No-one will forget Damian Casey as Tyrone hurlers prepare for new season
As Tyrone prepare to play their first competitive match since the death of Damian Casey last summer, manager Michael McShane remembers the county's finest every hurler and speaks to Brendan Crossan about how the Red Hands are facing the season ahead...
“He was a dream to manage. I would say that if Damian was standing beside me now. You talk about high and low maintenance players; Damian was low maintenance. He was the most humble guy I’ve ever met involved in the sport because he was a superstar. Because he played for Tyrone hurling, he didn’t really get the recognition that he deserved while he was on this earth.
“He was a fabulous player. He played 101 consecutive games for Tyrone over 10 years. He never missed a game. He was never sent off. He may have been booked once or twice. He had a higher scoring average than any other player involved in inter-county hurling.
“Damian’s greatest strength was his humility because he didn’t see himself as the superstar that he was. If he was picked in the Team of the Week or if he won a Player of the Month or man-of-the-match, he would say: 'Ach, I didn’t deserve it. Somebody else should’ve won it.'
“That was always his way of thinking and that’s what made him the special person that he was. As a hurler, he was fabulous. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some unbelievable hurlers but Damian Casey was up there with the best of them.
“I say that without fear of being challenged. Damian Casey could have played in any team in Ireland. He could play in the current Limerick team because he had the physique for it, he had the athleticism for it, and more importantly he had golden wrists.
“He was the most beautiful striker of a ball I’ve ever seen. He had the most incredible temperament. You have to remember, every time we played, the opposition targeted him to try and stop him – sometimes by fair means, a lot of the time it was by foul means.
“He never reacted. He just got on with the game. If somebody was trying to rile him, it just drove him on a bit more. He was just the most incredible hurler to work with. He was that player that when things were going against you on the pitch, you would look to him to do something for you, to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
“We played Donegal in what was effectively a Nicky Rackard semi-final in Carrickmore. We were leading by six points, Donegal came back at us, reeled us in and we were level.
“They were in the ascendancy, totally on top. Our goalkeeper Conor McElhatton delivered two high balls on top of Damian. You could hear players shouting to Damian: ‘We need to win this ball.’
“And twice in a row he went up and caught the ball amongst a flurry of sticks, set up a point with one and won a free with the other and put it over the bar himself, and just turned the whole tide of the game. That’s what Damian could do for you. When you needed him most, he always delivered. He was just a fabulous player and a great role model for all the players around him.” – Tyrone hurling manager Michael McShane
WITH significant input from Dr Noel Brick, Tyrone hurling boss Michael McShane will be drilling it into his players to play the game and not the occasion on Saturday night as they host London in their first game in the NHL Division 2A.
It’s the first time in over a decade, the Red Hands will play a competitive game without their leader Damian Casey, who died on holiday last summer, just a few weeks after playing a key role in the team’s promotion out of Division Three and Nickey Rackard triumph at Croke Park.
It is fitting Saturday evening’s tie will take place in Eoghan Ruadh, Dungannon – Casey's home pitch.
“It was the players who wanted the first game in Dungannon,” explained McShane.
“It’s our first competitive game since Damian’s sad passing. The players wanted the game to be played at Damian’s home pitch and that’s just not the Dungannon lads.
“Saturday night will be an emotional night, but we’ve talked to the players about this and the important thing is playing the game and winning the game. And the best way to serve Damian’s memory is to do to what Damian would have wanted us to do.
“He’d want the lads to try and get two points on the board and move on to the next week. So we’ll try and focus our emotional energy in trying to win the game.
“No doubt it will be difficult because there are a number of lads on the team who were very close to Damian, lads who were best friends and the Carrickmore lads who soldiered with him for 10 years with Tyrone.
“Dr Noel Brick, our sports psychologist, has done a lot of work with the players about this game.”
The Tyrone hurlers played Armagh in a challenge game in Dungannon last Saturday night as a “dress rehearsal” for this weekend’s showdown with the Exiles.
The fact that the Tyrone squad has increased from 23 to 32 players from last season is testament to Casey’s incredible impact on the county and how so many more players now want to play and honour the Eoghan Ruadh clubman.
Young trio Odhran McKee, Ruairi Slane (both Carrickmore) and Conall Devlin (Dungannon Clarkes), better known for their footballing exploits, have put their shoulder to the wheel in 2023 as the Red Hands look forward to their Christy Ring bow later in the year.
Former Antrim dual player CJ McGourty has come out of retirement, while Dermot Begley, Chris Kearns, Lorcan Devlin, Sean Og and Conor Grogan are the experienced nucleus of the side.
“We’re in Division 2B for the first time, we’re in the Christy Ring for the first time, it’s new territory for Tyrone,” said McShane.
“But we were very successful last year – we lost one game and won two competitions we were in – and we came out of that with a load of confidence.
“We’ll respect the opposition we’ll face in 2B but we don’t fear them. This Tyrone team playing at their best can match anybody in this League. Now, there are lots of imponderables in that. There are young lads who might be nervy on a big occasion – like Saturday night coming – but we go into the campaign with good confidence and ambition.”