"I put a lot of pressure on myself" - Austin Gleeson speaks honestly about 2017 6 months ago

"I put a lot of pressure on myself" - Austin Gleeson speaks honestly about 2017

Ever compare two sportspeople? One of old and one of new.

There are a lot of differences between George Best and Austin Gleeson. Best was playing in a global game with a global audience and, despite playing in front of similar crowds, Gleeson’s sport is more parochial.

But there certainly are similarities. At the age of 22, George Best was lifting the European Cup and reached the pinnacle of his sport. Gleeson reached the pinnacle on individual terms by winning both the Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year awards at the age of 21.

But the big honour is still evading Gleeson and, although he has the individual praise already, he’s a humble guy who just wants to deliver a Liam MacCarthy to Waterford.

2017 was tough for Gleeson. After such a stellar 2016, the expectations for him were astronomically high.  The pressure he put on himself because of it meant that it was never going to end well.

“Personally I was disappointed enough, to be honest,” Gleeson says.

“2016 was a lot better and it was hard to get back up to those standards and I put a lot of pressure on myself. Next year I’ll have to try and go back up to the 2016 heights.”

Gleeson is everything that Derek McGrath could ever dream of for his Waterford side. He is as candid and as honest when dealing with the media as his manager is. He doesn’t hold back in saying what's on his mind and he does the same on the pitch. Gleeson likes to express himself.

The 22-year-old has been making headlines ever since bursting onto the scene with Waterford and his accolades last year furthered his star power but, with such a high standard, the expectations will always be astronomical.

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So the question is really if all the pressure Gleeson put on himself impacted his on-field performances.

“Definitely,” says the Mount Sion man.

“The week after the All-Ireland there was one thing that I said I was going to work on this year and that’s to go out and just play and play as well as I possibly can instead of beating myself up if I miss a ball or something like that.

“That’s one thing I’m definitely going to look at and hopefully it can turn around.”

It must be difficult to deal. One moment, you're just a good underage player with potential that a few people in Waterford are aware of and, in an instant, the whole nation is waiting for moments of magic from you.

Gleeson delivered them throughout the year; poor Cork bore the brunt of the beautiful devastation his talent can cause.

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He’s capable of it but it’s unfair to think a someone is consistently capable of Player of the Year performances over and over again. Gleeson has a lot to learn. Dealing with that pressure will be a big one but there is always room to improve.

“There are always things you have to improve on no matter whether you play 10/10 games every day," he said.

“It’s something that nobody is ever going to be perfect so there are always more highs that you can reach and new levels of fitness and new levels of hurling. You can always improve and that is how everyone has to look at it.”

2017 was a funny year for Gleeson.

Coming into it he would have been filled with hope that this was the year that Waterford would capture an elusive All-Ireland title. It wasn’t. Losing in the final is tough and there has been an analogy thrown around that it’s like being dumped by a long-term girlfriend. All the time and effort and hard work put in for nothing.

“I don’t know, I’ve never had a proper long-term one so I don’t know,” Gleeson laughs.

“It’s tough, it’s very, very tough. After the game, it took a few minutes to kick in but it was when you see your friends or family, that was the big one.

“It started to hurt a lot more because you could see they were emotional and upset as well and it started to kick in then.”

It’s just one of those sh*t situations to be in. The heart ripped out of you. What do you say to your teammates? Are you allowed to smile? Do you ever feel like smiling? Then you go into the dressing room.

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“There is not much said for the first while,” Gleeson says. It’s certainly not something he remembers fondly.

“Everyone is sitting there thinking what could have been and what could have been done here, there and everywhere to try to make it a different game.

“I think Dan (Shanahan), Derek McGrath and Eoin Murphy spoke then and I could just see the lads struggling to talk and that made it even harder.

“Kevin (Moran) spoke and thanked the players and management and after that, it was just get back on the bus and go back to the hotel and try to forget about it a small bit.”

You’d think that’s the hard part over then it’s time to go to the banquet. It could have been one of the greatest nights in these lads’ lives had they won. Is it even enjoyable?

“It was a bit 50/50, the more you talk to everyone the more you start to relax a small bit," he explained.

“It’s never easy and the few days after weren’t as easy as losing any other game but it is part of the game so we just have to get on with it.”

It’s hard to ‘get on with it’ though, losing is tough. It’s tougher when you have to drive from Dublin to Waterford and are greeted by tens of thousands of Waterford natives lining the streets of the city. People who were with you for every puck. People who were as disappointed as any of the players. People who the players actually felt like they let down when they did anything but.

“It definitely made it harder, we were an hour and a half late for it to get back down onto the quays. When we crossed the bridge there were like 20,000 people and I’d never seen anything like it before.

“We were all taken aback and didn’t really know what to do. We went on stage and just had our heads down because it was tough but to have that support after was absolutely phenomenal.

“We know they’re behind us for next year so we’ll just have to try and go one step further.” 

There’s an old saying that often gets thrown around, you have to lose an All-Ireland before you win one. That may be the case for Waterford. They are a young team with bags of talent and will have to learn from their defeat but they’ll come back next year and Derek McGrath will lead the way.

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There was uncertainty surrounding the Waterford manager’s future but nobody wanted him to leave and that’s inclusive of the entire squad. McGrath has brought them to unprecedented heights.

“To be honest it was huge for us. We didn’t really know what he was going to do and there were a lot of players nervous because the majority of players have only played under Derek,” Gleeson said.

“His man-management is his main characteristic. We can’t really see anyone else coming in and being around the same kind of level as himself and Dan (Shanahan) and Eoin Murphy.

“It was unreal for us to have him stay on for another year so we’ll see how it goes. It’s the same backroom team so everyone is back for another year.”

With a team holiday to Cancun looming, the Waterford team are already back at training, they have been since the club scene finished up. There will be an effort to get fit beforehand but now it is time to relax. Time to unwind.

“The stuff you miss throughout the year, friends’ birthday parties, different weddings and different things like that that you wouldn’t be going to just because of the inter-county scene.

“It’s something that you choose to do and something that you love doing so it’s good to get the couple of weeks but once you get back into it you have to go at it hard and get bigger, fitter stronger.

“It’s a 50/50 way to be this time of year but once the lads have a bit of leeway - if you have a couple of weekends - they leave you off.”

Gleeson may well be delighted to see the back of 2017, all it brought him was a year of increased pressure along with increased heartbreak but there was one positive from losing the All-Ireland final.

Waterford legend John Mullane threatened to ride horseback in the nude if his county won the All-Ireland, fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

“That was a small bit of consolation, that would have been a right site to see,” Gleeson says with a laugh.

“His head on top of a horse, that wouldn’t suit a lot of people. I think he was going to wear a pair of shorts anyway.

“He couldn’t be totally naked going down the quays. Kids wouldn’t be the same ever again.”

Waterford will be back, they’re a young team with a lot to learn but are on the cusp of something great. Austin Gleeson epitomises this. He has flaws and openly admits it but he’ll be coming into 2018 with a point to prove and if he does it in the same manner that we’ve all seen before, we’re in for one hell of a treat.