Dessie Hutchinson’s return one of key elements of Waterford’s revival

His story a useful caution for aspiring footballers and a fabulous tale of reinvention

Waterford’s Dessie Hutchinson in action during the qualifier win over Galway at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Waterford’s Dessie Hutchinson in action during the qualifier win over Galway at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

An unusual aspect of Waterford’s pulsating win over Galway last Saturday was the absence of Dessie Hutchinson’s name from a score-sheet in which the team registered 3-23 and had 11 different scorers.

But on the following evening’s Sunday Game show, it was a play involving the Ballygunner man which former Waterford manager Derek McGrath highlighted to illustrate a point. The analysis centred on the increasing importance of the isolated inside-forward in hurling.

The clip showed Hutchinson winning the ball despite the presence of his marker and a sweeping Galway defender.

“You can be sure that every situation invariably for an up-top forward will be two on one. The difference here is Dessie’s skill level- to jink, use his feet.”

For the second consecutive year Waterford are gaining momentum at the perfect time. Saturday’s rampaging win over Galway turned out to be a watershed day for hurling: a last hurrah for the virtuoso Joe Canning, who on Wednesday announced that he was done.

Canning has been at the epicentre of Galway’s hurling story for close on two decades, from his breakout year as a startling prodigy to what proved to be his final act in a Galway shirt: a gorgeous disguised pass to Jason Flynn for a late goal that threatened Waterford’s day. Canning’s future was preordained. If anything, he surpassed the intense expectations. And among the tributes this week has been the acknowledgement that it was a mercy that such an incandescent talent leaves with a Celtic Cross.

Of course, Galway won that All-Ireland, their first in 29 years, at Waterford’s expense. That defeat in 2017 felt like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Deise. A year later, Limerick came screaming out of Division 2 to win it all and reset the standards. Waterford seemed to be starting from scratch after Derek McGrath stepped away. Yet they were back in an All-Ireland final in the Arctic chill of last December and face Tipperary at lunchtime today for a place in the last four.

This despite a series of debilitating injuries and the composition of a team that has changed radically since 2017.

“A massive performance,” says Ballygunner manager Darragh O’ Sullivan of that win over Galway.

“You have to take your hat off to Liam Cahill and the lads because they have been dealt a really difficult hand. Tipperary are going to bring another serious challenge on Saturday but if they can back it up they have a massive opportunity. If you look back at the team that was there then, over three years there has been some turn around.

“I would say there are seven or eight of them gone. He has done a great job and they all have to become really competitive again. Last year was a huge step forward and to get back to an All-Ireland semi-final, it would be great.”

The emergence of Hutchinson has been one of the key elements of Waterford’s revival. The story of his return from England after five years spent on the books with Brighton and Hove Albion is at once a useful caution for aspiring footballers and a fabulous tale of reinvention.

Dessie Hutchinson celebrates scoring a goal against Tipperary during the league. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Dessie Hutchinson celebrates scoring a goal against Tipperary during the league. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Hutchinson’s facility for leaving football and returning to the sport with which he had starred as a child was eye-catching in the way he stormed through the Waterford championship of 2019 and 2020 as Ballygunner closed in on a seventh consecutive title. But O’Sullivan, the senior team manager, wasn’t surprised that he has been able to slip into the elite tier of inter-county hurling so smoothly.

“You must understand that this guy was the best at his age underage. It wasn’t as if he was coming from not having the natural hurling skill set. So if you take that skillset he had as a kid and exposed to a professional environment, the foundations were very very solid.

“And when he came to the Ballygunner set up, he was only back six to eight weeks against Ballyhale [in February 2019] so he didn’t play on that day but within three or four months he was phenomenal. You can’t underestimate the benefit of being in a professional environment.”

The core of Hutchinson’s qualities are contained within the apparent contradiction: what he was doing within 12 weeks of returning to the sport was amazing but nobody involved in hurling in the locality was all that surprised.

Hurley

O’Sullivan says that the attitude within the club when Hutchinson was signed by Brighton as a teenager was happiness. “You’d be delighted for the kid. We always encourage kids to play other sports until 17 or 18 and then if you want to be elite you choose. But to see a young person getting an opportunity like that, you wish them luck.”

Coping with Hutchinson will be a central part of Tipperary’s plans

He took a hurley with him to England to help him fill the many hours when he wasn’t training. When he returned home on holidays, he fell into the natural habit of hitting a ball around with friends. So he had lost none of the subtlety when it came to his touch.

“That was his strongest part. The family background he had - he constantly as a kid had a hurley in his hand. At a very early age people were talking about Dessie. So when came back, he went back to play football with Waterford but he turned up to every single session with us. He didn’t do the physical stuff with us but he did all the hurling.”

Not long afterwards, O’Sullivan and Hutchinson sat down and the manager enquired about his long term plans and ambitions within the game. He said he’d loved to play with the Waterford hurlers.

“I said: in order to do that you have to maximise the time you spend with a hurley in your hand. Because everything else is going to be fine. And he is still improving. If you put a camera on him: the work he does off the ball is phenomenal.”

As a young professional athlete, Hutchinson had gone through considerable turmoil. His performances for Ballygunner earned him a club All-Star in 2019 and that autumn, he did a series of sponsored interviews in which he spoke with admirable clarity about the reality of making it as a professional. Hutchinson was - is - obviously exceptional at soccer.

He moved to Brighton at 16 and was there when the club gained promotion to the Premier League under Chris Hughton. “An unbelievable manager, I loved working with him,” he told Ian O’Riordan. “Obviously Chris was fighting to keep Brighton in the Premier League. And it’s a big risk to throw in a young lad. But that’s what a young lad needs - they need to be given a chance and a bit of luck to get in.”

Frighteningly, of the group of apprentice footballers he joined, not a single player remains in the game. The same is true of the year above him. The culling process is brutal. Either a player has outrageous talent or he needs cards to fall in a certain way.

Hutchinson played for the first team in the League Cup: close enough to feel it. But a lack of opportunity, an unwillingness by the club to send him on loan and an injury when he really needed to shine convinced him to return home after his release in 2018.

“When he came back it was to play with Waterford United and I’d say there were offers on the table to play with other English clubs. But he wanted to come home, like,” explains O’Sullivan. “Dessie has a strong group of friends here. Even when he was back in the summer, he was always up in the field. He may have played an Under-21 game in the early days of Brighton. So he has a support network around him.”

Hutchinson said that on the football fields of England, he never felt particularly fast. On the hurling fields, he looks like a bolt of lightning.

“He was always fast underage. He was always quick,” O’ Sullivan says.

“But his feet were what stood out; just how quick he was. I’d say they improved that at Brighton. And he was so committed with it too. He did everything right there and understood that the standards were high here in the club and he would have driven that on even more.”

That elusiveness and empathetic movement have been transferred to the Waterford senior team with precious little settling in time. His 2-2 in last year’s quarter final against Clare highlighted his scoring potency. Galway were alerted as to his potential to damage when he took them for 1-3 in the league game in June.

In their championship encounter last Saturday, he was more target man and foil and constant worry, dragging the maroon defenders out of position and creating the gaps for his team-mates. Coping with Hutchinson will be a central part of Tipperary’s plans today.

There is a growing sense that the fullest part of Dessie Hutchinson’s life in sport has yet to come.

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