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'I lost my brother in 1999 so you could nearly say I retired 20 years after': 3-time All-Star Hayes

The former Galway star called time on his hurling career at the weekend.

IN THE END, his body made the decision.

damien-hayes Damien Hayes won four club All-Ireland titles with Portumna. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Three-time All-Star Damien Hayes always said he would continue to serve for Portumna as long as his body would allow, and on Saturday, he felt the call come through.

Four years after calling time on his inter-county career, it felt like the time was right for him to bring his club days to an end.

Portumna were once giants if club hurling, amassing four All-Ireland titles between 2006 and 2014. Times have been leaner for the south Galway side in recent years and relegation fights have become more familiar to them.

Defeating Gort to retain their senior ‘A’ status for 2020 was a fitting way to sign off, and Hayes kept his parting speech short in the dressing room afterwards.

“I just told the lads I was retiring and thanks for everything,” Hayes tells The42.

“I just wanted to do it because there’s other lads that might retire or mightn’t decide to go back but I knew I mightn’t get the opportunity to say thanks to the lads in the dressing room again.

I described the Portumna players as warriors and that’s what they are. We fought for Portumna when we were winning and we fought for Portumna when we were losing. We gave it everything and I couldn’t say any more good things about them.

“The team has always had a competitive edge and we’ve had a great team, we won four club All-Irelands. We made as much hay as we could and we gave it everything. The lads are always friends and I’ll always describe them as warriors.”

Hayes believed that his retirement would be nothing more than a private moment with his team-mates after the game. But the Galway legend didn’t get the chance to slip away that quietly.

damien-hayes-and-ollie-canning Hayes alongside fellow Portumna veteran and Galway legend Ollie Canning. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

There was plenty of love for the star forward on social media, and he’s been humbled by the reaction to his departure.

“I’m shocked that it made the news,” says a grateful Hayes.

“I just said goodbye to the lads and the next thing it’s on Galway Bay FM and Facebook and Instagram.

“The lads have been savage. We’ve won so much together and we’ve lost together. There were great days and bad days. I was lucky enough to play with a group of players that had such a winning mentality.”

In truth, Hayes had his suspicions from midway through the season that this was going to be his last year.

He’s been carrying injuries over the last few years and the constant need for physio treatment was starting to take its toll. He also wanted to allow the younger players come through to the senior ranks.

But before he left, he wanted to help secure his side’s survival from relegation.

I’ve a huge problem with a sciatic nerve coming down my back and into my hamstring.  And I’ve a problem with my shoulder as well so lookit, it’s my time. I’ve been getting rubs, going to physio and getting injections. I’ve no regrets and now is the right time. 

“They’ve been at me for the last couple of years and I didn’t want to throw in the towel. Numbers were tight and I wasn’t going to just walk away. 

“It’s the hardest day knowing you’re going to retire. But the time is right and I can give no more.”

damien-hayes-celebrates-with-the-trophy-and-his-teammates Hayes and some of his Galway team-mates after winning the 2012 Leinster SHC final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Hayes has performed on some of the biggest days in the hurling calendar.

He racked up 52 championship appearances for Galway, although he missed out on winning the Liam MacCarthy with the Tribesmen.

He made up for that by playing a vital role in each of Portumna’s All-Ireland triumphs while also picking up a trio of All-Stars.

But as he reflects on his sporting life, the memories that he cherishes most are much more local. He points to a minor ‘A’ county title in 1999 and Portumna’s first senior championship crown in 2003 as the most significant days for him.

“They’re the two most special days to me. They were magnificent and they’ll always be very close to my heart. 

I feel the county minor A in 1999 was the start of this journey. And it was a sad year for me as well. That was the year that I lost my brother Keith. He died on 10 April 1999 so you could nearly say I retired 20 years after.”

Ultimately, there’s no regrets for Hayes as he hangs up his Portumna jersey and looks to the future with his wife Clarie and sons Eanna [5] and Barry [4].

Simple pleasures like kicking the ball outside with his two boys and going for a bike ride are the things he’s looking forward to now.

Hayes won’t be straying too far away from the club either. He’s currently involved in coaching the local U6s and U8s while also helping out with the local school team.

Hayes is happy to accept that the time has come for him to hand in his playing badge, but he just has one wish for people to keep in mind whenever they discuss his impact on the game.

Hopefully I won a bit of respect within the hurling world. That means a lot to me as well.

“I won All-Irelands with Portumna and All-Stars which is all great but the big thing is that I gave it my all and the one thing I want people to say when they mention Damien Hayes’ name was that I gave 100%.

“I gave it everything. I was never sent off in my whole career and no-one can ever say that I blackguarded anyone. I always wanted to say that I gave it everything for both club and county and I feel I did that.”

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