Jeers have turned to cheers for Cahalane
By John Harrington
Cork full-back Damien Cahalane has been a colossus on the edge of the square for the Rebels during their championship run this year.
He’s rightly earned a lot of praise for his form the manner in which he’s developed into a full-back of real substance, but not all that long ago it was more common for brickbats to be thrown his way than bouquets.
Earlier in his career after he’d made the decision to focus on hurling rather than football and Cork set about trying to make a full-back out of him, Cahalane had no shortage of doubters.
But he turned a deaf ear to the critics and now both he and Cork hurling are being rewarded for his perseverance.
“I’d be naturally thick-skinned enough, a bit ignorant maybe!” laughs Cahalane.
“I don’t know if it was stupidity or ignorance that I wasn’t taking in the criticism. I was in it, I made my choice, I was hurling.
“Committed myself fully to it. Grounded myself in the process of working hard every time at training. Push the lads and if it’s good enough at the end of the day, fair enough.
“If it’s not, I’m already after getting criticised so it can’t get any worse.
“Coming from a low point to building up a bit and improving a bit, that’s all I’m looking to do, improve a bit every day.”
Cahalane was targeted by an anonymous internet troll in the wake of Cork’s defeat to Waterford in the 2015 Munster SHC Semi-Final.
The criticism was so insulting that his younger brother Conor felt obliged to defend his brother publicly by highlighting what had been written.
Damien might have been able to ignore it easily enough, but he admits it was tough to take when he saw how such criticism was affecting his family.
“You know it was probably tougher on my family than it was on me, that’s where maybe it started to affect me a small bit,” he says.
“Where it was affecting my family. It didn't bother me whatsoever. I was able to take it and, believe me, if you’d to sit in a conversation with my friends for an hour and listen to the abuse they give me you wouldn’t be long seeing where I’m coming from in terms of having a thick skin and everything else.
“They constantly abuse the back off me. But I suppose in the way it affected my family it affected me a small bit. But I just had to go back to them and say to them that it wasn't affecting me, so it shouldn’t affect them either.
“Just kinda know that maybe at times where they (family members) tiptoe around you a small bit or whatever. In general I would say it wouldn’t have affected me but maybe in the way the family tiptoes around it.
“If they’d come out and started slagging me about it maybe it would have been a bit easier.”
The Cork footballers would have welcomed Cahalane with open arms had he decided to jack in the hurling and focus on the big ball instead, but that was never going to happen.
He’s a driven sort of character, and was determined that he would keep working hard to make himself the best hurler he could possibly be.
“Confidence obviously, it comes in peaks and troughs, and that is true of every player,” he says.
“I suppose self-belief is your solid base and I kind of, even in those times, I always believed that if I kept working hard and stuck to the process, kept doing what I know best which is working hard, turning up to training, pushing guys in training, I thought that I’d be able to turn it around.
“I am not seeing the huge improvement that everybody else is seeing this year, obviously things have turned around, but I’m still doing the things now that I was doing two or three years ago.
“I suppose it’s hard to see what people see who are looking in - I don't see it because I am constantly in that bubble of trying to improve all the time.
“I’d be happy with the improvement I’ve made to date but I’m not settling for that either.”
Criticism has turned to praise, but there’s little chance of Cahalane developing a swelled head now or taking anything for granted.
“No, definitely not,” he says. “And I suppose that's easier, as I said, when you're coming from a position, not even myself but a few of us were in where you're constantly being criticised, it's easier to brush off the praise when you know what it was like to get the criticism.
“And the same guys that are probably praising you know are the same guys who were criticising you when things weren't going so good.
“So I suppose that keeps you on your toes as well. As I said, I know that every day I'm going to go out I'm going to be under pressure. But in a good way. It's pressure to bring the best out of yourself. That's a healthy thing.
“As I said, I turn up ever day and try to do my best. If it's good enough, fair enough, and if it's not then you might have another day when you can go again.”
Today Cork face Waterford in the All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final and it’s the solidity of their back-line that is giving their supporters cause for optimism as much as the flair and finishing power of their forwards.
The Cork defence was deemed something of a soft touch for the past couple of years, but now they’re a much more effective and ruthless unit.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” says Cahalane. “I suppose that was obviously one of our aims at the start of the year to be defensively more solid and I think the defenders that are there and even the fellas that are pushing us in training, the fellas have a great understanding that comes with playing games.
“We've been together most of the year this year as a set of backs and then the guys that are coming in know the way we want to play as well and are adding as much to it as the fellas that are actually playing and are pushing us in training as well.
“So fellas are happy with the improvement we have made there, but we're still not the finished article yet, we have a lot to learn let. Hopefully the next day we can bring another decent performance.”