It took a summer away from hurling to reinvigorate Austin Gleeson’s love for the sport when he had been previously questioning if it was all worth it.
It’s a surprise to hear that a 24-year-old who has been a central figure in his county’s senior side for years would question his commitment to hurling but that was the situation Gleeson found himself in thanks to the pressures that also come with the prestigious role.
For the Waterford star, the decline in his form, and his enjoyment in hurling, began after he reached the pinnacle in 2016 when he won both the Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year awards.
“It was tough, I’m not going to lie but a lot of it was my own fault, especially that winter.
“I would have went to any event. I was young, I was 21, I just wanted to see what it was like. I never reached the fitness, I never reached that pedestal that I had set myself.
“Management and training and all that, they could have done what they wanted, it was my own self-belief thinking ‘ah ya, I’ll be grand come April, I’ll get back there anyway’ but I just never did because I didn’t put in the work that I did in winter 2015.”
Gleeson found himself drawn in by all the highs and perks that come with being a star hurler. He was young and found his head turned by such benefits without even realising it. It left him neglecting his on-field responsibilities and within a short period of time, he found himself tumbling.
The people who previously praised his name suddenly made no secret of their criticism of him.
It’s an unfortunate aspect of a hurling career that players are exposed to. They are vulnerable to passionate supporters who will make their feelings known, be it a chance meeting on the street or through the limitless reach of social media.
It’s not just players who face that ruthless criticism but managers as well, whether warranted or not. Both Derek McGrath and Paraic Fanning had to deal with it during their reigns as Waterford boss and that is why Gleeson is happy that their new manager, Liam Cahill, hails from outside the county border.
“I don’t know if he feels like this or not, but I like the way that he’s going back up to Tipperary now and won’t listen to the stuff that’s going on down in Waterford. I think that was a massive problem over the last few years.
“Especially with Patsy (Paraic Fanning) and Derek. The way they worked in Waterford, if they went for food it was in Waterford, if they went out for a few drinks it was in Waterford and all they did was listen to people in Waterford who are the best in the world when you’re going well but the worst in the world when you’re not going well.
“So I’m kind of liking the way he’s an outside manager. He’s just going back to Tipperary and that’s it, he can shut it off. I’m not saying I don’t expect him to be shutting it off, but I get the feeling he’s the type of lad who is constantly thinking about where he can improve. And once he sees where we’re at in the next few weeks he’ll start coming up with a few plans and seeing where he wants to take it.”
Following two very poor seasons in which they failed to progress past the Munster Championship, the spotlight was on the Waterford camp more than ever.
To escape, the Mount Sion man travelled to New York for eight weeks and having spent his life in a Waterford bubble, it proved to be an eye-opening and refreshing stint.
“I just totally escaped Ireland for eight weeks. It was possibly one of the best things that could have happened to me.
“I came back a totally different person, getting away from all that negative vibes around. No matter [about] your own life, your hurling life and more importantly, your personal life. Everyone thinks they’ve an opinion of us.
“It’s a totally different world. No-one says anything to you. You can literally finish work, go for a drink or two with the lads, go home go to bed and get up the next morning.
“That’s it, there’s nothing said. If you do that in Ireland [people say], ‘that lad was in and he was falling round the place.’ It’s a totally different world and it was an unreal few weeks.
“I was just more upbeat going around and a lot happier [after New York]. I just realised I wasn’t a happy person the last two years. I was doing things for other people instead of doing them for myself.”
When a player’s status as an intercounty hurler is impacting their life to such a degree that it makes them unhappy, it begs the question ‘is it even worth it?’
Gleeson found that he was asking himself the same question but admits that he could never give up the sport.
“Yeah, it did [make me question why I’m doing this]. I’m not going to lie. 100 per cent it did.
“There were times when I was saying, ‘Why am I bothering? Why am I not sitting at home and having the easy life?’
“That’s being honest. There were times when I was questioning if I’d just stop, I’d have enough going through my own head; never saying it to anyone else but just literally talking to myself, which is weird to say – literally talking to myself.
“It’s something I’ve always said: If I gave it up, I’d miss it way too much. Thankfully, the break did me the world of good. I’m hungry and eager again to go back and fight for my place.”
Since returning, Gleeson has rededicated himself to the Waterford cause. That young hurler who took his talent for granted is gone. With senior members having been left out of the squad, he is determined to step up and bring Waterford back to the top.
“I’m after learning that I have to knuckle down, even since America I’m after knuckling down. I went back to the club and I started training hard, even when we were knocked out of the club, I kept tipping away in the gym and now we’re back on the field and ready to go.
“Everyone seems to be the same. To be honest, lads have come back in better shape this year than I’ve ever seen them. Everyone is just sick of losing. We didn’t win a game since the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork and we just want to get that one win, one win would give us a real boost in the championship.”
“[Noel Connors being dropped] kind of gave us a bit of a wakeup call as well being honest with you, every place is up for grabs.
“It’s a great time because fellas are really knuckling down and really going at each other. We’re only training two weeks and you can really see the fellas that are fighting for their places, even in mid-November.”
Waterford hurler Austin Gleeson, Kildare footballer Kevin Feely, Cork footballer Brian Hurley, Tipperary Hurler Jake Morris and WIT Camogie Player Shauna Quirke, pictured along with David Beirne, Senior Vice President, UMPC, Paul Flynn, CEO GPA, and John Horan, Uachtarán Cumann Lúthchleas Gael at the announcement of UPMC as Official Healthcare Partner to the GAA/GPA. UPMC, which offers trusted, high-quality health services at UPMC Whitfield Hospital in Waterford and other facilities in Ireland, will work with the GAA/GPA to promote the health of Gaelic Players and the communities in which they play.