A couple of weeks back Austin Gleeson gave a superb exhibition of centre-back play in Walsh Park for the Waterford U21s as they rolled to an impressive victory over Tipperary in the Munster final.

For many fans Gleeson’s power, fielding and striking were classical evocations of some of his predecessors in the white and blue number six jersey: The kind of players that teams were traditionally built around.

What’s unusual, though, is just how many of those predecessors also came from Gleeson’s club, Mount Sion.

Going back to the 30s , when the Waterford city club was founded, it was providing one of the game’s immortals at centre-back.

John Keane would end up as the number six on both the GAA’s Team of the Millennium and Team of the Century, and he forged his reputation as the anchor of the Waterford defence on the toughest anvil of all: Mick Mackey, then at his considerable peak with Limerick.

For the nitpickers who might quibble with classifying Gleeson as a centre-back, given his licence to roam the middle third of the field with the blessing of the current Waterford management, consider this reminiscence from Seamus Ó Braonain, which was published in Gaelic Sport magazine on his death in 1975. Asked by the young Ó Braonain how he approached marking Mackey, Keane’s description of his tactical approach were as shocking an innovation then as talk of a sweeper.

“I was a terribly long time thinking about it. God forgive me, even at Mass it used to come into my head. But, in the end I decided there was only one possible way to beat Mackey — get out in front of him for every ball and never let it reach him at all.”

His audience responded with some nervousness: “But, John, weren’t you taking a terrible risk. Supposing you missed the ball, Mackey would be through on his own?”

“Ah, but that’s the thing, you see,” said Keane, as though speaking to a dense child. “I wouldn’t miss.”

By common consent, Keane had pushed past his best as Waterford hunted a first All-Ireland title in the late 40s, but he was on hand when they made the breakthrough in 1948 — a goal-scoring centre-forward rather than a defensive lynchpin. On Hill 16 that day was the man who would become Waterford’s next great centre-back: Martin Óg Morrissey, another Mount Sion man.

The inter-county game could be a matter of physical confrontations in the 50s, and Morrissey didn’t yield in any of those exchanges. A Tipperary contemporary recalled a younger team-mate testing Morrissey’s resolve early on in a Waterford-Tipperary game and having his challenge returned with interest; Morrissey suggested if the newcomer wanted to continue in the full of his health, never mind continue playing for Tipperary, he might want to rethink his approach.

Morrissey’s father was a Kilkenny man but his son was a key man in Waterford’s defeat of their neighbours in the 1959 All-Ireland final replay (“He was a Kilkenny man but when I was playing he was a Waterford man,” Morrissey told reporters before the 2008 All-Ireland final. “If Waterford weren’t playing Sunday, I’d be shouting for Kilkenny.”)

The centre-back had a memento from the drawn game: The final whistle sounded with Morrissey under the ball and he fielded it cleanly. When he turned around his mother and sister had already made it across the Croke Park field to him.

He slipped the ball into his mother’s handbag and has had it at home at ever since.

To illustrate the continuity, Morrissey had a good mentor at that time: John Keane was involved in the backroom team with that All-Ireland-winning side. When the younger Mount Sion man retired from the inter-county side in the 60s, as Waterford’s long fallow period began, it would be well into the following decade when another Mount Sion man took the Waterford number six jersey: Pat McGrath would be the centre-back and captain when the Déise emerged from the wilderness and made it to the 1982 Munster senior final.

Mount Sion’s Martin O’Neill takes on Lismore’s John Prendegast in 2015
Mount Sion’s Martin O’Neill takes on Lismore’s John Prendegast in 2015

“Oh, an absolutely gifted player, he really was,” was Justin McCarthy’s description of McGrath when the Corkman was managing Waterford in the last decade.

“Primarily a wing back, but you’d play him anywhere. He had a real natural gift for the game. And, funnily, his game was almost a blend of both Eoin’s and Ken’s. You can see his style in each of them. Ken has his first touch and the obvious athletic ability.”

McCarthy was speaking in the run-up to Waterford’s breakthrough Munster final win over 2002 when he extolled Pat McGrath’s virtues; his reference points, Eoin and Ken, were Pat’s sons.

Though Ken was the dazzling attacker who went on to hit seven points in that Munster final victory, McCarthy saw a centre-back in him and by the 2004 Munster final he was in the centre of the Waterford defence — taking the opposite journey to John Keane in 1948, captaining the side against Cork as his father had in 1982.

Never just a stopper, McGrath hit a monster point from his own half in that classic decider against Cork and in an odd echo of the drawn 1959 All-Ireland final and Martin Óg Morrissey’s game-ending catch, that particular Munster final ended as a contest when McGrath fielded a Cork clearance in injury time.

Four years later then Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald moved McGrath back to full-back to prevent the team leaking goals. It was a move that didn’t sit well with some observers in Waterford.

“To my mind, he’s capable of having more of an influence on the game when playing at centre-back. When he’s on the edge of the square, he’s not in the thick of things and can’t help out the attack the way he can when he lines out at centre-back, like the last game.”

That was Pat McGrath in 2008 talking about his son Ken, who duly wore the number six in that year’s All-Ireland final. If they know anything in Mount Sion they know centre-backs. Austin Gleeson is just another one in a long, long line.

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