golden boy | 

A look at the rise of ‘quiet, determined’ Damien Comer to Galway superstardom

Countdown to All-Ireland final continues
Damien Comer has been a leading light for Galway this year

Damien Comer has been a leading light for Galway this year© SPORTSFILE


TWO days after leading Galway to their first All-Ireland final in 21 years, Damien Comer sends a text to his good friend Padraig Lally to see if he could shoot the breeze.

Lally manages Taaffes bar in Shop St but suggests they meet across the way for a coffee instead.

“I knew he’d just be tormented inside,” the man from An Spidéal tells it now with a smile.

But Comer was tormented outside too; not that he would ever betray the fact. For the 40 minutes they spent there, Lally reckons about 20 people, of all ages, approached Comer with a word or a request for a photo.

None were declined; all accepted with the easy grace and warm embrace of a man who, even to those who do not know him intimately, commend him as a salt of north Galway’s earth.

“He’s happy-go-lucky,” says his former manager Kevin Walsh. “He’d be as happy leaning against a field wall chatting to the neighbours,” says Leo Maguire, chairperson of his club, Annaghdown. “He just blots everything else outside.”

Flick your mind back further to Armagh, when, that quarter-final Sunday’s searing searchlight had alighted upon a similar trait, had one a mind to take notice.

Even after the nerveless penalty strike, when a nation became engulfed in the outrage of the eye-gouge – and Comer’s sporting response was in concert with his social reaction.

When the result was sealed, he shook hands with every one of his defeated adversaries.

“I tell you, if that had happened to me,” says Lally, “I wouldn’t have been shaking hands with any of them! It was pretty humbling of him.”

In an age where his sport and his society is riven by anxiety, when risk aversion trumps the reward of ambition, Comer appears as almost a throwback to a more innocent time, yet also a man so comfortable in his own skin, and his own time.

The voyage from there to here, whether injury or non-selection, has not always been smooth, nor has it been a path devoid of tragedy, but there was no other road he could travel. Sometimes the journey is all.

The child is the father of man, said William Wordsworth.

Well before John Comer hung up his boots for Glenamaddy – he was still playing into his late forties – he was mentoring young Damien with the underage sides after he and wife Marie, from Dunmore, decamped to Annaghdown on the shores of Lough Corrib.

Comer’s earliest vivid memory, when he was just four, is of pushing through the gates of Tuam Stadium during his father’s last match with Glenamaddy.

The family lost John much too soon, lost to cancer at just 56, the same day in 2017 that Damien turned 23.

“A lot of things in Damien’s life, whether injury or form, were put in perspective with his father’s death,” says Lally.

Ollie Turner from Galway Bay FM knows the family well and delivered a tribute at the funeral, one of the largest seen for some time in that part of the country.

“The family are just decent north county people,” says Turner. “He was a very quiet, determined man. Not loud or brash at all. But beneath it, a deep, understated pride.”

“A lot of his make-up comes from his parents and his home,” says Walsh. “His mum bringing him to matches all over. And then losing his dad, but being able to bring the Corrib Cup home when he was sick was a big thing for all of them.”

That Connacht title win in 2016 came in his third inter-county year; it is far from an understatement to regard him as a late developer.

It is a well-worn tale but a serpentine journey worthy of recall ahead of a defining occasion.

Despite attending trials, he missed out on the minors in 2012. But a year later, having not yet played senior for Annaghdown, he won an All-Ireland U-21 title under Alan Flynn, who had spotted the bustling figure in a junior match.

The words of a previous Annaghdown legend Tommy Naughton spring to his mind; he always liked a player “who has dirt under his fingernails”.

Flynn noted the potential even if Comer often did not himself. He had been of a mind to go travelling; even his first U-21 session, organised after a familiarly indulgent Christmas, might have proved a turn-off had he not persisted. His strength was an obvious asset then, as now, albeit he is not a stereotypical gym monkey; his game reflects the man, brimming with personality. In many ways, he is a throwback to a more innocent age.

“He’s the DNA of his father,” remarks Turner.

“His strength is remarkable,” notes Maguire, who recalls a hurling club match with Annaghdown when two successive markers were sent off for aggravated, albeit fruitless, assault.

He was a good enough hurler for Micheál Michael O’Donoghue to once issue an invitation to join the senior hurlers set-up but Comer was steadily becoming a good enough footballer to rebuff the call.

“Alan Mulholland brought him in,” says Lally, then a goalkeeping coach with the county, “and although he was a lot slimmer then, I remember seeing a video of him playing out in Boston and just shouldering lads out of it.

“He developed that physicality as he progressed and now he feeds off that aggression, he loves to get stuck in.”

Injuries have pockmarked his path. That his most serious, a freak turn on his ankle, was sustained in a soccer fundraiser for cancer – in memory of club mate Declan Regan – perhaps typifies his selflessness.

After an initial scan surveyed no damage, seven weeks of fruitless rehab prompted another examination, which did.

Subsequent surgery limited his involvement to just 35 minutes that summer and his sporting shutdown continued for much of the pandemic lockdown.

Further work on the ankle, a fractured hand last year and then hamstring issues at the start of this year’s league dogged him; even this summer, he has required regular treatment on a troublesome calfniggle.

Still, it seems propitious that, like the often fitful county he leads, the summer of ’22 has seen him thrive.

Kerry’s impressive defence will present a new challenge but, even if he’s double-teamed he has the brain to realise when the brawn may not cut it.

“It’s not always been that easy for him but saying all that when you get to his age, you want to be taking your chances,” adds Walsh.

“He’ll thrive on a one-to-one. He has that burst of pace and power, the quick turn left and right.

“And he has good hands, he won’t fumble a ball. He can do an awful lot of stuff in one movement. And if there’s nothing else on, he’ll turn and take you on. Con O’Callaghan has that, he’ll just go at you.

“But the big challenge is that if he has two on him, knowing when to lay it off and not kick it when someone is up your backside. That’s decision-making.”

Comer carries the hype lightly. He suggested meekly to Lally he might struggle to do a shift before the final in Taaffes.

In the bar, there is a famous frame commemorating Colie Keane’s hole, when the eponymous barman punched the roof to celebrate current manager Pádraic Joyce’s goal against Kildare in 1998.

They may raise the roof once more.

“I don’t expect to see him in the bar,” laughs Lally, “unless it’s on the other side!”

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