Thursday 19 October 2017

'I wanted to come on, but I couldn't '

Former Galway star Damien Hayes tells of All-Ireland final anguish and hopes for 2016

Damien Hayes leaves the pitch in Tullamore following his side's Leinster SHC defeat to Kilkenny in 2014 (SPORTSFILE)
Damien Hayes leaves the pitch in Tullamore following his side's Leinster SHC defeat to Kilkenny in 2014 (SPORTSFILE)

Michael Verney

Thirteen months have passed but little has changed. The all-action ball of energy who lit up every challenge he tackled in the maroon and white of Galway still breathes.

And while Damien Hayes no longer tests himself at inter-county level, he still has the competitive edge.

No one played more Championship encounters for the Galway hurlers than the Portumna dynamo, 52 in total, and with retirement came the call for a fresh test. Something was needed to keep his mind stimulated, and it takes the form of a state-of-the-art Ennis garage housing 400 cars.

He puts his incredible fitness and work ethic down to a life spent chasing livestock around the banks of the Shannon, something former manager Ger Loughnane marvelled at, and while he still frequents the family farm, he is putting all of his business energy into the €2m site, Clare's first Skoda dealership.

While Hayes was fervently preparing the nine-car showroom for its November opening, his former county team-mates were preparing for hurling's September showpiece and after 14 years of senior service, he was not prepared for the experience of watching from the stands.

"There's no point in me saying I didn't find it difficult," he says candidly. "As much as I wanted Galway to win the All-Ireland last year, I found it difficult watching the lads in an All-Ireland final. I would've loved to be playing out there.

"But I kept my mind busy and that was the one thing I wanted to do, I didn't want to be idle because I find an idle mind is dangerous. I'm not going to lie, because I find lads do interviews and they're not honest, I found it difficult but I was excited.

"It was completely different, like people were ringing me looking for interviews, looking for my inside knowledge. It was strange because I wanted to be out there but I couldn't be. You'd be thinking 'I'd love to be brought on as a sub'. I still felt I could offer something but every year you wean yourself off it."

A heartbroken Hayes stared helplessly as the Tribesmen inexplicably underperformed in the closing 35 minutes with their holy grail in sight. He admits they reappeared in body only for the second half and believes if they could win just once, as The Saw Doctors said, that would be enough to cause a domino effect.

"It was whatever happened in the dressing-room at half-time and that is the truth. It was hugely disappointing. We just....they went missing, Galway went missing in the second half and it's a huge regret for everyone," he says.

Monkey

"It's like winning your first county final. Once you win it, you have that monkey off your back and you can drive on for more but the first one is always the hardest to get across the line. If you win that one you could find you might win two or three."

Having soldiered with his fallen team-mates and collapsed the wrong side of the line in 2001, '05 and '12, he knew their pain. Hayes' career ended with a brief cameo against Tipperary in 2014 when he had "more to offer", but he sensed dissension among the Galway ranks as early as last spring.

Despite the forced resignation of Anthony Cunningham and the notion that the current crop have put an even bigger target on their backs, Hayes will always support his former colleagues.

"I've always backed the players, always will and they wanted change and mix it up a bit," he says.

"Everyone in the county knew there was a meeting last April and that the players weren't happy with the management. It's something you wouldn't like to happen but the players are the most important thing."

Pressure is on new boss Micheál Donoghue to bring them to the promised land and having played against him in many jousts with Clarinbridge, and in opposition to sides he has managed, Hayes thinks he can bring the necessary skills to deliver All-Ireland success.

"That's what the people of Galway want and there's extra pressure every year, 'when are ye going to win one?'," he says. "Hopefully he'll bring freshness, enthusiasm, man-management skills, a belief, positivity, a praising system towards guys that are working hard, guys that are giving assists and not just the lads that are taking the scores or frees."

Having learned his sales craft under the wing of his legendary father Al, Hayes claims the people of Clare have welcomed him "with open arms" and much like his performance between the white lines, he has hit the ground running.

But as he slips away to deal with another eager customer, he is reminded of the glaring omission from his stellar CV which includes three All-Stars, four club titles and a Leinster crown: Galway's failure to win Liam MacCarthy since 1988 pierces his collection.

"Someone just said to me 'I'm awful sorry that you never won an All-Ireland medal', I get that on a daily basis," the 34-year-old says.

"People know how much it would've meant to me and that disappointed me most. I think I should have three All-Ireland medals, definitely two."

His heart is clearly worn on his sleeve and at times his younger team-mates felt his wrath. If he was going above and beyond the call of duty, he couldn't understand why others couldn't follow suit.

"It's your life, it was everything, it was completely my life," he says.

"I was 30 and I felt some of the younger lads weren't putting in the same effort as I was and I'd say it. What you see is what you get with me, there's was no false pretences, if I had something to say, I said it."

Married to Tipperary camogie legend Claire Grogan, Hayes proudly pulls out a picture of his young boys, Eanna (two) and Barry (three months). It's clear his life is a mile a minute but he will always make time for hurling, and for Galway.

And with the Fenway brawl still fresh on the brain, tomorrow's trip to Parnell Park to face the Dubs has him salivating. The human firework we remember fondly hasn't faded,

"It's all hands on deck the whole time, and would I change anything? Not a thing," he concludes.

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