'Our character got us over the line in Sligo' - Down captain Darren O'Hagan
DARREN O’Hagan heaped praise on Down’s character after their last-gasp victory over Sligo and hopes the Mournemen can kick on for the rest of their Division Three campaign.
Caolan Mooney’s stoppage-time goal in Collooney last Sunday wiped away the disappointment of their opening day defeat to Laois.
The Ulstermen trailed 1-2 to no score after six minutes and were two down at the break.
Despite edging in front for the first time after 55 minutes, Sligo showed tremendous character themselves to get their noses in front again in the fist minute of stoppage-time.
But up popped Mooney to grab the all-important winner in the last attack of an absorbing contest in the Yeats County.
“The fight and the hunger was the most pleasing thing,” said O’Hagan.
“We were five points down in the first couple of minutes and we could have folded.
“And there were times in the second half when we got a point ahead and they came back at us. We kept digging in and digging in; everybody played right to the end and we got a last-minute goal.”
O’Hagan missed the previous day’s defeat to Laois due to a suspension that carried over from last summer but returned against Sligo and produced a brilliant defensive display.
Sligo’s full-forward Pat Hughes had already mined 1-1 in the opening exchanges and it was only when manager Paddy Tally made a couple of tactical switches in the first half – one of which was moving O’Hagan onto Hughes – that Down settled to the task.
“It was vital getting two pints especially down in Sligo, away from home, wet conditions, tough surface - it was definitely a day that we hope will kick-start our season.”
The younger members of the Down squad are getting their chance to impress in the early stages of Tally’s reign.
Stephen Fegan, Johnny Flynn, Liam Devlin, Conor Francis, Daniel McCarthy and Pat Havern all got game-time in Collooney.
“The young players have been brilliant, it’s actually great,” said O’Hagan, who earned the captaincy this year.
“I’m one of the older brigade now. The new fellas have brought new life to training; they bring energy and legs.
“There’s more craic and enjoyment so I’m glad for the new faces.”
But it was some of the more experienced heads that got Down over the line last Sunday, including match-winner Mooney.
The Rostrevor man has battled back to full fitness after a hernia operation, coming off the bench in the defeat to Laois and playing a major role against Sligo from the start.
Mooney’s stunning fitness levels made light of the heavy ground in Collooney as he hit 1-2 in a blistering second half display.
“That goes down to Caolan himself and that’s probably one of the reasons why he’s vice captain,” insisted O’Hagan.
“He’s come back from an operation and the work he’s put in over the last two months has been phenomenal to get himself to that level.”
On Tally’s early impact on the squad, the Clonduff man said: “Paddy has a three or four-year plan and he’s trying to get his team and blood new players so hopefully we can push on over the next three or four years. He’s been first class, brilliant. He’s very much a players' man and is very easy to talk to.”
Describing it as an “honour” and a “personal goal” to captain his county, O’Hagan says defenders will have to be on their toes this season to keep the ‘attacking marks’ low.
Sligo profited from the new rule in the opening exchanges before O’Hagan’s touch-tight marking style nullified the homes side’s attack.
“When you run out to your man you have to try and get the hand in otherwise he has a free shot on goal. Instead of standing off and watching him running away from goal you’re thinking he’s no danger, but he is a danger because he’s a free shot on goal if he catches it clean.
“It means defenders have to mark tighter and it could probably take sweepers out of the game with one pass.”