Inspirational Comer ready to lead Tribesmen from the front

Swashbuckling forward aiming to captain Galway to their first league title since 1981

Damien Comer: “It’s great, you get the play the All-Ireland champions in their own patch. We know they are going to be coming at us hot and heavy.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczos/Inpho

Damien Comer: “It’s great, you get the play the All-Ireland champions in their own patch. We know they are going to be coming at us hot and heavy.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczos/Inpho

 

When Damien Comer is asked about his role in St Jarlath’s most recent Hogan Cup final appearance, his face lights into a broad grin.

It was 2011 and although boarding had been phased out of the Tuam football institution, that day felt like old times; a showdown against St Colman’s, their traditional Ulster rival.

Comer, though a Leaving Cert student that year, watched the game from the stands with the other pupils.

“I was on the drums,” he says, as though to clarify that he wasn’t completely wasted on the occasion. The Newry school won 2-10 to 0-15 and Comer has been told plenty of times that St Jarlath’s could have used him on the field that afternoon.

“But I was a different person then. I wasn’t really playing that much,” he recalls.

Is it possible that the most dynamic full-forward to emerge from the Galway heartland in many, many years could have slipped through the system unnoticed?

Comer himself believes that it could easily have happened. He wasn’t really on the radar until Alan Flynn, the Galway U-21 manager, happened to spot him in a junior match for his club, Annaghdown, deep in the winter of 2012. The panel had already been selected but Comer was invited to join up and was told that there’d be a series of fitness tests when they resumed training.

“I had never done a fitness test in my life. It was after Christmas; I’d be eating and drinking and enjoying myself. I went for a couple of three-mile runs in a block near the house. The first training was tough because I felt I was going to pass out. It was different to what I was used to. I remember saying to Adrian Varley that I didn’t think I could stick it and he was saying , ‘no, keep going, keep going’.”

His father, John, was of Glenamaddy stock and his mother Marie grew up in Dunmore; basically, his parents were raised in the Bible Belt of Galway football. When the family moved to Annaghdown, his Dad was one of those who coached a promising group that came through. The club was well established without being a powerhouse.

As a teenager, Comer was among those been sent along with a few others for Galway minor trials but he came away from those sessions feeling dubious about the entire concept. Apart from other guys who were at Jarlath’s and a few from Corofin, he didn’t really know anyone.

Trial system

“You are trying to mingle with these guys and trying to impress the coaches and you might see cliques from different clubs. I think that if a minor manager wants to pick his best panel he should be at every minor game possible. If guys are doing well with their club they are obviously strong players. But I do think that definitely the trial system would have failed me in being spotted.”

As it happened, he won an All-Ireland U-21 medal with Flynn’s team before he had even played a senior match for Annaghdown. The experience was transformative, and he returned to the club with a new-found sense of confidence and purpose to his game.

It was the beginning of the immensely powerful and explosive attacking talent who has been the focal point of Galway’s entertaining run to Sunday’s league final against Dublin. He can’t quite say how it happened, just that the jigsaw fell into place.

Comer was relatively slight through school years but between finishing in Jarlath’s and starting college his shoulders broadened and he found himself equipped with the sort of strength you can’t really buy simply from pumping steel.

It’s hard to compare Comer to any other forward in Gaelic football because he arrived as a kind of proto-type, with the torque and low-slung centre of gravity of an elite sprinter combined with good aerial ball-winning capability, a sweet passing touch and, increasingly, a sharp eye for taking scores. He is still only 24 but whenever he reviews his progression, he can’t help but see Alan Flynn’s intervention as a crossing point.

“It brought me on leaps and bounds and just that experience. If I hadn’t got that breakthrough then maybe I’d just be playing within myself in the club team and maybe never reach the fitness I needed to express myself even more. Because a lot of my game would be a direct, hard-running game. So there is that chance I would have just fallen beneath the radar, maybe gone travelling and it just might never have happened.”

Already, opposition defenders and managers have begun to wish events had turned out that way. Comer is a handful and a wonderfully physical player in the purest sense. Memorably, he was halted by an absolutely shuddering shoulder tackle from Mayo’s Colm Boyle just five minutes into his first Connacht senior final in 2014. Tom Flynn passed a ball ahead of him and he accelerated as he caught it, his mind full of happy forecasts of the run on which he was about to embark.

“I didn’t know Colm was there at all. I was winded. Concussed. All over the shop after it. I was off after 15 minutes. Colm is solid and in fairness, it was one you would be proud of yourself. It was just the way it worked out and it was disappointing to have your first Connacht final ending like that. I ended up watching from the dug-out.”

Traditional county

Three years later, the tables were turned when Comer starred as immovable object to Diarmuid O’Connor’s irresistible force. Both of those tackles serve as a useful reference points to the transition Galway have made in those three years from the team habitually swatted aside by Mayo to a constant thorn in their side.

But until this year, Galway were merely a provincial championship worry for their neighbours. Their league re-emergence, after too many seasons spent in Division Two chrysalis, as a traditional county intent on challenging the big teams, has made everyone sit up and take notice.

Nobody paid all that much heed when they edged out Tyrone on a dismal opening day in Tuam. But a win away in Tralee, a string of victories and the notable edge in their home games against Mayo and Dublin have sent out a clear message that they feel ready to box heavyweight again. Their new order has attracted both sharp and flattering comment. Comer shrugs at the perception of Galway’s more defensive orientation and that they have become a more abrasive team.

“A lot of work goes into it. It is not something you develop overnight. Kevin [Walsh] has been working on this with us for the past few years. It is not as simple as getting players behind the ball. It is a system we have been working on but we contrast it well with our attacking play. Some people say it mightn’t be pretty but it is what it is. We don’t always go defensive. We can attack teams as well and push up when we have to.

“Other teams are the same. Dublin, obviously, get men behind the ball. When I came on in the second half I was being marked by one and there was one player either side in front of me. That’s a plus three defence right there. But look, it’s the way the game has gone. If you go one on one in the game now, it is very hard to defend it. The advantage is always with the forward.”

For Comer, the Galway-era of John O’Mahony is sepia stuff, the 2001 All-Ireland victory is his first clear memory of the maroon team. When he watches the reruns of those games, he is naturally impressed by the quality of the play but stunned, too, at the time given to players on the inside line.

“I would love to see the legends of the past – guys like Padraic Joyce and Michael Donnellan and I suppose Peter Canavan – how would they do today. There is no question about how talented they were but just the comparison to the way it was. Like, any forward would love to have one on one opportunities but it is so rare that it happens in modern football.

“People criticise that guys aren’t scoring as much and saying that it’s not the game it used to be. That’s because it’s not. It has transformed and has become more tactically aware and there are so many systems to break down before you kick a score at all. And I am sure it is not going to stop here – there will be new tactics coming through.”

It’s hard to gauge just how claustrophobic the field of play can be for contemporary forwards in Gaelic football for people watching from the stands.

“When you are on the pitch you are looking at a Dub the same height as you coming from different angles and you can’t see what is behind him. The pass can be easy to see from the stand but until you put yourself in that situation it is hard to understand what the player can and can’t see because he is playing on a level playing field. You literally have no time on the ball before you are getting hands on you.”

Gigantic figures

In the recent past, Galway’s more open, expansive style left them vulnerable to that tight pressing game. Now, they are inflicting it on others and using their intimidatingly quick forward-line to hurt teams on the counterattack.

This has been a signal season for Comer: alongside Donegal’s Patrick McBrearty, his performances have been phenomenal. Yet enjoyable though the recent seasons have been for Comer, they are tempered now for the family by the sad passing of John Comer, after an illness, in January 2017. He was one of those gigantic figures on the local landscape, still playing football as recently as 1998, when most of his peers had quit.

“He used to play centre- or corner-back but finished up in goal. I know one of his last games he played a game in Tuam Stadium and there was a hole in the fence and I’m told I managed to crawl through it at four years of age and come out onto the pitch mid-game! But he was out in the garden with us when he wasn’t working and when I got older, he was always there – though he’d still nearly go to a Glenamaddy match quicker than ours. He never lost that love for the club.”

Sufficient time has passed since Galway’s beacon period and nobody is disguising the excitement that this league final brings. If Galway win, Comer will become the first league-winning captain since Barry Brennan in 1981.

Sunday is a steep hill, though. Comer nods at the notion that they might find Dublin in the mood to serve a writ in the guise of one of those stomping performances. The city team have saved some of their most formidable days for league finals.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world,”he says of the possibility of a Dublin onslaught.

“You have time to change a few things. What we are doing has been working. If it happens not to work on Sunday then we will look at it and adjust what we are doing and tweak a few things. Look, if this was the Premier League system we would have the competition won but with the GAA, you get another crack at it.

“And it’s great; you get to play the All-Ireland champions in their own patch. We know they are going to be coming at us hot and heavy. That last day in Salthill was my first time to play against them personally and the same for a lot of the lads. They are the All-Ireland champions, we had seen them on TV. So we all wanted to play them to see are they as good as they seem. If we play well and we beat them, we beat them. If it’s a bit of a loss, well, we will analyse that as well and look at how we can do things better.”

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