Tullamore’s saviour Fox proves there’s life after 40

TAKE heart, all those of you approaching 50!

In 1964 Damien Fox was the team mascot as Tullamore, with whom his father played, won the Offaly senior hurling title.

A mere 13 years later, just 16, Damien himself was on the Tullamore first team, which had been relegated to intermediate. In all the years and decades since, Tullamore have had the occasional good day, winning intermediate and senior B in 1989 and 1990 to regain that senior status, but always, always, the big one eluded them.

Until Sunday, that is, when, having defied the underdog tag through every round of the knockout stages, Tullamore got back on top and were crowned Offaly senior hurling county champions for the first time in 45 years.

Their goalkeeper and their saviour, with a couple of critical saves? Yes, the self-same 48-year-old Damien Fox. A feelgood story? You could say that, yes, especially for those of us who spent decades in search of their own holy grail, only to be denied. Think, then, of how Fox felt when that final whistle went on Sunday, think of how he was feeling yesterday when day dawned, and with it the full realisation, of what he had achieved.

“The feeling is brilliant,” he said. “I came home early last night, I wanted to savour everything, all the feelings that go with this, and I did.

“Then today I’m enjoying it all again, all the phone calls of congratulations and the good wishes from everyone.”

What makes this extra special is that while Tullamore is a very strong club in Offaly at senior football level, leading the roll of honour with 26, they’ve been a long way off the pace in senior hurling. And yet, for Fox, and just as it is for all those of us in so many clubs up and down the country who start every year with hope rekindled, the dream was always alive.

“It was, yes, I’d always dreamed of this, was always hopeful, because we always had good hurlers here – it was just that we never seemed to have enough at any one time. When we won the intermediate and senior B, Johnny Flaherty was training us, and we had some fine hurlers then – we beat Birr in 94, the only team to beat them that year as they went on to win the All-Ireland. Our problem was consistency. This year though we had a good bunch of lads coming through at one time, and that has made a huge difference.

“Apart from myself, Kevin Martin (former All Star wing-back and current player/manager) and Pete Kelly, everyone else is the ‘right’ age to win championships.”

Hang on a minute Damien – the ‘right’ age? Surely any age is the right age to win a championship, and aren’t you living proof of that yourself? And bear in mind, we’re not talking about a penny ha’penny championship here; Birr have been one of the foremost hurling teams in the country for many a year, Leinster champions as recently as 2007, yet Tullamore beat them in the semi-final, and came back from a situation where they had surrendered a decent lead to do so – a major scalp.

The final, then, was played in front of a crowd of over 10,000, testimony to how big an occasion the Offaly senior hurling final remains. And there was Damien Fox, 48, still playing his part, including a superb second-half save: “I was fairly pumped up, watching how hard the lads were trying out the field – I played in the forwards for a long time and I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t like to have been on any of our six backs, the pace they were playing at, the way they were hitting... hard but fair, let me add!

“A ball came across the square, it was batted back across the goal by either the full-forward or the corner-forward, I got across to it, managed to touch it out for a 65 – it all happened very fast.”

The irony about the Damien Fox story is that if a lot of people had their way he wouldn’t have been playing last Sunday, and he would have gone the way of many a fine player before him and stepped aside long before his time, victim of the kind of casual ageism practiced as a matter of course in too many clubs.

“It’s an Irish thing, isn’t it?” he said. “If any of those goals had gone in I’d be hearing it this morning, I know that. But I’ll keep going as long as I’m enjoying it, and I won’t pack it in until I stop enjoying it. I just like it too much, to be honest; hurling is a brilliant game, the best game in the world by a mile. I’m not going to stop now just because I’ve won something, I’m going to stay going until I’ve had enough of it.”

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