Glenullin star Gerard O'Kane steps down from Derry duty
Gerard O’Kane has announced his retirement from inter-county football. Brendan Crossan spoke to the Glenullin man about his Derry career and his views on the modern game...
DERRY’S Gerard O’Kane has announced his retirement from inter-county football. After “roughly 100 games”, the 31-year-old believes the time is right to step down and give the remaining years of his playing career over to his club Glenullin.
In a wide-ranging interview given exclusively to The Irish News, the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain says his biggest regret was not winning an Ulster title with the Oak Leaf seniors in a career that straddled six different managers and began under Mickey Moran in 2004.
In a personal statement, O’Kane paid a touching tribute to his parents for their “immeasurable support, which can never be repaid” and his intentions to support Derry from behind the wire. After taking a spell out last season, it was always O’Kane’s intention to return to the Derry fold for one last season.
Unfortunately, untimely injuries - including a broken hand and a badly torn hamstring - forced him to the fringes of Damian Barton’s starting line-ups in 2016. A second-half substitute appearance in Derry’s heavy loss to Tyrone in this year’s Ulster Championship proved to be his last, although he was involved in the last two match-day squads in their All-Ireland Qualifier run that was halted in dramatic fashion by Tipperary.
“There was no one defining factor for retiring,” O’Kane says.
“I took a bit of time out last summer and, back then, I made it clear to people that I wasn’t retired because I still felt I’d something to give. I said I would give it another rattle this year and see how it goes. I went back, I didn’t get the game-time I wanted or anticipated. I broke my hand and I had a bad hamstring injury. I didn’t even tog out in a league game... Before the Tyrone game, I was trying to cram four months' football into six weeks, which is why Damian [Barton] was letting me play club football."
He adds: “I learned a lesson in what it’s like to be a squad player. Now I have that experience, I have massive respect for number 16 to 30.
“I would never be of the opinion: ‘Well, I’m not coming here to sit on the bench’ because, even though I wasn’t playing, I always felt I had something to offer the group. It never crossed my mind to walk away during the year. Now, I want to give my club something, while I’m still able.”
After making his first appearance in a Derry jersey 15 years ago, O’Kane admitted the defensive nature of the modern game made his decision to retire a little easier: “It’s not about the time commitments,” he says.
“It’s probably not as much fun in terms of the football that’s being played. The time commitment, you buy into it, you do it, you’re part of a squad and you recognise that too. Derry’s style of football maybe wasn’t conducive to winning, considering the fact that Tipp scored 1-21 against us.
“Inter-county football isn’t as enjoyable to play because of the way teams set up. You just have to do it. You’re encouraged nearly not to kick the ball, you’re encouraged to keep possession. If you’re standing near a sideline, you’ll hear: ‘Keep ball, keep ball, keep ball…’
“My first seven, eight, nine years, I would get the ball in the half-back line and my first instinct was to kick it. You had Eoin [Bradley], you had Paddy [Bradley] and you had Conleth Gilligan running. You would hit crossfield or diagonal balls or a one-two and away you go. How many times do you see a long, raking 50-yard ball into the full-forward line nowadays, unless it’s on top of the man on the square?
“I think the enjoyment has gone from that aspect. You might get a team holding the ball for three or four minutes without a tackle being put on them. I know supporters sometimes grumble that it’s terrible to watch - it’s not that enjoyable to play in, you know. Every team sets up like that. It’s just the way the game is going.”
He continues: “Even under John Brennan, which is about five-years-ago, we weren’t set up to play like that. But that’s probably why we weren’t winning. We went down to play Donegal in an Ulster final in 2011. We scored 0-8 in the Ulster final, which would never win you an Ulster title and we scored maybe less the following year in Ballybofey because of the way Donegal were set up. And it wasn’t enjoyable to play against. You’ll see club teams playing to a system, rather than the players dictating the system.”
From a tender age, O’Kane was marked out as a future Derry footballer. He recalls his father - also Gerard and a former Derry chairman - telling him as a nine-year-old he would one day play for Derry: “I mind my father saying that to me and I’ve since recounted that conversation - my brothers would scoff at it and say they don’t remember it. But it happened. I mind it well.”
He was Derry’s marauding defender in Chris Brown’s all-conquering minor side in ’02. O’Kane was voted man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland final victory over Meath at Croke Park. The Star Man comments that appeared in the following day’s Irish News couldn’t have been more gushing about O’Kane’s natural gifts.
It read: "After his majestic performance, RTÉ pundit Pat Spillane compared the Glenullin teenager with the mighty Seamus Moynihan… It may be unfair to weight the St Pat’s, Maghera pupil with such a burden, but his performances lend themselves to hyperbole. Paired against the highly-rated Joe Sheridan, he put the Meath full-forward in his pocket…
"On top of blotting out Sheridan, O’Kane made a series of blistering runs up the pitch and was the source of several scores. Fast, intelligent, composed and a genuine leader, O’Kane was a class above any other player on display."
In ’02, O’Kane was walking on air. MacRory and Hogan Cup glory followed with St Pat’s, Maghera. Given the conveyor-belt of talent coming through in the county, it seemed O’Kane would stuff his pocket with more medals at senior level.
Despite his boundless talent, the silver never came. Tactically and physically, Armagh and Tyrone were a step ahead of the rest before Donegal’s dramatic emergence. O’Kane cites 2007 to ’09 as Derry’s years of lost opportunity. Monaghan ambushed them in ’07 at Casement Park, Fermanagh did likewise in Omagh the following year.
The years rolled on and so hope faded. O’Kane played arguably his best football under Paddy Crozier and Damian Cassidy - but if there was an injustice served on the Glenullin defender, it was never playing in the same position twice in Championship football. O’Kane’s versatility meant he could find himself at number four one week, number six the next or even as far up as number 10.
The best manager he had: “I’d have to say ‘Baker’ [Liam Bradley] and, yet, he never got the chance to manage Derry. Maybe because I was more familiar with him. I’ve been playing senior football now for 16 years and he managed around 10 of them. I wouldn’t give him any more of a big head, but he probably got the most out of me.”
When O’Kane stepped off the Derry carousel last February, he did things he normally wouldn’t get the chance to do. He headed off to Cancun, Mexico for a holiday and attended the Grand National at Aintree. Don’t ask him who won the big race, though, as he spent most of his time “in the big tent”. A few of his friends are heading to Old Trafford to take in Manchester United versus Arsenal in the new season and he no longer has to consult his diary to see if he can attend a friend’s wedding.
There are things he’ll miss about playing for Derry, like the Garda escorts to Clones and Croke Park: “I wanted to go out on my own terms instead of trundling along and then becoming bitter towards it,” he says.
“I didn’t want to be the boy that held on too long. I was so proud to play for Derry and so proud for my family. When I actually sat down to write the statement, I was on my own; it was hard reading it back.”
Lesser players scaled higher peaks than O’Kane, largely because Derry were never more than the sum of their parts. That’s the real regret of O’Kane’s generation. But there was no finer sight when the Glenullin man had the ball in his hands and acres of green in front of him…
GERARD O'KANE'S STATEMENT
I would like to officially announce my retirement from the inter-county football scene. Ever since my father started taking me to Derry games as a child, all I have wanted to do was to play for my county.
From the moment I first pulled on a Derry jersey as a minor in 2001, I could never have expected that, 15 years later, I would still be playing for my county, having also had the opportunity to captain Derry at minor, U21 and senior level.
I have experienced many ups and downs as a player. Throughout it all, I have had some great experiences and made some fantastic friendships, which stretch far beyond the playing fields. I have worked under six different management teams and can say that each one has worked hard for the good of Derry football and to develop both myself and all the players. For that, I am thankful.
I would like to go on record to acknowledge the Derry county board. I have played under four different county chairmen and each one has led the board with distinction. At times, even though it seems like a thankless job, the county board continue to provide football for over 1,000 adults weekly and not just 30 county panelists. I feel that this should be acknowledged.
To the supporters of Derry, I would like to thank you all. On a personal level, I have received untold support over the years. There are too many moments to mention individually. However, when I recall them, I hope that the supporters of Derry football continue to follow the team that I now return to being a supporter of for the years to come. My own club, Glenullin, has always supported me in playing for Derry. I look forward to continuing my playing career with Glenullin and I want to thank everyone at the club for their support over the years.
Finally, I would like to thank my friends and family for the support throughout the years. My immediate family - particularly my parents - have given me the opportunity to represent Derry and provided me with immeasurable support, which can never be repaid, but for which I am grateful. I hope that I have provided some moments of joy for them that make it all worthwhile.
I now return to being an ardent Derry supporter, just as I was before I began my playing career. I look forward to watching Derry teams and players bringing some silverware back to the county in the years to come but, perhaps more importantly, wearing the Oak Leaf jersey with pride and knowing that they have the backing of a county behind them.
Go raibh maith agaibh,
Gearóid Ó Catháin