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Flying home for club and county! The Tyrone hurler and the weekly commute from Liverpool

“I know no different. I’m playing hurling from no age and it would do my head in if I couldn’t do it to be quite honest.”

ON THURSDAY EVENING of this week, a man was out serving customers in Edinburgh in his capacity as an after sales rep.

Damien Casey celebrates winning Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

His work with Matpro Machinery takes him all over the UK, in which he helps out with breakdowns and repairs among other things. He was out and about until late in the night on this particular run, something which is a common occurrence for him in his line of work.

By the following morning, he was preparing for the long car journey to Liverpool for a flight back home to Ireland to have him home in time for training with the Tyrone hurlers.

A Division 3A tie against Warwickshire awaits him later today, and by Monday morning, he will be sitting on the return flight, heading back to his office to begin the whole process again.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This has been Damian Casey’s weekly routine since he left his home in Dungannon and relocated to the UK. He settled in Liverpool, where he lives near his work’s main office in Cheshire.

It was his first time to move away from home, and although the big change made it challenging for him to maintain his inter-county commitments, he wasn’t prepared to give up.

“When I initially moved over,” he tells The42, ”the county had finished up because obviously we’ve a shorter season than most, we were finished in June. For 2016, it didn’t really affect me to be honest.

“[In] 2017 I had to talk to [manager] Mattie Lennon and we had the discussion and thankfully it has worked.

“I’m normally just back and forth at the weekend for training and games. I fly most of the time on a Friday afternoon, try to get to training Friday night and then games are coming up on Sunday.

Training normally starts at 7.30. You’d be leaving the office at normally around 1pm or 1.30 to get to the airport in time. And then obviously you fly over and it’s straight up the road.

“You’re sort of relying on the flight time and that. But thankfully with work, my flights are at a good enough time to get me home, so they’re accommodating me.”

Casey’s travel plans require a lot of organisation on his part, and the co-operation of both his employers, as well as the Tyrone hurling management.

Thankfully, he has the support of both parties to help him balance his work life in England with his hurling life back home.

Tyrone management trust him to train on his own during the week before he links up with the squad at the weekend, while his superiors at work allow him to book flights home that will fit in with the hurling team’s schedule.

“With Matpro and my boss, he’s understood from day one,” Casey explains.

“He’s from back home in Dungannon as well, so he understood and he’s been very accommodating. The whole work has been very accommodating of that, I have to thank them. Club and county team and management have been understanding as well and they’re happy for me to do that.

“At the end of the day, if someone turned around and said they didn’t agree, I probably wouldn’t do it. I have everyone to thank for their co-operation.”

It would have appeared that commuting home from abroad was no longer possible for inter-county players, given the increased demands associated with the modern game.

Galway hurler Johnny Glynn was the high profile case of a player who overcame that obstacle last year, and regularly travelled home from New York to line out for Micheál Donoghue’s side during their All-Ireland winning season.

He made his first start of the campaign against Waterford in the All-Ireland final.

Glynn’s arrangement with the team generated a lot of discussion at the time, although he did return to live in Galway for much of the summer. He was based at home from the Leinster final onwards, and only returned to America for a few days after each game.

Jonathan Glynn celebrates Johnny Glynn celebrates Galway's All-Ireland SHC semi-final victory over Tipperary. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In light of the county’s eventual success, the casual observer would accept that the prestigious honour of winning an All-Ireland medal justifies the magnitude of Glynn’s efforts to travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic for the Galway cause.

Understanding why someone would undertake a similar sacrifice for a team who doesn’t even compete for the Liam MacCarthy Cup is a little bit more difficult.

Indeed, Casey’s weekly round-trip is a much shorter one than the one Glynn had to endure, but given how much hurling he crams into each weekend on top of all the travelling, it makes for an exhausting journey.

It’s hard for the 24-year-old to explain his routine to those who can’t see beyond the premier competition.

A few people give you strange looks,” he admits. “But I’m playing hurling since I was four or five. I’ve got a massive amount out of it, I do love playing it. So, for me, I’d be more annoyed if I couldn’t do it. It would do my head in to be quite honest.”

Casey and his hurling comrades also have to suffer the stereotype that declares Tyrone is exclusively a football county. The exploits of the hurlers are often overlooked as a result.

Tyrone’s senior football team have delivered three All-Ireland titles for the fans and a slew of senior Ulster crowns over the years, including their back-to-back provincial triumph last summer.

Niall Ring and Damien Casey Damian Casey playing for Tyrone against Fingal during the 2014 Nicky Rackard Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Their hurling counterparts are not in a position to match those expectations right now, and although it can often be frustrating to be in the shadow of the footballers, Casey draws inspiration from it all too.

“It is frustrating but in a way, it’s motivating too. You can’t take it away from the footballers, they won three All-Irelands. They’ve generated their own success and put it in. It’s motivating too to try and get ourselves to that level or aim for it anyway.

You can sit back and complain and say x, y, and z but at the end of the day that’s not going to get us anywhere so, you can use it as a motivating factor. Yes, it is frustrating because you like to think we put in as much training as the footballers do. You can’t take the success away from them, it’s up to us to do the same.”

Despite what the perception might be about Gaelic Football being the dominant sport in Tyrone, the small ball game is the one that captured Casey’s heart as a child.

It’s the sport that has enabled him to rack up impressive individual tallies in matches, and a quick Google search instantly illustrates his significance to the Tyrone forward line.

He posted 1-17 in a Nicky Rackard Cup relegation play-off against Fermanagh two years ago, and 1-10 against Louth during the 2017 National League.

Casey has had some memorable days in a Tyrone jersey, but undoubtedly his crowning achievement was captaining Tyrone to the county’s first ever Nicky Rackard Cup in 2014.

Damien Casey lifts The Nicky Rackard Cup A delighted Damian Casey lifts the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He was just 21 years of age when he reached the pinnacle of his career in Croke Park.

I regard that as one of the greatest achievements in my life, as a team and individually with the captaincy,” he recalls.

“For Tyrone hurling, that was a very good day and I suppose we got recognition off the back of it.

“It was a wee bit frustrating that we didn’t push on and establish ourselves in the Christy Ring but we are still aiming for that. That’s still definitely the plan to get to that level. That’s just a snippet or a preview of what we can do. If we put the heads down, we’ll be in for something similar as best we can.”

Casey’s passion for hurling originated in his club Dungannon Eoghan Ruadh, and despite the change in his current address, he has no interest in seeking a transfer to a nearby club in Liverpool.

He can understand why a change in circumstances might dictate other players to leave their clubs, but Casey is happy to keep honouring his Dungannon Eoghan Ruadh commitments when required.

You’re from where you’re from. I’m always going to play hurling and if I can get home at the weekend and play with the lads, I’m going to do that.

“Whenever I can (I commute home for club) obviously towards the business end of the season I’m back and forward.”

Today’s clash against Warwickshire is scheduled to take place in the Eoghan Ruadh grounds at 1pm. It’s officially a home tie for the Tyrone hurlers, although ironically that isn’t quite the situation for local man Casey.

But that is his routine.

Fatigue naturally sets in at times during his travels, but he has managed to avoid injuries so far. And with his desire to play for Tyrone still burning brightly, he will continue to clock up those miles every week.

“I’ve a lot to be grateful (for) so if I can give something to it, why not? If you enjoy something as much as you do, why would I not. You only have a short window of 10 or 15 years playing senior hurling.

“Thank God the lads on the management team and the county board are happy to have me. If they’re happy enough, I’m happy enough.

“I know no different. I’m playing hurling from no age and it would do my head in if I couldn’t do it to be quite honest. And everyone would have to listen to me complaining. I definitely have no intentions of giving it up.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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