From Brighton soccer to Ballygunner hurling - 'I still don't see a ceiling with him'

Dessie Hutchinson continues to thrive since returning to Waterford hurling after five years in England.

Dessie Hutchinson after last year's Waterford county senior final.
Dessie Hutchinson after last year's Waterford county senior final.
Image: Ken Sutton/INPHO

THERE WAS 40 seconds on the clock last Sunday evening at the Fraher Field when Dessie Hutchinson snapped over the first point of the game.

By the sixth minute he had cracked home the first goal of the game.

After ten minutes of the Waterford county semi-final he had scored 1-3, that figure had swelled to 1-4 by the first water break and when the Ballygunner and Lismore players were gathering at the interval, Hutchinson had inked an eye-watering total of 2-7 next to his name. 

Ballygunner could collectively reflect on a ten-point cushion as they were on the cusp of a spot in another decider in this era of their Waterford club domination.

Yet individually it was the input of the player who spent five years in soccer with Brighton & Hove Albion, returned home to have a League of Ireland spell with Waterford FC in 2018, featured for the Waterford footballers in the 2019 championship and has lit up the local hurling scene ever since, that had done most in that opening half to practically confirm their latest final qualification.

The match petered to its inevitable conclusion. Hutchinson only added another point in the second half, hopes of a hat-trick thwarted on one occasion by Lismore netminder Seanie Barry at this near post. But the scoring damage had been done and Ballygunner are on the cusp of seven-in-a-row as they enter today’s final in Walsh Park.

“Has he surprised us?,” considers Ballygunner boss Darragh O’Sullivan of his 23-year-old attacker.

“Obviously the level he’s got to so fast is great to see. Look he always had the touch and then he got a development in a professional atmosphere of soccer for his physical make-up. Put the two of them together then.

“Dessie’s only back hurling 20 months at this stage. Every day he goes out, he’s getting better. I still don’t see a ceiling with him.”

darragh-osullivan Ballygunner manager Darragh O'Sullivan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Hutchinson’s soccer adventure with Brighton drew to a close in May 2018, released after being present when the club on the south English coast when from battling in the Championship to settling in the Premier League.

A defensive midfielder, he had moved over at 16. His last season threw up bright flashes of promise – a first-team bow in a League Cup game against Bournemouth, captaincy of the Brighton U23 team and recruitment for the Ireland U21 squad. But there were a couple of telling setbacks. A loan move to St Mirren in Scotland in January 2018 collapsed when an agreement over his salary could not be brokered by the two clubs. Injury then robbed him of action for two months at an inopportune stage and then the plug was pulled.

That summer he went into the dressing-room at the RSC and played away. His interest was gradually sapped away though as he outlined last year to Paul Dollery of this parish.

“Alan Reynolds [manager] was keen to keep me on, but I had to be honest with him. I didn’t want to end up playing just for the sake of it. It wouldn’t have been right to go in and go through the motions.”

ronan-finn-with-dessie-hutchinson Dessie Hutchinson (right) in action against Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Benjy Whelan got his hands on him last summer, Hutchinson’s kicking prowess from dead balls surfaced with a couple of cleanly-struck shots that almost helped Waterford grab a famous win in Ennis over Clare. Another pair of points followed in Mullingar but they were well beaten in a qualifier by Westmeath.

dessie-hutchinson Dessie Hutchinson in action for the Waterford footballers Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

By then hurling had drawn him in. It is debatable as to whether he had ever truly severed his ties to the sport. There was the family background. One older brother JJ came on as a sub last weekend, they were football team-mates for the county last year. Another, Wayne, was a long-time stalwart at the heart of the Ballygunner rearguard.

And in the club they had long identified Dessie as an attacker of innate talent. In 2010 he  hit 1-1 in the Walsh Park final as Waterford saw off Kilkenny to land the Tony Forristal U14 tournament, numbering Conor Gleeson, Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett amongst his colleagues that day.

Untitled Dessie Hutchinson (bottom right) after the 2010 Tony Forristal final Source: Waterford News & Star

“I’d say he was probably in the top tier of his age group without a shadow of a doubt,” recalls O’Sullivan. 

“From a skills perspective there wouldn’t have needed to be too much development for Dessie. The skills came naturally to him. It was just a matter of the physical side of it and getting used to the intensity from what he’d been used to at juvenile level. He has adapted very well in fairness to him.

“In fairness when Dessie was home during the summer he used to be up around the field pucking a ball and things like that. He was always fond of the hurling even when he was playing the soccer.

“He went straight into the football panel (in 2019), it would have been after we’d been beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by Ballyhale. But still in that period he would have been with the footballers but he would have turned up to every session with us.

“He would have done the hurling parts of the session without doing the physical. It wasn’t as if at that stage he wasn’t as committed to the hurling as he was to the football. He absolutely was.”

The results are there to see in the dizzying scoring returns he has posted on the board. Crunch the numbers. Hutchinson began in April 2019 with 0-2 for Clonea and then the pace intensified – 2-2 v Tallow to round off the group series, 0-6 against Passage in a quarter-final, 0-4 when facing Dungarvan in the semi-final and then 1-3 in the county final last October against De La Salle, along with the man-of-the-match award.

dessie-hutchinson-wayne-hutchinson-and-jj-hutchinson Dessie, Wayne and JJ Hutchinson after last year's Waterford county senior final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The move outside the county boundaries last winter yielded totals of 1-2 (Sixmilebridge), 0-5 (Patrickwell) and 0-3 (Borris-Ileigh). Ballygunner’s Munster journey ended in misery but when facing the brightest and the best of the province, their blue-chip forward had stood out and he got a club All-Star earlier for his efforts. This year, in a revamped and condensed Waterford format, he has delivered 2-5 (Tallow), 1-1 (Passage), 1-4 (Fourmilewater) and that 2-8 (Lismore).

There is a dependency to the life of the inside forward. The supply coming from outside and the graft going on nearby are essential to the health of the danger man. Ballygunner have a middle third that provides a launchpad for constant attacks. Pauric Mahony is a conductor of the attacking orchestra at 11. The second goal last Sunday was a direct product of Kevin Mahony’s foraging and offload.

But as his manager points out, Hutchinson’s relentless movement and the types of runs he makes are key. A case in point, that opening goal seven days ago. A ruck developed near the D in the Lismore half before the sliotar spilled loose. The moment Hutchinson saw Mikey Mahony in possession, he spun away from the mass of bodies, stole inside, left hand outstretched to alert Mahony to the space he was in, then he killed the pass dead with his hurley and cracked a shot to the net.

“When you’re an inside forward, you need to be doing three or four runs to get on a ball,” says O’Sullivan.

“It’s like maybe trying to beat the offside trap in soccer. Certainly the professional foundations that he got from playing soccer have stood to him. He’s a serious athlete and his movement is top class

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Look there’s a good support system around him, there’s plenty of lads working really, really hard for him. But if you look how hard Dessie works on the field as well off the ball, it’s very impressive. It’s not just on the ball.”

dessie-hutchinson-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Where to next? The manner in which he has blitzed defences with Ballygunner inevitably sparked talk of moving up the hurling ladder.

Austin Gleeson has drawn parallels with John Mullane, an inside forward with that jet-heeled dart into space and a comfort in striking off either side. A Waterford call-up seemed inevitable, Liam Cahill opened the door for him last winter.

He got four league appearances in before Covid-19 blew the whistle on the county calendar, sampling afternoons against Cork and Tipperary. To make an appraisal now of his suitability to that level seems rushed.

dessie-hutchinson Dessie Hutchinson in action for Waterford against Cork Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Cahill urged caution back in January when assessing Hutchinson, his club boss doubles down on that view.

“Absolutely he has the potential but it is another step. You see Dessie earlier in the year with Waterford in a couple of league games, and it wasn’t that he struggled, but it was just a different environment that he was going into.

“I wouldn’t be putting too much pressure on him. He hasn’t had the exposure to the inter-county thing yet and it may take him a number of matches. Who knows, it may take him a year or two before he actually really gets up to the pace of that.

“He has developed the whole time at club level but Waterford mightn’t play the same way as Ballygunner play also. They might do things differently and if that’s the case they may not get the same benefit of the way Dessie plays as what we do. Certainly I think Dessie has all the attributes to be a really good hurler for Waterford but the reality is when will that be? There’s a learning curve there he’ll need to go through.”

Still those are questions that can be parked for today, ones to be answered when the county stuff resumes in October. Before then there is Walsh Park this afternoon. Passage may not be as generous with the space they’ll afford hIm, they have a defender in Noel Connors well-versed in taking on corner-forwards of renown.

From that interview in these parts in 2019, there is another comment from Hutchinson that is telling.

“I’m back to doing what I love most, which is being around the people closest to me and playing the games that I’ve always enjoyed since I was a kid.”

dessie-hutchinson-celebrates-with-his-family Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Today is the latest hurling test then.

He’s passed all the recent ones in style.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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