Damian Casey: The hurling phenomenon and class act who leaves a gap that will never be filled

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One of these Mondays, Damian Casey had planned to gather up the Nickey Rackard Cup, the Division 3A Cup, and bring them over from his Dungannon home, to Ballygawley Playing Fields.

hat’s where our humble and young hurling and camogie club, Cúchulainn An Ghleanna, have our weekly youth training sessions. He was coming over to give a bit of a demonstration of free-taking, talk to the youngsters and show off the silverware.

As a role model, it’s hard to imagine many better. They will not get that chance now after his tragic passing in Spain, news of which broke on Friday.

Now, Gaelic Tyrone find themselves again, incredibly, burying a county team captain, a man in his sporting prime.

Tyrone is, was and always will be for the vast majority of people, a football county. But in areas like Dungannon, Carrickmore and Coalisland, there are clubs with their own very strong identity, powered by small crews of indefatigable volunteers.

Someone with Casey’s obvious athletic gifts could easily have just played football, but his first love was hurling for Eoghan Ruadh, and Tyrone followed with it.

His promise to me came after an interview I had conducted with him prior to the Nickey Rackard final, when Tyrone were meeting Roscommon.

Damian Casey’s record had been flagged prior to that game by statistician Eunan Lindsay.

In the semi-final win over Donegal, Casey broke the 400 point mark in Championship hurling, over 39 appearances.

In League and Championship, his tally was 39 goals and 894 points. He followed it all up with 0-12 in the final against Roscommon.

As incredible as it is, he stands as the most prolific hurler to ever play the game. The leading scorer of senior Championship hurling is Patrick Horgan of Cork with a scoring average of 8.4pts per game, while Casey’s was over 10 points per game.

Any arguments about the quality of opposition has to also take into account the quality of service that Casey was getting, as well as the attention he will have received further down the league table without cameras to keep defenders honest.

The man was a phenomenon. All around the small cliques of Ulster hurling, people are devastated for his loss, for the Eoghan Ruadh and Tyrone GAA families, and his own family.

He was universally seen as a man of good humour and great character.

And yet here he was, willing to spend an evening to go over to another club, to spend an evening talking to children he did not know, for adults he didn’t really know, all to grow the games of hurling and camogie.

More than that, he mentioned how excited he was to do it. While we were making these arrangements, the Tyrone hurling manager Michael McShane got in contact and told me he would bring a few players over to our youth training some day soon.

In what other sporting culture does this kind of thing exist? Let’s remind ourselves that McShane lives in Ballycastle and had no further business coming down to Tyrone with their season complete.

For a shirt window of our lives, we get to play competitive sport. It’s nice to make the most of it. But selfishness can often be misunderstood for a competitive streak.

Casey was a competitive beast who wanted the best for himself and the teams he played on.

In January of last year, Tyrone county board still hadn’t arranged for a manager to take the county senior team. Casey was exasperated and wrote a tweet asking, ‘Are @TyroneGAALive hurlers the only county team in the country who haven’t got a manager, for what was supposed to be one week away from collective training resuming??’ He then added to it by saying in colourful language that the county board didn’t care for the hurling team.

His issues ran into other areas, such as the fact there was a changing room with a hot and cold recovery bath that apparently was for the exclusive use of the county footballers.

Casey ruffled enough feathers to make the county board act. They went out and in an impressive act of recruitment made possible by the new split season — recruited Slaughtneil hurling manager Michael McShane.

McShane is not a man who accepts half-measures. For the first time ever, the hurlers were to be given equal treatment as the county football team.

Year One came and ended with defeat in the Nickey Rackard Cup final.

By the end of Year Two, the county were playing and winning at a higher level that they ever had in their history.

That was down to Casey. As he said to me, ‘those bullets needed fired, and it worked extremely well.’

For me, the most impressive thing about him is this; since making his debut in early 2012 as a teenager, Casey started the next 101 games in League and Championship.

What that means is that not only did he never lose his form to be dropped, or did he pick up an injury — despite working for spells in north England and Scotland.

But he never got a suspension either. He played the game clean and honest, with respect for opponents, and for himself.

He leaves a gap that will never be filled.



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