Waterford hurling's Power-ful journey
By John Harrington
A wonderful journey for Sean Power will reach its final destination in Saturday’s Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U-21 Hurling Final.
The Waterford manager has been working with many of these players since they were 12 years of age so he’s watched them grow from boys to men.
He never imagined their partnership would be as lengthy or as fruitful as it has been, because it came about more by accident than design.
“I was still playing a bit of junior hurling and how it started off was the club were short of underage coaches,” says Power.
“We all need to give something back to our clubs where we can. In Mount Sion I was asked would I help one of the Under-10 or Under-11 teams. I said I would, certainly. The GDA in the county picked up on the fact ‘Jeez this fella seems to be doing something right, kids seem to be enjoying themselves'. That’s how I got into it.
“The Tony Forristal is a fairly big competition in Waterford. We love it. I was kind of looking at it in a three-year block, thinking if Under-12 and Under-13 goes well then you are looking at the Under-14 Tony Forristal.
“After that it just builds on from that, but you were always really looking at it in three-year blocks. I never would have thought, when I was working with development squads, that you’d be working with minors or Under-21s down the line.”
Power managed the team to the 2013 All-Ireland Minor title and has nurtured the talents of players like Austin Gleeson, Shane Bennett, Stephen Bennett, and Patrick Curran who have since become house-hold names.
You can never be sure how young players will develop, but Power had a fair idea he had a special group on his hands from the get-go.
“When we invited everybody in to Walsh Park at Under-14 I think we had about 90 kids wanting to play for Waterford that year,” he says. “And that was just the city kids. We had something similar in Fraher Field the following week, so you were talking about 15 or 20 guys who were going to play for Waterford Under-14 that year and about 150 kids came to try out.
“But when we broke it into smaller matches there were guys that stood out from the first time I saw them and now they are playing senior hurling for Waterford. It’s amazing, from an early stage you could see it.
“Now they were raw and there was a lot to work with but you could see they had something. They might take the right line towards goal as a forward without direction or a back that was cutting off an angle without instruction rather than just following a man. There were some of those guys we picked out straight away.”
Austin Gleeson is the main man on this Waterford U-21 team and arguably the senior county team too, but he wasn’t always the all-action outfield player you see today.
When Power had him at U-14 level he played Gleeson as a goalkeeper because his Mount Sion club-mate still hadn’t developed the awesome athleticism that makes him such a force today.
“Yeah, he hates me saying this now but, at 14 in the Tony Forristal he was played in goal,” says Power. “Actually, Gavin Power was our centre-back then, who was our goalkeeper against Antrim (in this year’s All-Ireland semi-final).
“No, he's a very capable goalkeeper as well. At that particular weekend, you're talking about playing three or four games in a weekend right, and Austin's physical fitness at 14 wouldn't be anywhere near what it is now and wasn't anything near what it was for fellas around him.
“So the four-game weekend thing mightn't have suited him. And I say that with the nicest amount of respect for him and I hope he doesn't give me a dig when he hears it! But, no, he's a very capable goalkeeper as well. That was his spot and fellas develop in different positions and when guys hit their peak height velocity as well when they grow up they develop differently and a lot of that excess that they had when they were 14 is gone at 16.
“If necessary, and I just say this in passing, if necessary, if Austin Gleeson was required to go in goal on Saturday, Austin Gleeson would go in goal happily in an All-Ireland final for Waterford.
“If that was required, and whatever the circumstances would be that that would happen, but he'd happily do it and you find that fellas, they really love playing for their county and they'll do what's required for the team. At 14 and 16 that was just one of those things that were required and he did it with a smile on his face and enjoys it as well sometimes.”
Gleeson has done a lot of growing up since his Tony Forristal days and his outrageous displays this year for the Waterford seniors as well as the U-21s is one of the main reasons why Power’s team are such hot favourites going into Saturday’s Final against Galway.
They also beat Galway in the All-Ireland Minor Final three years ago, and when you compare both teams on paper the fact that Waterford have 12 senior panellists on their team compared to Galway’s three stands out starkly.
There’s huge expectancy within Waterford that they’re going to win this All-Ireland title, and Power admits that makes the task a bit trickier.
“It's difficult,” he says. “There's a lot of excitement goes with these events. There's two sides to this coin. There's a part that you relish and enjoy it because you worked very hard to get to the final but there's also the part that you still have to go across the white line and pick up the ball and put the ball over the bar and hook or block a fella.
“We try and concentrate on that. We try and concentrate on the mechanics of putting together good ball for our forwards to score and when we don't have possession of the ball, defending with our lives.
“And we try and concentrate on that and it seemed to have worked for this group of players in '13 when we won the minor final. This is a different grade altogether, a different game, different set of circumstances, different players but, nevertheless, we're trying to concentrate on the game rather than the occasion, so that's what we try and do.”
Waterford’s All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final replay defeat to Kilkenny was a crushing disappointment. But if their U-21s were crowned All-Ireland Champions tomorrow then the year would still be regarded as a successful one. Power is all too aware what an All-Ireland victory would mean to the whole county.
“Yeah, of course, yeah,” he says. “That's what we're all striving towards. It's to win this thing on Saturday. In one respect the senior team have made great strides. On the day in the replay against Kilkenny we were all heartbroken for that narrow defeat.
“Maybe if we had a little bit of luck with us as well it might have went another way but you take your hat off to Kilkenny. That's that grade. At this grade, the Munster Championship was a great win for us.
“We hadn't won that since 1994. So that's something but ultimately we're all in this thing to win All-Irelands and it would kind of tick off a decent year for us to win this one on Saturday, certainly, yeah.
“But it is noted that we want this and the people who support Waterford hurling want it as well so we're very well aware that we need to get something that we can attach to it rather than good performances, so that's important to us.”
After an exciting 2016 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U-21 All-Ireland Championship, it has all come down to Galway and Waterford, who will battle it out for the newly unveiled James Nowlan Cup. The pair will go head to head in Semple Stadium, Thurles this Saturday, September 10 at 5pm. The game will be preceded by the clash of Meath and Mayo in the ‘B’ championship decider at 3pm, with both games to be broadcast live on TG4.