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Monday 5 December 2016

Deise's spring odyssey against all odds

Gleeson relives Waterford rise from ninth favourites in February to the NHL summit

Waterford's Austin Gleeson celebrates drawing a penalty shot in front of Bill Cooper, Cork. Allianz Hurling League, Division 1 Final, Cork v Waterford. Semple Stadium, Thurles
Waterford's Austin Gleeson celebrates drawing a penalty shot in front of Bill Cooper, Cork. Allianz Hurling League, Division 1 Final, Cork v Waterford. Semple Stadium, Thurles
The Waterford team celebrate with the cup.

BY any stretch of the imagination, Waterford's ascent to the Allianz Hurling League summit - from the dispiriting base camp of 2014 - would test your credulity.

It has certainly flummoxed the bookmakers, who had them as distant also-rans when the odds were being compiled back in February.

And with good reason, admits Austin Gleeson, who recalls the contradictory mindset of pre-season when Waterford's young squad believed they could be up there with the best while accepting that - based on form - they were miles off the pace.

DESERVED

"At the start of the year we probably deserved to be ninth favourites (for the league), the way we were going after last year," admits the half-back hero of Waterford's league final demolition of Cork.

"But in November we said we'll have a go at it and see where it takes us ... Limerick was a massive game for us. We knew we had to go up there and get a result, if we had any chance of going up (from Division 1B) and winning this. We never thought this would happen but, in the back of our minds, we knew we were as good as anyone in the country."

Last May, just out of minor, Gleeson had served notice of his own precocious talent by scoring the goal of the season during the drawn Munster clash with Cork.

But, collectively, that oscillating stalemate offered a rare beacon of Deise promise amid the darkness. Top-flight relegation in the league; a replay collapse to Cork; a qualifier exit to Wexford. Grim stuff.

Everyone knew there was a rich seam of young talent in Waterford; it was a case of unlocking that potential. Thus far in his second season, Derek McGrath has done so brilliantly.

Gleeson rejects the recent consensus that Waterford's success is predicated on a policy of containment, suggesting people are mistaking hard graft for blanket defence.

"Everyone was saying we were defensive but, to be honest, we're not. It's just pure work-rate out of all of us, and that is getting us where we are," he maintains.

He cites Michael 'Brick' Walsh, a centre-back talisman in previous seasons and midfielder last year. "He was thrown up at wing-forward this year and he doesn't care. He's just there for the team and it's the same for everyone. It's all team, it's no individual. It's heart and togetherness."

Allied to the type of work ethic that wouldn't be possible unless the squad was flying fit.

BOUNCING

Gleeson singles out Fergal O'Brien, who came on board as physical trainer this season. "The way Fergal has us, we're bouncing off the ground," he enthuses, before recalling the first couple of nights during pre-season training when "everyone in the dressing room was blowing (hard).

"There were fellas stepping out and getting sick, as expected in pre-season. But after a couple of weeks, because it was so hard, everyone took to it. It worked for us and it is still working for us."

Still, they have journeyed a long, long way from February 14, when most Waterford fans stayed at home as their team launched their unbeaten eight-match run to NHL glory with a draw in Limerick.

"You couldn't really blame the supporters. It was a horrible day, up to Limerick at seven o'clock on a Saturday evening and it was Valentine's Day as well," Gleeson recalls. "Thankfully we drove on and, with every game, the crowd started getting behind us."

He harks back to last season when there was lots of talk about all the Deise debutants. "Last year we just weren't ourselves. As Paudie (Mahony) said during the week, we were fed up with ourselves. We didn't know what was going on. It was Derek's first year and he was seeing where he was taking us."

And now, in year two, he's taking them places. Fast.

HURLING

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