No regrets at walking away as Reale relishes Limerick return
IMPORTANT letters for the future of Limerick hurling fell onto doormats throughout the county last Monday morning.
Short and sweet, they simply asked if the recipient would be willing to attend upcoming trials for the county senior hurling squad.
Damien Reale (29) didn't need asking twice.
He first wore a Limerick jersey as an U-14, won three All-Ireland U-21 titles in a row, played for the county seniors for nearly a decade and is itching for a chance to do it again.
Yet last year he walked away.
Reale wasn't the only one but 13 months ago, at a particularly inconvenient time -- three weeks before his wedding -- he stepped into a maelstrom of publicity by declaring 'I'm off'.
He wasn't one of the veteran players that Limerick manager Justin McCarthy had dropped, but he was the first to publicly defect at the manner in which they were dispensed, and also at McCarthy's subsequent comments that scattergunned the whole team with an 'indisciplined' tag.
That Reale was the first to stick his head above the parapet was surprising, as he is far from an anarchic figure.
And on the weekend of the 2010 county senior final, and a week before he plays for Hospital-Herbertstown in the Limerick intermediate final, he is now full of hope that the poisonous season that so divided hurling locally will be consigned to history.
The appointment of Donal O'Grady and his new back-room team of former greats -- TJ Ryan, Ciaran Carey and Pat Heffernan -- has given him huge optimism.
And if Reale can put the past behind, then others surely also will.
Things got ugly, and personal, for many of the 2010 defectors and Reale says he got off relatively lightly.
"I got a couple of abusive letters from England, from ex-pats I'd say, and I know others got those too, but no-one ever said anything to me personally.
"But I know there were other lads who took serious abuse, on the street and when they were out," he reveals.
His own club, like many, were caught in the crossfire.
When McCarthy assembled a new-look rookie panel, one of his players, and a county selector, came from Hospital-Herbertstown.
When McCarthy's future was twice formally debated at county board level "the club was split down the middle," Reale admits.
He felt it should support him by voting against McCarthy, but the club's compromise was to abstain in the eventual confidence vote, which Reale regarded as a personal snub.
"I kinda got half-thick with them, stayed away from the club for two or three weeks," he admits.
Yet he returned.
"The manager of our intermediate team, who, in fairness, always backed me, rang me up to say he still did and I really appreciated that. There was a great bunch of lads on the team too (including his younger brother Brian) that I didn't want to let down," he adds.
And Reale was desperately missing hurling too; a factor largely ignored in the whole sorry debacle.
But he still doesn't regret walking away.
"I'd be fairly straight in everything I do and I felt Justin was completely wrong. If he wanted to drop fellas, fine -- if he met them and told them why -- but for them to find out in the media and then to label us with indiscipline, I just couldn't take that.
"And there was no dissection of the 2009 championship either and how things went wrong.
"We put our hands up after losing to Tipperary but Laois nearly beat us, and Dublin could have too. Yet everything was the players' fault? Management's role was completely swept under the carpet."
His stance meant a radical lifestyle change in 2010. For over a decade he had lived that hectic whirlwind of senior inter-county training. He travels extensively as a health and safety officer with Pierse Contracting. Last Thursday he was up at 6am for an 8am start at Mount Leinster to erect a new TV mast.
In a normal season he'd still be back in time for county training and remembers some years where they trained both before and after work, sometimes on the track at UL at 7am.
"You'd often have to make up hours at work afterwards, but I honestly never minded it," Reale says, which is why the suggestion of indiscipline really irked him.
"Like, in the past 10 years, we'd probably have had just three or four messers, but sure every county has that!
"This notion of Limerick being indisciplined just took on a life of its own and was completely out of proportion," he insists.
His 2010 exile offered unprecedented perks -- a holiday in Lanzarote in April, time to play golf -- but "I'd prefer to have been training," he said.
"I missed it terribly. You can ask my wife. After a few months she was pushing me out the door to the club," Reale jokes.
He didn't attend a county game in 2010, not through rancour but because "I don't think I'll ever be able to watch any game until I am retired".
He believes there is consensus among Limerick's older players about the new management.
"The appointment committee did a great job, took their time and came up with a great man and a very good back-room team.
"Donal's reputation precedes him. He's a manager of the modern hurling era; he went into Cork after their strike in 2002 and guided them to an All-Ireland in two years and the selectors have massive respect in the county, as hurlers and Limerick men."
They're first faced with trying to escape Division 2 before they can even think about Munster, yet Reale is already in the queue; hand up high and willing to do whatever management asks.
"It isn't about the 2009 squad or the 2010 squad any more, this is all about the 2011 Limerick team now," he says.
"It's not about reputations, or the past. Every single Limerick jersey is up for grabs and I think that's great. It's all good again now."