Vincent Hogan: 'It's almost like they're rubbing it in. I often find the old players can be the hardest on you'
Damien Hayes tells Vincent Hogan about his painful journey back to full fitness and living up to the legends of '87 and '88
On Monday morning, Gerard Hartmann was explaining the mechanics of explosive movement when Damien Hayes interjected.
"I like to think I'm fairly explosive," observed the Portumna man.
"Alright, come with me," said Hartmann, leading him down a corridor and into a room that looked like a shrine to Munster rugby. There were two solid tables in the room and Hartmann invited Hayes to squat-jump on to the lower one, an obstacle about three feet tall.
He'd already been on the treatment table for an hour and a half and Hayes felt sufficiently loose and flexible to accept the challenge. So he made the jump and, on request, repeated it twice more with relative comfort.
"Would you jump that one?" Hartmann then said, pointing to the higher table. "I would," said Hayes.
His brother, Niall, had accompanied him to Limerick and, as Damien squared up to the new obstacle, Hartmann had a word in Niall's ear. "He won't do this."
Knowing the furnace that drives his brother, Niall disagreed. "I guarantee you he will."
Hayes jumped it. Twice, he was asked to repeat the feat and, twice, he did.
"C'mon lads," responded Hartmann with a defeated chuckle. "There's not much wrong with you Damien, all you need is rubs!"
It is Wednesday night and Hayes stands in the kitchen of his house, replicating the deed. His feet slap onto their target with a pistol-fire crack and, three jumps completed, he has to be all but talked out of the challenge of a four-foot-high cabinet in the corner.
He's just stepped in from his first full training session in five months and the sense of liberation is palpable.
Hayes is a current hurling All Star and was, arguably, Galway's best player in 2010. Yet his form confounded those who knew the agonies of his preparation. He was hurling, essentially, on busted knees, surviving on a ritual of pain control that would have debilitated a horse.
Within three days of Portumna's county championship defeat to Loughrea in October, he sat in the Kilkenny consultation room of orthopaedic surgeon Breandan Long looking for a solution.
Both knees had significant ligament and muscle deterioration and the right cruciate was especially problematic, given the absence of support around it.
"How soon do you want to get them done?" asked Long.
"I can do it Tuesday or Thursday of next week."
"I'll take Tuesday!"
The knees required significant internal stitching through keyhole surgery. It might have been more manageable to have them operated on one at a time, but Hayes was impatient.
"I just had enough of it," he recalls now. "They were hurting me too much and I just don't know if I'd have been able to go through another season like last year, because it was basically a season of walking in the sea, Difene suppositories, bringing a hot water bottle to matches on the bus and then Tiger Balm at half-time.
"And I was always in pain after matches. I'd be barely able to walk, I was so stiff and lame. I'd be getting out of the car like an old man, as if I had chronic arthritis.
"So I just wanted to get the whole thing behind me. Getting them both done together made it tougher but I reckoned if I only got one done and found it was fierce sore I wouldn't go back for the second one."
Nine days then after Portumna's defeat, Hayes went under general anaesthetic in the Aut Even hospital. And only now has he begun to fully appreciate the benefit of Long's expertise.
For three long months, he was condemned to inactivity, a predicament repugnant to every fibre of his make-up. Hayes is a tightly sprung coil of energy: he found the empty evenings were inclined to drag interminably.
To begin with, his discomfort was immense. He had trouble sleeping and, unknown to Long, even briefly reverted to the use of crutches despite the stated need to maintain flexibility by walking.
"When I came out of hospital, I was moving at a snail's pace. I mean I literally walked out three hours after the operation but, at first, I was kind of wondering what I'd done to myself."
After three months, recovery switched to rehab. In the absence of training, his physical strength had receded and Biodex tests revealed his legs, especially, needed conditioning.
They gave him a programme to follow; he took up 'spinning' classes under the watch of Lisa Regan, Tony Og's sister, in the Kingfisher gym at NUI, Galway. The aim was to strengthen the quads to such a degree that they would take pressure off his knees. Four weeks ago, another Biodex test revealed a dramatic transformation in both legs. He subsequently went for a consultation with Long and the surgeon reported "extraordinary" improvement in Hayes' leg strength.
"When do you want to go back?" he
asked him. "Now," said Damien. "Because I'm sick of it, sick of carrying hurls and just hitting balls when the others are training.
"Sick of being told to step out of this or that, or to take things easy. Sick of standing there thinking, 'Oh Lord, I just want to hurl'."
And so, on Wednesday night, Hayes returned to full training with Portumna. He did so, he admits, with a fluttery stomach.
"I was very nervous going in. It took me a few minutes to let it off. You'd be only half-running because you've probably become over-sensitive to every little twinge. But I got into it eventually and I was delighted to come through it."
His rehabilitation will continue in Kinvara tonight, with a league game for the club. He will start at midfield and the plan is to give him maybe half an hour, albeit Hayes himself will be trusted to evaluate how his body is coping.
He will be in Salthill, too, tomorrow for Galway's clash with Tipperary and would like to think that John McIntyre might even have a minor role for him in mind. Hayes has been on the line for all of Galway's National League games, carrying the hurleys. He's now hungry to move on.
"I just wanted to be part of it and not to be going back in when I finally got fit, lads saying, 'Ah Jaysus here he comes ... '"
Galway have a better than decent chance of a league final berth and, if they make it, he would hope to be pushing for a starting berth on May 1. This is his 10th year a county man and the decade that has passed since Noel Lane brought him on board has been one, largely, of frustration.
Funny, recently he was down in the home of his fiancée, Tipperary camogie star Claire Grogan. Claire's sister, Helen, is married to former Tipp hurler Aidan Butler. Recently, Aidan dug out a match programme of the '01 All-Ireland final in which Tipp beat Galway.
He had been on the Tipp bench that day and feigned surprise at discovering that Hayes had had a berth on Galway's. "Aidan has a medal that I don't have," smiles Hayes now, mindful, no doubt, that he has won everything else the game can offer.
He went to last year's final with Claire and the experience left him with mixed feelings. Tipp had beaten Galway by a point in the quarter-final and seemed to farm extraordinary confidence from the deed.
"I remember walking out of Croke Park after the final and being extremely quiet," recalls Damien now. "I mean, I was delighted for Tipp, I thought it was good for hurling that they won it. But, after beating us, they became a different team. The way their confidence had grown was unbelievable.
"So there was also a sense of, 'Oh my God, could that have been us?'
"As we were about to leave, a Tipp man behind me put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Stay at it Damien, your day will come. Ye're not too far off it!' I kind of shrugged and said I wondered if it would. Then I walked away. I don't know who the man was, but it was a nice thing to do."
That kind of encouragement would be appreciated within his own county now. Hayes believes that endless comparisons with the team of '87 and '88 merely stiffen the incline confronting Galway on the cusp of another championship.
It is 23 years since they had the Liam MacCarthy and, for two seasons running now, they've been evicted from the championship by a single point. Worse, it feels as if the old heroes aren't over-burdened with much sympathy.
"The negative stuff is frustrating," says Hayes. "You'd hear lads saying 'What's wrong with Galway hurling?' People see that we've produced some of the best club teams in the country. Athenry, Sarsfields, Castlegar, Portumna and, now, Clarinbridge, have been All-Ireland club champions.
"So there's always this question of why we can't do likewise with the county. The winning teams of '87 and '88, those men are legends. Even now, if you see them, you'd be going, 'My God, there's Joe Cooney or there's Brendan Lynskey or there's Conor Hayes.'
"But the media always goes back to them and their word is always, 'Can't understand how they've never won the All-Ireland since'.
"It's almost like they're rubbing it in. I mean we respect them more than any team, but I often find that the old players can be the hardest on you.
"We're trying our best, like. I mean, the amount of lads going to yoga classes and the like last year to heal different problems. For me, the disappointing element of last year was our performance in the Leinster final. I would have hoped we'd just have torn into Kilkenny, but we didn't."
Just to get to a provincial final this year, Galway must beat Carlow or Westmeath and, then, Dublin or Offaly. After their experience with the Faithful last year, nothing is written in stone.
"The tide has turned in hurling," suggests Hayes. "Leinster is now harder to win than Munster. My opinion is that Tipperary will win the next five Munster championships if they want to."
He thinks back to the second game against Offaly last year and the intensity of the half-time dressing-room. McIntyre was giving his team-talk when someone's voice cried out, "Where's Hayes?"
And they found him in an ante-room "plastering Tiger Balm on the knees," as he puts it. The pain would demand it, leaving him no option to respond.
This time, he's coming at summer from a different place. The evidence is in the footprints on Gerard Hartmann's table.