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Saturday 22 September 2018

'I was up in the stand under the drums,' says late bloomer Comer

HEAD TO HEAD: Damien Comer of Galway (left) and Shane Enright of Kerry with the Sam Maguire during the All-Ireland Senior Championship Series launch at Dún Aengus on Inis Mór island. Pic: Sportsfile
HEAD TO HEAD: Damien Comer of Galway (left) and Shane Enright of Kerry with the Sam Maguire during the All-Ireland Senior Championship Series launch at Dún Aengus on Inis Mór island. Pic: Sportsfile

Hard to believe now but Damien Comer didn't make the minor cut with Galway. And he wasn't even togged when St Jarlath's last contested an All-Ireland Colleges final, pipped by the holders, St Colman's of Newry, in 2011.

Back then, Comer was small of stature and not overly consumed by football either.

Today, he's a physical powerhouse of a forward and the man entrusted with leading Galway into uncharted 'Super 8' waters, starting with Sunday's fascinating duel with Kerry in Croke Park.

Comer was, he recalls, the "smallest in Leaving Cert until the end of the year - I suppose a late developer. That's when my football career kicked off, shortly after that.

"Even in Jarlath's I didn't play when we got to the Hogan Cup final. I was up in the stand under the drums.

"I'd be very good friends with Shane Walsh and the Varleys (Paul and Adrian) since a young age. Even watching them, you'd nearly be jealous of them getting to play in Croker."

Comer stresses that his omission had nothing to do with myopic management at the famed Tuam nursery.

"I wouldn't blame the coaches. I think I lost interest myself more so than anything," he admits.

Dedicated

"I played a bit, up until third year, juvenile, then didn't bother playing in Leaving Cert. It wasn't that I dedicated all my time to my studies. I just lost interest.

"The lads say, 'Imagine if we had you, we would have won it' ... but I don't think it would have been the case because I was still relatively small and I don't know would I have been as effective. I would have been all right. I probably would have been on the panel but I don't think I'd have made the team."

What it all boils down to is that the younger Comer "never really expected it to happen. I was at a talk with Roy Keane lately and he was saying it's amazing how, if luck is on your side, you need it to kickstart some things.

"He got picked on different soccer teams; I was lucky enough that I got spotted by the (Galway) U21 manager. If I hadn't, then I possibly wouldn't have blossomed."

Alan Flynn was the U21 boss who gave this Annaghdown teenager his first big break. "I was called in after Christmas, he just said 'There is training on, would you like to have a go?' I got spotted in a junior 'A' final, got Man of the Match, he said he heard a few things about me. There was a fitness test - on the fifth of January, I think it was - so I had to do a bit of extra work on my own trying to get ready for that.

"I said I'd go in, throw my name in the hat, I have another two years U21 after this so at least I'd be an option if I don't get picked this year. As it happened, I developed, kept on developing, kicked it all off."

Thus, in May of 2013, playing alongside the aforementioned Walsh and the Varleys, plus Ian Burke, Tom Flynn and a future All Star hurler by the name of Daithí Burke, Comer became a goalscoring All-Ireland U21 champion - part of a hugely impressive team that overcame Cork in the final.

Deliverance

Five years on, Comer and several of his former underage colleagues are chasing senior deliverance.

The 24-year-old skipper has heard all the criticism of Galway's game-plan and, guess what, he isn't bothered.

"For years they have been talking about how nice Galway football teams were and where has that got us?" he asks.

"You hear pundits all the time giving out about defensive systems - but the Dubs are as defensive as any other team, it's just that they are that bit quicker in attack.

"That is what we are trying to get to. We have our defensive structure in place but we are just trying to get our attacking play flowing. Once you get that balance right, you are in a good place."

Comer continues: "That defensive structure is not going to be much use unless you bring that intensity out the pitch as well. We have to tackle hard up front and work hard all over.

"It is the transition then, how quickly you can get forward, so that is what we will be focussing on Sunday. You can't control the opposition, you can only control your own performance."

Suffice to say, Galway are no longer damned with the faint praise of being "nice" footballers. "You have to stick up for yourself as well," Comer surmises. "There were probably times in the past where we got bullied by other teams. There are two ways - you can either lie down and get bullied or stand up for yourself."

They're still standing ...

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