Waterford and Galway battle it out this Sunday with the aim of landing a historic All-Ireland title.
Expect to hear plenty about Joe Canning, Austin Gleeson, David Burke and Jamie Barron. But, unfortunately for Waterford supporters, they won’t be seeing Conor Gleeson in action.
Just four years ago, he was taking part in a minor version of this fixture on a day where the Déise were victorious. Gleeson featured that day as a half-forward.
Three years later and both Waterford and Galway made their way to the Under-21 All-Ireland final. This time Gleeson started and excelled in the position of full-back.
Waterford once again claimed an All-Ireland title at the expense of Galway, and by now the Fourmilewater defender was being tipped as a potential starter for Derek McGrath in 2017.
That prediction came to fruition this year as the Déise boss made him a regular in his side.
Not only an automatic starter, Gleeson was also handed the role of the Déise’s go-to man-marker. Many forwards have fallen victim to the UCC student’s aggressive defensive style.
Having struck 1-02 against Tipperary, Shane Kingston was identified as a real threat to McGrath’s outfit.
Gleeson was handed the assignment of neutralising the Douglas attacker in the Munster semi-final. Kingston was held scoreless and substituted after 55 minutes. Waterford cruised past Offaly to return to winning ways but faced the tough task of defeating Kilkenny in the final round of qualifiers.
Once again McGrath turned to his trusty defender to neutralise a serious threat in the Cats’ attack. Richie Hogan became the next victim and was substituted after 63 minutes.
Conor McDonald was to become the next target on Gleeson’s radar, and as the Déise triumphed over their neighbours in Wexford, McDonald saw his number raised after 59 minutes.
When Cork and Waterford clashed in the aforementioned Munster semi-final, one man caused more issues than most.
Conor Lehane had performed outstandingly and seemed to have the freedom of the park on that occasion. This was identified as a major threat to Waterford as the sides clashed once again.
Who could McGrath turn to in an attempt to nullify Lehane? Unsurprisingly, it was once again the 20-year-old from Fourmilewater. Lehane’s influence in Croke Park three weeks ago was minimum due to the marshalling of Gleeson, whose late red card in that game means he misses the final through suspension.
Lehane struck two points, one of which came when switched to full-forward and picked up by Barry Coughlan.
Unfortunately for McGrath, the county of Waterford and most importantly, Conor himself, one moment of madness cost him severely. With little time left on the clock, Gleeson was dismissed for a striking action on Patrick Horgan, who was also sent off, and will now miss the final.
McGrath will have undoubtedly lamented the loss of his man-marker over the past three weeks, though he will not let it interrupt preparations.
The loss of Gleeson has perhaps been understated due to the fact that his namesake Austin luckily escaped punishment for yet another Waterford helmet incident.
His impact on this Déise side has been criminally underrated by most, but those who appreciate the art of defending would rank Gleeson up there with the best in the business. Sunday will be the longest 70 minutes of Gleeson’s hurling career, but it’s highly doubtful that Waterford would be participating in the fixture without him.
With Galway’s attacking sextet arguably the most lethal in this year’s championship, his is a loss that will more than likely be felt more than ever.
Conor Whelan can sleep that bit easier on Saturday night.
Kevin Daly, Pundit Arena
On the latest episode of The 16th Man, we speak with Micheal O’Donoghue ahead of the All-Ireland final between Galway and Waterford.