Deep into extra-time of an FA Cup semi-final in 1999, Ryan Giggs intercepted a tired pass from Patrick Viera in his own half and then evaded four tackles before lashing a pile-driver of a shot past David Seaman. If you don't remember it from the night itself, you've seen it a million times since. It was a total Roy of the Rovers moment.
The hurling goal that reminds me most of it was scored by Austin Gleeson on his championship debut for Waterford against Cork in 2014. Aidan Walsh takes a sideline cut that Gleeson intercepts on the Cork 65. Walsh comes over to try and foul him but he brushes him off and heads off down the exact same area of the pitch Giggs did 15 years before.
He leaves four Cork players for dead and buries it past Anthony Nash before Mark Ellis can get across to cut him off. Like the Giggs goal 15 years earlier, you remember the audacity of it as much as the skill. It was exactly what was needed in the circumstances but how many people on the pitch would have even thought to try it?
A goal like that from anybody makes you sit up and take notice. When it comes from a lad playing in his first championship game you go, ‘Hang on a minute here, this could be somebody special.’ In that game, he had already scored a point from a sideline cut - his first score in championship hurling!
Talk about announcing yourself on the big stage. People had talked about him being a good minor but there’s a half dozen good minors every year that people talk about. Very few of them start their senior career with a pointed sideline cut and a mazy dribble from 65 metres out and a lovely ping into the top corner.
So I have always been intrigued to see what Gleeson would do next and how his career would pan out. I watched closely as his trend and stock value has soared and dipped. By 2016, he was the officially anointed as the best player in the country.
He swept aside all the hurling royalty at the end of the year, taking home Hurler of the Year, Young Hurler of the Year and an All Star. He was the envy of most hurlers at the plush banquet in the Convention Centre. His two hands weren’t enough to carry all the gongs coming off the stage that night. He had made it.
Fast forward to late 2020 and the obvious question is, “What ever happened to Austin Gleeson?” He had a mixed year on 2017 - scored another unbelievable goal against Cork but never got going against Galway in the All-Ireland final. Since then he has struggled to hit those dizzy heights. For somebody blessed with such a talent, it’s worth trying to tease out the reasons why.
The obvious answer is that so much success at such a young age was impossible to live up to. But I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. He’s not the first young hurler to explode onto the scene and plenty of them have kicked on or even just maintained their level of success.
The big difference in Gleeson’s case is that he became synonymous with Waterford’s fortunes. He was immediately the face of hurling. Not just Waterford hurling - hurling in general. So when Waterford couldn’t win a game, immediately the first or second subject up for discussion was, ‘How did Gleeson play? What has happened to him?’
That’s a huge burden to carry. Imagine the pressure of knowing that regardless of the result, the public and the media are going to focus on what you brought to the game. Imagine your team can’t buy a win. The lack of success weighs heavier on you than it does on your teammates.
The arrival of Dessie Hutchinson has helped take the burden from him as the go-to attacker
Gleeson was still only 22 at the time. But I’d say if you went back and checked the TV coverage, he featured in more pre-match and post-match clips packages than any other player. Analysis of what his best position is, what can Waterford do to get more out of him, does he go missing in games. Some of it is only natural with a guy who was such a talented youngster but it says a lot about his surroundings too.
Cian Lynch had a similar year in 2018, for example. He was Hurler of the Year at 22, an absolutely special player who could do things with the ball that only the likes of Gleeson or Tony Kelly or TJ Reid would even think of.
But nobody ever says that if Cian Lynch doesn't play well, Limerick don't play well. He doesn't have to carry that pressure around with him. If Lynch has an off day, other players will take up the slack. He's a crucial player for them but they can offset a mediocre performance from him. Gleeson has never been afforded that leeway in Waterford.
Less than a year after he was Hurler of the Year, Gleeson was very up front in speaking about the weight he had to carry because of it. “It was hard to get back up to those standards. I put a lot of pressure on myself. There were a couple of moments in games where I was starting to think, ‘It is turning now’ but then I would fumble a ball or something.”
On the face of it, that seems like an amazing admission. To think that in an intense game of inter-county hurling, with possibly a detailed man-marker on him, one of the best players in the country would tune out of the game to doubt his natural talent. But I can 100 per cent understand it. Nobody is bulletproof, in any sport.
I can totally relate to having those thoughts, even in the midst of battle. If a man scored a point off me or even won a ball from me, my head would begin to allow negativity to leak into it.
“He has the upper hand on me now.”
“Are we warming up a sub?”
“I’m under pressure here.”
That’s the internal dialogue you wrestle with. The voice that pops up out of nowhere. All you want to do is get rid of the voice but it’s easier said than done. Until you get the next ball and begin to feel like you are doing something productive for you and the team, it stays there. Just like that annoying seat belt alarm going off in your car - it won’t stop until you do something about it. You can’t wish it away.
I would guess that every player hears these voices. In times like that, you crave and yearn for a bit of certainty, a reassuring word from someone, a familiar position or scenario. I was lucky in that I had JJ Delaney in front of me to hand me a ball on my own to clear. Just anything to get you back into a positive mind-set.
Austin has never had that. For one thing, he has never had a defined position. He bounced around from the half-back line to midfield to half forward. He would start some games corner-forward before drifting out and going where the play took him. That freedom is great, in theory.
But it can play on your mind too. Being given that freedom means that the bar for you is higher than it is for everyone else. As a corner-back, I was measured on hitting rucks, denying possession, holding my man scoreless, making him be invisible for 70-odd minutes. If I wasn’t seen or my man wasn’t seen for 70 minutes, I got a seven in the paper the next day.
For Austin Gleeson, the measurement is different. He is marked up or marked down primarily on the number of magical moments he produces and the amount of game-changing incidents he is involved in. If Austin is not seen in a game and Waterford lose, he gets a four in the paper and everybody talks about him going missing yet again.
I believe he has matured this year. I watched him closely against Cork and there looks to be more about him and more to his game. Liam Cahill looks to have given him some belief and a more defined role. His work-rate looks to have gone up and he is definitely bringing an edge to his tackling. He needs to control that side of things but it is good to see his tackle count go up.
He has matured physically as well. He has got himself in great shape now, which you would expect from a player who turned 25 in the summer. His body has transformed from the lumpy shape of his early 20s to a body fit to be used as a battering ram. That is going to be important for him to use on Sunday.
But beyond what he has done himself, Waterford have evolved as well under Cahill and they don't need him to be five different players at once any more. The arrival of Dessie Hutchinson has helped take the burden from him as the go-to attacker, which must be a huge help to him.
Above all, I get the sense that Gleeson measures himself differently now than he did when he was 21 or 22. Ryan Giggs did the same as he got older too. I’d make it a fair bet that his metrics from game to game aren’t all related to offensive play.
I am sure Liam Cahill has drilled into him an extreme work ethic and has emphasised his tackling. That’s got to be a big help in keeping the voices quiet - it doesn’t all have to be 60-yard runs, Aussie. You don’t always have to be beating five defenders and burying it past the keeper. Make a tackle, force a turnover, keep it going.
I am looking forward to seeing this guy evolve and get rejuvenated. Anytime I am in Ken McGrath’s presence I ask about him and Ken always speaks so highly of him. He has him down as a guy who could be anything. Big words from one of the true greats.
Some kids are born to be stars. Richie Hogan, Cian Lynch, Tony Kelly, Joe Canning - Austin Gleeson is in that realm. Like TJ Reid, he had to come through his apprenticeship with hard work which takes some time. But he is getting there. The second half of his career could see the best of him. If it does, we're in for a treat.