End of an era as Fitzhenry bows out

IT HAPPENS every year at around this time, another retirement announcement as an aging warrior hears the irresistible call of Father Time, but the news that Wexford goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry is about to hang up his boots will come as a major disappointment to all hurling supporters.

One of the sport’s true characters, Damien was one of that rare breed who could be as effective at one end of the pitch as at the other; the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Limerick in 2001 is one example, when he came up field to score two goals from placed balls, then again in 2007 when he saved at one end, scored at the other, to help eliminate hotly-fancied Tipperary.

He was still playing well, had another good year last year, but, he says, enough is enough. “You’re not in your prime at 36 years of age in inter-county hurling, it takes a lot more work to get to the required levels. I had been thinking about it for the last few months. I made my mind up, went to Colm Bonnar (Wexford manager) last Thursday night and told him — that was it.”

He made his debut in the National Hurling League quarter-final of 1993, at a time when the likes of Ger Cunningham, Micheál Walsh, Joe Quaid and Davy Fitzgerald were on the scene, with Brendan Cummins and Donal Óg Cusack just around the corner, yet even in what was undoubtedly a golden age of goalkeeping, Damien Fitzhenry was able to hold his own with any. He won an All-Ireland with Wexford in 1996, two more Leinster titles (1997 and 2004), but for most of his inter-county career he was the last line of defence in a struggling team; yet, in that period he still managed to win three All-Star awards, two Vodafone (1997 and 2004) and one GPA (2007).

The highlight of his career, obviously, was 1996, that fairytale season. “If anyone had said at the end of ‘95 that we were going to win the All-Ireland, sure they’d have laughed at you — we had a terrible year. The year as a whole was memorable — the Leinster final, winning that, winning the All-Ireland semi-final, the final itself. It was a fantastic year. 1997 was good as well, we won the Leinster again, then 2004, another one.

“But the highlights aren’t necessarily the years when you win everything. I met so many great people over the years from various clubs and counties, had some great times, and those memories will stay with me just as much as the big matches. I went on two All-Star trips, to Buenos Aries and to Singapore — great times, career highlights.”

Damien will continue to play with his club, Duffry Rovers, where it all began.

Well, the place it all began in a formal sense — long before he togged out for the Rovers he was already playing hurling and football with a ready-made team in the Fitzhenry home: 15 kids, a full team. “Yeah, 10 brothers of us, five sisters, and I was the youngest — great training!”

Explains also how he ended up becoming a goalkeeper, in hurling at least — “When you’re the youngest you go where you’re told, and I was told to stand in goals.” Unlike with the county, he hasn’t had a lot of hurling success with his club, though the story in football is very different. The Fitzhenry-backed Duffry Rovers won a record seven senior football titles in a row from 1986 to 1992. Hope springs eternal, however; Even though they were relegated to intermediate hurling at the end of last year, if the great Michael Kavanagh can win an All-Ireland at that level after nearly two decades of frustration — as he did on Saturday evening last, with St. Lachtain’s – then who’s to say we won’t see Damien Fitzhenry in Croke Park again, with his club, doing again what he did so often in the past and performing heroics at both ends of the field? He’ll be missed.

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