Austin Gleeson: 'I wasn't a happy person the last two years'
By John Harrington
Waterford hurler Austin Gleeson looked happy in his own skin in Croke Park today and was happy to admit as much.
“I’m just more upbeat going around and a lot happier,” said Gleeson today at the announcement of UPMC as official healthcare partner of the GAA/GPA.
“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."
Ironically, Gleeson can trace his unhappiness to what was one of the highlights of his career so far, the night he was crowned both the All-Stars Hurler of the Year and Young Hurler of the Year at the 2016 All-Stars award.
With the benefit of hindsight now, he can see that he struggled with being put on that sort of pedestal at such a young age.
Dazzled by the limelight, he took his eye off the ball and stopped putting in the sort of work that had raised his game to such a level in the first place.
“It was tough, I’m not going to lie but a lot of it was my own fault, especially that winter,” he admits.
“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.
“It’s something that three years on eventually, 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.”
If everyone you meet is slapping you on the back and telling you that you’re a great man altogether, it’s perhaps understandable that you might have your head turned.
By Gleeson’s own admission he lacked a bit of maturity, and it’s only now he has gained the perspective necessary to make the most of his natural talent again.
“To be honest, I never realised [my head was turned] until, being honest, until this year,” he says.
“I never really copped on and matured to realise that your career could be over in the blink of an eye, no matter what.
“You could go out on the field, touch wood I’ve never had a bad injury, but you could get a bad injury, simple things, it’s literally the blink of an eye and anything could happen.
"It’s something that really clicked with me this year.
“I said I was going to give my all to everything that I’m going to do from now on, there’s going to be no second measures. The way intercounty has gone, it’s so intense and so ferocious that by the time you get to 28/29 if you’re still playing, your body’s going to be sore and if you’re still playing at 28/29, you’re going to be going well.
“I’m 25 next June so I could have only four or five years left and I want to get back to playing at the top with Waterford again.”
Gleeson isn’t the first young sportsperson to realise there’s only a few inches between a slap on the back and a kick in the back-side.
Many of the same people who were telling him that he was the best thing since sliced pan in the winter of 2016 were just as happy to slate him when his form dipped thereafter.
The criticism was impossible to escape in Waterford and hard to take at times, so much so that at one staged he seriously questioned whether inter-county hurling was worth it.
“Yeah, it did [make me question why I'm doing this]. I'm not going to lie. 100 per cent it did,” he says.
“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.”
The break that did him the world of good was an eight-week stint in New York during the summer.
For the first time he found himself living outside the Waterford bubble he’d known all his life, and the experience both matured and refreshed him.
"It was after we got knocked out [of the championship]. I went to college with a few of the lads over there. One of them got in contact with me. It was something I've always wanted to do but never thought I would do to be honest.
"Once I got the call I said 'yeah.' It was straight away. I needed to get out of here and escape for myself. Over the last few years, it was something I needed to do. I didn't have a clue what was going on here. I remember I visited my uncle in Chicago and my Grandmother was giving out saying that I never even contacted.
"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 (in New York). 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."
The good news for Waterford hurling is that Gleeson believes he’ll be a better hurler on the pitch now that he’s happier off it.
"It will because you're more confident,” he says. “Your confidence is massive. If you're confident, you actually feel fitter. If you're low you're just thinking 'I'm not gonna do anything again.' That was going through my head for 18 months and I didn't realise it until I sat back and just tried to figure out what was going on and kind of came to a few conclusions.
"Thankfully I did. Just having chats with friends and family and just seeing what they thought. They could say 15 minutes of stuff and literally you could just take one 30-second snippet and say 'yeah that's actually true.' Then you start to think about it and work on it. Hopefully it works out best for you."
The upcoming season feels like a fresh start for Gleeson, and all the more so because Waterford have a new manager in Liam Cahill.
The panel have been back training “hell for leather” for the past two weeks, and Gleeson has been impressed by what he’s seen from Cahill so far.
“He's a no-nonsense sort of character, but one thing I'm after really finding with him is that he's very approachable," says Gleeson.
"No matter what it is, you can always approach him and talk to him. He always tries to find the middle ground I suppose that's best for the individual, the player and the team which is huge for us.
“There's a couple of other players after noticing that as well which is huge for us.
It's really been good for the first two weeks. They've given a real signal of intent of what they want to try. It's good for us to see that, it's after giving us a right bit of confidence.”