Casey was a ‘special’ player and person says Paul Lavery

By Alan Rodgers

MANY magical moments stand out from the career of Damian Casey. His prowess with Tyrone and Dungannon has been well documented during the past few days since his tragic death at the age of just 29.

Suffice to say that it was a remarkable career, as he built upon and enhanced even further the many top class forwards produced by the Eoghan Ruadh club.

In the 1990s, Eamon Devlin blazed a trail in winning the All-Ireland Junior title with the Red Hands and becoming top scorer in the National League. A decade later, Paul Lavery’s skills from frees and play saw him provide a decisive impact for club and county.

Now a coach with the club, Lavery is well placed to assess the impact of Damian Casey. He speaks of his good fortune to have lined out alongside the young player over a decade ago and how, even then at the age of 21, he was already a leader on and off the field.

“He was someone I first came across as a seven or eight year old when we had underage coaching on a Monday night. I remember around 2001 coming in and you saw the young boys, looking out for the basic skills,” recalled the former club and county star.

“Even from a young age there was just something about him. He had such a wristy stroke. Everything was so accurate and well placed. As the years went on you saw him developing. We knew even during those years that there was something special about him as a player.

“At a young age Damian’s mannerisms as a person showed that he was absolutely brilliant. As the years went on, I was a bit older and playing on the team with them boys. It’s very unusual to have the elder statesmen on the team like me actually looking up to a fella who was 14 or 15 years younger than us.

“That was what he brought to us – he was special and he never criticised, never found the faults with any of us. It was always encouragement and about the team and never about him. How we could always improve as a team.”

Damian Casey was brought into the Tyrone panel in 2012 by the then manager, Tom McGill from Lavey in Derry. His first season brought immediate improvements as the Red Hands reached the Lory Meagher Final, just missing out to Donegal in the decider at Croke Park.

But they were back two years later intent on making their mark. That game saw him play a captain’s part. He scored eight points in that final victory over Fingal, and his contribution in the second half was seen as crucial to the narrow 1-17 to 1-16 win.

It was a memorable day for Tyrone, and their first real taste of hurling glory since the early 2000s when Paul Lavery was the key forward. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Red Hands won the All-Ireland Junior title, promotion in the National League and also reached a second All-Ireland Junior decider. Back then, in the time before widespread social media, no TV coverage and limited visual recording of matches, the skills of the players generally went under the radar.

Paul Lavery believes this is one of the key differences between then and the modern era.

However, he is delighted that the hurling prowess of Damian Casey has been recorded for posterity thanks to his crucial role in so many victories at club and inter-county level during recent years.

“He was a ray of light to have played with. Like everyone from Tyrone you watch hurling down the country and to have someone of the calibre of him in your own county who could have made it anywhere. It’s a delight to say that you played with him,” added Paul.

“When we were playing it was a different set up. It was the old Ulster and All-Ireland Junior. Now since the development of the new competitions and the more exposure they have had with social media eveything has changed.

“I’m not saying we were in the doldrums, but it’s great now with a player of Damian’s calibre – if it had been back then nobody would have heard of him.

“He’s just a different creation. But it’s great that people have heard of him, because if the set-up of hurling had been the same, then he might not have been heard of. It’s a credit to everything that has happened. He’s probably one of the men who has single-handedly raised Tyrone and Dungannon hurling. He has helped create that profile.

“If you mention Eoghan Ruadh his name comes up. When you think of what and where we go from here – it grabs you. You sort of think that there was something special here – we’re fortunate to have coached someone so special and played with that special type of player. Now it’s unfortunately the end of an era.”

Since Damian Casey arrived on the county hurling scene a decade ago, the list of honours achieved by Tyrone proves the point about his huge contribution. Lory Meagher and Nickey Rackard Cup successes, and then the culmination of all that progress in 2022.

This year’s Nickey Rackard triumph against Roscommon in Croke Park saw the Dungannon maestro score 0-14. He also played a pivotal role in the National League triumph, which culminated in a final win over Armagh.

A sense of hope and optimism was surrounding the team’s prospects as they looked ahead to Division Two hurling and a place in the Christy Ring Cup for the first time in 2023.

Now they will face those challenges without the sheer talent and influence of their star player. There are six months to prepare for those respective challenges. But the crying shame for everyone involved and the whole county is that Damian Casey will not be around to spearhead Tyrone’s new bids for glory and the fresh challenges which await them.

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