kids getting their photos taken with the trophies, all of that. Only a couple of years ago that was me with the likes of Ken (McGrath) and Tony (Browne), it’s not that long at all.”
Ken and Tony were there too.
Gleeson came up through the club ranks with an eye on the senior s leading the way, and McGrath and Browne were two of the pathfinders. If the new man could remember who took the photo, the evidence of succession would be very real: “We got a picture taken of the three of us with the trophies, and then it became the four of us, Jim Greene (Waterford’s first All-Star) stood in. Of course, he said he was the best centre-back there...”
The lazy description of any player scaling the heights Gleeson has reached in the last couple of years is that he’s a product of his environment: His club, in other words.
Mount Sion pops up repeatedly in Gleeson’s conversation — on a ‘winner stays on’ basis he tends to dominate the club pool table, by his own account - but you’re probably more familiar with his performances in the county jersey, and in particular fighting Kilkenny to a draw and replay in the All-Ireland semi-final. The final stages of that replay, Pauric Mahony’s long-range free being hauled down by Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy, stay with Gleeson. So does the aftermath.
“Pauric caught the free well, I was thinking ‘extra time here’ myself, but it was some catch from Eoin Murphy, fair dues to him.
“The dressing-room afterwards... it was devastation. Silence. I don’t think I was ever in a dressing-room like that, not a word spoken for ages. I’d say it was 40 minutes before anybody opened their mouths, the disappointment was so intense. Disappointment wouldn’t cover it, really. It was deeper than that.
“People were saying after that we had the U21s as consolation. That’s not how it felt at the time. You’re so devastated because you’ve come so close that you can’t see anything, let alone think about playing again.”
They did, though. With a dozen senior panellists sprinkled through the U21 squad, it was no surprise to see Waterford cruise through the provincial series. In the All-Ireland final they duly rolled over Galway as well.
“It was fantastic — and to win it in Thurles, too, where we’d lost to Kilkenny. A few people have said since that it made a change for a Waterford team to be red-hot favourites in a big game and to carry through with a performance, that was a pleasing part of it.
“And it was great just to win it for ourselves, too. Since we won I’ve lost count of the number of people saying ‘well, this is a great sign for Waterford at senior level’, and it is a good sign I suppose, but there’s also the fact that team was together from U14 up, really, through all the development squads and so on. It was great to finish off our time together with an All-Ireland title.”
Of course Gleeson’s year finished with those three awards: “I was delighted to get them, obviously. Seamus (Callanan) had a great year, so did Paudie Maher, you wouldn’t have begrudged the hurler of the year award to either of them. I was delighted for the team, because I saw the awards as a recognition of all the work that Derek (McGrath) and the lads have put in for the last couple of years.
“That’s what it really stands for — it’s a team game, no matter how good a player is he’s depending on the support of the other lads on the team. It’s nice, obviously, to be getting those awards, but that’s how I prefer to see them — as a recognition of what everyone is putting in for the cause.”
Next season will be different for Gleeson — and for Waterford. Getting close enough to see September brings its own pressures, but he and a scatter of others won’t have U21 duty to distract them. A year older, a year stronger.
“We nearly made it to the All-Ireland, but nearly doesn’t count. We know that. Every team begins with a blank slate in January, we’re no different. You’d look at where we went in 2016 and it looks positive — league final and replay, Munster final, All-Ireland semi-final and replay.
“But the other side of that is we didn’t win anything. Lost the league final replay, lost the Munster final, lost that semi-final replay. The year before we got the league title but never really played in the All-Ireland semi-final, so you could say there’s progress, but it’s only progress if you can build on it next year. That’s the challenge.
“Other counties aren’t standing still either. Tipperary will kick on after winning the All-Ireland. Kilkenny aren’t finished by a long shot — only a fool would think they’re gone.
“Clare have new management, Wexford the same. Every team will be confident they can win something next year.”
As for winning something this year, Gleeson’s mantelpiece is surely complaining. Though there seemed to be some talk in Mount Sion he lost his crown as king of the pool table in a shock defeat a few weeks ago?
“Wait a second, didn’t anyone tell you I won the rematch?”
There it is: Austin Gleeson’s 2016 in a nutshell.
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