So it is this year with Wexford’s Damien Fitzhenry. In 1993, still a teenager, he made his senior debut, a National Hurling League quarter-final against Westmeath; July 11 last year, in a monsoon in Wexford Park, he played his last competitive match between the posts for the Yellowbellies, as Wexford lost a critical All-Ireland qualifier against Limerick.
At 34 years of age, three Leinster titles, two All Star awards and most precious of all, an All-Ireland from that magnificent season of 1996, sharing a place with the likes of the Rackard brothers, Nick O’Donnell, Jim English and other such true legends of the game on the all-time Wexford team chosen locally in 2002, he felt it was time to walk, no regrets.
“I’m enjoying my time off,” he said recently, in Croke Park for the launch of the VHI summer Cúl camps; “It’s the first time in 17 years that I have a chance to sit back and relax, take it nice and handy. The first month I was off I was sitting at home wondering if I should be someplace. But it’s great. I’m building a house at the moment, so I have plenty of time to oversee it – I’ve become a foreman overnight!”
Goalkeeper is a tough position but few came tougher than the man from Duffry Rovers, with whom he won a plethora of Wexford senior county football medals as an outfield player. Fitzhenry was always a man who would give at least as good as he got.
Thus it was on this occasion – even as we’re paying him tribute, a gentle poke at the fourth estate, but a pointed poke nevertheless. “It’s funny, over the last three or four years everyone on the papers seemed to be writing ‘I wonder if he’s going to retire, is this the year’ and then when you do give up they go ‘Oh, I think there could have been another year in him!’ So, I don’t know what way to take that!”
First summer off then for Damien Fitzhenry in the last 18, and now he’s free to do what most of the rest of us do every year, simply enjoy – become a fan again, one of the lads on the terraces or in the stands.
Thus he watched Wexford as they won promotion from Division 2 this year, thus he’ll watch again tomorrow evening in Nowlan Park as they face Wexford in the Leinster championship quarter-final, a huge challenge.
“I was down in Thurles for the league final and it was great. It was probably a year too late really because we had our chance last year against Offaly (beaten in the final after topping the division) but unfortunately we didn’t take it. It was always going to be the ambition this year; we needed to get back to Division 1, we needed to get through Division 2, win as many games as we could. Obviously there was a blip against Carlow on the way (shock loss) – it’s probably a trait of Wexford’s over the years that you’ll have five or six games and that you’ll always fall in one of them.
“Carlow was the game this year but the lads came back strong and beat Clare in the final. The objective at the start of the year was to get back up to Division One and in fairness to the lads, they put in a huge effort and that is where they are now.”
A loss, another year in Division 2, would have been a disaster, he reckons. “Of course it would. Beating Clare and reaching Division One – facing Galway four weeks after that game was tough enough, but, had we lost, it would have been even tougher. Galway are going to be red-hot favourites but I think that’s something Wexford will relish.
“Like everyone else, I saw bits and pieces of Galway on the telly (during the league) but I saw them that evening in the league final against Cork (played after the Division 2 final), and to be fair, the speed of the game was up two or three notches. They have some serious talent, some serious power up front; like I say it’s going to be an uphill task for Wexford but I definitely would not write them off.”