Vincent Hogan: I'm mad to win
The old salt dogs nod inscrutable messages. The sea is their church. A black rain rolls across Salthill promenade in great blown sheets and the waves at Blackrock diving boards pitch and hiss an opera of syrupy warnings.
It is Wednesday evening and the lifeguard's flag is red.
Damien Hayes strips quickly on the yellow pier, leaving his clothes in a pile. They know him here and respect his business. He tip-toes, bare-footed, back in the direction of the road, then sweeps sharply right towards the beach. He is wearing togs and two tracksuit tops.
Behind him, the evening traffic snakes home with headlights on, bug-eyed and unseeing. He crosses the shingle and eases into the restless surf, tripping occasionally on hidden rocks, stumbling in the purchase of the waves. For 20 minutes he works here, solitary as a gull on flotsam.
Then he steps from the brown water, heads back up to the diving boards and slides into the swell. Two lifeguards watch him, familiar with this cheerless ritual.
He will be back tonight and again tomorrow, working that swollen left knee. In a single day last week, he did eight of these sessions. Some of the older men recognise him now and murmur gentle acknowledgement.
He has met Sean Duggan here, a great Galway goalkeeper of the 50s. Sean is 88 and devoted to the salt water. Hail or shine, he can be seen, balancing with a walking stick and easing himself into the cadaverous grey.
Hayes has heard how some in Galway still lament that Duggan's wide breadth of skill wasn't, maybe, used in an outfield berth. For his era was Tony Reddan's too and two into one wouldn't go. So Reddan left for Lorrha, gifting Tipp a legend.
Damien listens respectfully as the stories unspool. "I know your father," an old man declares from behind a mahogany grin. "You'll be okay for Sunday?"
Tonight, he will book into a B&B and be serenaded to sleep by the whooshing of the ocean. He might stay here until Friday; the knee will dictate.
It was "big as a balloon" after the drawn Offaly game, prompting him to go to Kilkenny for an MRI scan. Tommy Murray reassured him that, structurally, there was no crisis. But the swelling was as bad as anything he'd seen.
That Tuesday, he told Al of his predicament. Al is Damien's father, boss and soulmate. The day-job is the family garage in Portumna and, in his spare time, Damien farms the family holding of more than 100 acres. Ordinarily, there are not enough hours in the day.
But hurling usurps all other interests in the Hayes household so, when Damien outlined his need for the sea, Al did not equivocate. The garage would surely survive without his son for four days.
One of Damien's closest friends on the Galway team is Tony Og Regan. The Regans swear by the holistic magic of salt water and seaweed and last week Hayes lodged with Tony Og and his parents 'Horse' (the legendary Roscommon footballer) and Jenny.
Their hospitality was wonderful, but Damien knows better than to out-stay a welcome. This knee could be high maintenance for as long as Galway's summer holds. And he hopes they might push it to September.
So, this week, he slept in B&Bs, his days defined by those ocean shuttles. Maybe the knee needs surgery, but right now Galway's schedule has no room for stopping to catch breath. He loves it this way. His form is good.
Anyway, the end of the week looms against a black-and-amber backdrop and, for any hurler worth his salt, that's good reason to feel a quickening pulse.
In a largely cynical world, there is an engaging purity to Hayes' passion. He knows it irritates people sometimes and understands how, on occasion, the heat coming off his personality makes others bristle.
John McIntyre made a speech in the dressing-room after this year's National League defeat of Dublin. Galway had been down a point with 12 minutes remaining, but won the game by two. And McIntyre saw fit to single out Hayes' contribution.
"Some lads mightn't like him," said the Galway manager. "He rubs others up the wrong way. But I'll tell you one thing: he cares."
Damien is grinning at the memory. McIntyre wasn't spilling any secrets. "I know I could rub lads in the squad up the wrong way," he shrugs. "It's just I'm mad to win."
He is nine years a county panelist now, yet still boyish in that impatience. Three All-Ireland club titles have been won with Portumna, but his inter-county life continues to bear the faint ache of underachievement.
He was an unused substitute for the '01 All-Ireland final defeat by Tipperary, scored a goal in the '05 final loss to Cork and has long become accustomed to watching high Galway hopes ground to dust.
In a sense, Hayes' league final goal this year captured his personality. Picked at wing-forward, he took the first ball that came his way, rounded Sean Og O hAilpin and torqued in along by the Killinan-end terrace, snaffling a startling finish. The game was a minute old and barely warm.
He was probably Galway's best forward in the subsequent Leinster championship defeat of Wexford and his return of 2-3 from play in last weekend's replay against Offaly eloquently franked a rich vein of sniping excellence.
Hayes is, arguably, the most eye-catching forward of the hurling year so far, yet the shine obscures a multitude.
He talks with palpable fondness of McIntyre. The Galway manager seems to know exactly how to read and stoke his fire. Sometimes, it's just a gentle pat on the arm, a simple, "you were mighty today" remark tossed out almost as an afterthought. Other times, he might ask a question and listen.
It was just after 8.30pm on Friday of last week that the manager rang to make a late check on his knee. Damien was just out of the sea and pointing his car towards Portumna.
"I've a new role for you tomorrow," said McIntyre.
"Okay," Hayes responded, thinking that maybe he'd be at midfield or centre-forward.
"You're going in full-forward and I hope you don't have any problem with that."
"John, if you wanted me in goals that'd be fine by me."
He reckons he'd never played the position before, but McIntyre talked of wanting a greater goal threat. And, 13 minutes in, Hayes scored a picture-perfect goal. If anything, his cantering movement gave the impression of fluidity and effortlessness.
The impression was a beautiful lie.
He'd spent an hour that morning at the Shannon Oaks, stretching his leg in the hotel jacuzzi. Then he'd worked from 10.0 to 1.0 in the garage, selling two cars before clamping a hot-water bottle against the knee for the bus journey to Laois. Not once did he truly settle in his seat, for fear of the leg stiffening.
After they dined at The Heritage, he dispatched 'Tex' Callaghan to refill the water bottle. Then, in the dressing-room, copious quantities of tiger balm.
His parents were among the first onto the pitch afterwards and, if there is a sense of pilgrimage to their days now, it isn't an illusion. Al travels to all the big games with Eamonn Ryan from Tynagh. Eamonn's late son, Jarlath, was one of Damien's best friends.
Now it doesn't take a leap of the imagination to see him watching their lives unfold from a celestial perch, shoulder to shoulder with Keith.
You cannot talk to Damien Hayes for any duration without being tugged in the direction of his older brother's story. Keith, as Damien puts it, "made the Hayes name in hurling".
He was man of the match in the '97 All-Ireland minor final, and scored 2-9 from play in the following year's county minor final, but was then tragically killed in April of '99 in a car crash a mile from home.
"No question, he's the reason I'm so driven," says Damien unambiguously. "We did everything together and I will never forget him. We used to sleep in the one room in bunk beds. We used to hurl together. I still have pictures and newspaper articles up on the wall in that room. I have great memories.
"And, sometimes, I can get contrary for all those reasons. That's maybe when I rub people up the wrong way. Because of him.
"But I have decided that, for as long as I'm able, I will continue to hurl as competitively and as well as I can in memory of Keith."
He feels something different about Galway this time. Beating Cork in that league final was a watershed as they'd never beaten the Rebels in a senior final before. Likewise, Galway's championship victory over Wexford was a first.
Sometimes, he looks at the video of that '05 final loss and sees only cold certainty in Cork eyes. When he scored that second-half goal, the Galway roar sent shivers down his spine. Yet Cork looked impervious to the din.
Tradition weaves strange magic on big hurling days and Galway often pay a price.
"When I look back at that, it does look like Cork never believed they were going to lose that game," he reflects. "They never seemed to press the panic button. Even John Allen said it afterwards. They just never felt they were going to lose that All-Ireland.
"So, to an extent, we feel we've put a few records straight this year. And something inside me tells me that this summer is going to be something special. I don't know. It's just a feeling."
Funny, in the build-up to the first Offaly game, he found himself growing irritable with the public presumption. Customers just dipping their heads his way and declaring the challenge as "only Offaly".
This week is light years removed from that. The reverence for Kilkenny swings on a nervous hinge. Galway find themselves in a good place, three proper championship games played by the end of June. But the Cats are a different story.
Hayes says simply that Galway "can have no passengers" tomorrow. If anything, they need to play above themselves and hope that Kilkenny have an ordinary day.
A painful knee will be no impediment to his ambition now. Keith had a saying for these setbacks. "Hair don't grow on steel," he once roared in Damien's ear, pulling him up off the ground in a minor game. Hayes adheres to that gospel now. You get knocked down, you get up again.
Life is good. He travels to county training with his brother Niall. He has been seeing Tipperary camogie star Claire Grogan for 14 happy months. If he has ever felt more fulfilled, he cannot remember the feeling.
And, with Al's blessing, he has spent the past fortnight essentially as a professional hurler.
"If you see the car, you'll see I'm nearly living in it," he smiles. "It's a complete mess, but everything I need is in it. Clothes thrown everywhere. Hurls. Sliotars.
"This game against Kilkenny is the only show in town for me now. To be honest, if we could win a Leinster final with me doing my bit for the team, it would mean more to me than selling seven second-hand cars in a week.
"Whether that's being selfish or what, I don't know. Whether it means I should be sacked is another thing. I've a lot of hurling played, but I feel I'm far from done."
Hayes hopes he has the sea on his side now. He has always had the Heavens.