'There's nowhere else I'd rather be in the world than in Croke Park that day. Nowhere at all'
Darragh O'Hanlon has been a cornerstone of Kilcoo's success throughout the last decade but, ahead of the biggest day in the county Down club's history, he finds himself thousands of miles away from it all. Neil Loughran talks to the man who, in the midst of his own injury hell, has become the Magpies' biggest fan...
INSIDE the last fortnight, Darragh O’Hanlon has toured the sights of Sydney, the smoke from the fires that have devastated so much of the Australian bush drifting across the blue skies overhead.
Last week he and girlfriend Nicole moved on to Cairns and went deep sea diving in the Great Barrier Reef. A few days later they boarded a Greyhound Bus bound for Magnetic Island, a place where seemingly endless stretches of pristine white sand give way to crystal clear water as far as the eye can see.
If this isn’t paradise, he doesn’t know what is.
And yet he can’t stop his mind drifting thousands of miles away, to home in the mountain village of Kilcoo, to the sea of familiar faces bearing black and white flags as they march towards Jones’s Road in Dublin on Sunday.
“Ach,” he says with a rueful sigh, “there’s nowhere else I’d rather be in the world than in Croke Park that day. Nowhere at all.”
It is there where the Magpies take on reigning club kings Corofin, the last stop on a remarkable odyssey that has seen them wrestle back Down supremacy, conquer Ulster for the first time and beat Dublin and Leinster champions Ballyboden to reach the promised land.
This is the kind of occasion O’Hanlon, his team-mates and everybody in Kilcoo has dreamed about for the guts of the last decade, only for lady luck to deal him the most cruel of hands.
As if being sidelined for 13 months with a serious back injury hadn't been bad enough, the 26-year-old suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury when preparing to make his return in a league game last July.
Head wrecked, an eight-week trip taking in Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Singapore and Dubai - departing on December 27 - was booked while he lay in a hospital bed.
“It was the day after my operation, at the end of August. Nicole’s always wanted to do it and I was in that bad of form I just thought ‘yeah, why not?’ I just wanted to do something different because obviously I’m going to be out for nine months to a year, so when else would I get to do it?
“I’m rehabbing 18 months solid, two different injuries, it went through my head to throw the towel in, but then you come around, you get your head showered and you go again.
“I needed this break, I definitely did – it’s just my luck that Kilcoo gets to an All-Ireland final when I’m out here."
A natural leader, O'Hanlon was ever-present in the changing room and on the sideline throughout their Down and Ulster runs, remaining a part of the inner sanctum as Mickey Moran’s men steadily plotted their course.
Burying the memories of 12 months previous, when they lost their grip on the Frank O’Hare Cup to rivals Burren, was the top priority. And once they had navigated beyond Magherafelt and Derrygonnelly Harps, O’Hanlon could see immediately how this story would unfold.
“I knew straight away.
“When Kilcoo got to the Ulster final, I knew they would win that, win the All-Ireland semi-final and then I’d be away; I knew it from the minute they got to the Ulster final, but what do you do?
“I ended up just watching the Ballyboden match on my phone because it was half three in the morning here, there was nowhere going to be showing it. But even the few days before… ach, it was the weirdest experience.
“We were out for dinner the night before and I was never as agitated in my life. Everybody sort of knew it… I don’t know what I was doing with myself, I wasn’t nervous as such, it just felt so strange because there was nothing I could do.
“I’m an awful supporter at the best of times, jumping about the place, hands on the head… it’s worse than playing.”
Sitting there, hunched over a six inch screen on the other side of the world, an unrelenting whir of emotions so starkly at odds with the mid-morning quiet, ranks high among the more surreal moments of his life thus far.
“Honest to God, I was jumping about the place, banging on the floor. I thought we were going to get chucked out of our apartment.
“The boys were absolutely unbelievable - they were by far the better team against Ballyboden, six to seven points better for me. The way they moved the ball, how fast they were, how sharp they looked, how fit they were - they’ve got what they deserve.
“The goal Ryan [Johnston] got was unreal, some move, some work-rate, the pace, Conor [Laverty] did really well to lay it off and Ryan finished it brilliantly. For that goal Dylan Ward took the ball off the Ballyboden player in the corner, it was one of the best tackles I’ve seen – that tackle made the goal.
“Whenever ‘Dabs’ [Daryl Branagan] scored his goal I went completely berserk. Everybody else was saying to me would you shut up, there’s people trying to sleep downstairs. But I was just so happy.”
It was an odd sort of joy, though, O’Hanlon admits.
After pushing so hard for so long it hurts, really hurts, not to be a part of it all, not to be pulling on the black jersey he has always worn with such pride.
But then he thinks of the men he soldiered alongside who didn’t get to enjoy the same level of success, of the people – like his father Terry, the Kilcoo chairman – who helped lay the foundations so their club could rub shoulders with the best in the country.
It would be easy to wallow in self-pity, especially right now, but this journey and what it means to the people of Kilcoo is so much bigger than him or anybody else.
“When I got my operation, I was there every night but I was in the gym doing my own thing. I didn’t like to go down to training because it’s not easy to watch.
“Weirdly, it gets harder to watch whenever they’re winning… I’m their biggest supporter, I only ever want Kilcoo to win, but it’s hard to sit and watch because you can’t help thinking 'what if?' Or 'why did this happen to me the year we won Ulster and went on in the All-Ireland?'
“But then you think of other boys like wee Ceilum Doherty who’s injured too, Dominic McEvoy, Gary McEvoy, Anthony Devlin who are all retired now. It’s as hard for them as it is for me.
“The trophy’s never going to say Conor Laverty or Darragh O’Hanlon or whoever, it’s Kilcoo on it and that’s all that matters.
“That’s why everybody’s buzzing - from the ladies who make the tea for us after training, big Niall who cuts the field, people selling totes, the people following Kilcoo on Friday nights this last 20 years, people who have coached the boys.
“Men like big Roger [Morgan], my da, Seamus McClean who were there when Kilcoo were in division three and four. We never saw those days.”
For all those reasons, there will be a more than a few sleepless nights between now and Sunday.
When the long whistle sounded at Kingspan Breffni Park on January 4 (January 5 where he is), the celebrations had barely subsided before O’Hanlon was checking out flight prices and possible avenues of opportunity that might bring him back for the big one.
He still can’t quite fathom not being there, but reality had to take hold at some stage.
“I was talking to people from home thinking ‘what do I do here? Do I go back?’ I was looking up flights but it’s not that simple because we’re travelling around. Two days before the All-Ireland final we’re getting a flight to Brisbane, then two days after the final we’re getting a flight to New Zealand.
“It would mean me getting two buses, three planes, nearly 40 hours of travelling, but I would only have considered it if Nicole was coming with me. I wouldn’t leave her out here on her own. If anything happened, I couldn’t live with myself.
“If that was my daughter on the other side of the world with her boyfriend and he came home and left her there, I wouldn’t be too impressed.
“But I’ll be cheering them on from over here. They’re playing probably one of the best club teams there has ever been, and our boys will relish that. Kilcoo are used to being underdogs.
“Everybody was tipping Glenties and Kilcoo wiped the floor with them, the same against Ballyboden. This is a different kettle of fish – Croke Park, All-Ireland final day against a team going for three in-a-row, but our boys never panic.
“Look at Ryan McEvoy, Shealan Johnston, Anthony Morgan… it’s mad what they’re doing for 18 years of age. [Kilcoo goalkeeper] Marty McCourt was playing thirds football in the middle of the summer but got his chance and took it.
“Mickey has everybody in the palm of his hands; even boys that aren’t getting much game-time, you’ve never seen them as fit and as lean. I haven’t even kicked a ball under him and I was enjoying it as much as anyone until I did the cruciate.
“He’s built a serious force to be reckoned with, even for the years to come. For a wee village of less than 2,000 people, it’s incredible.”
Their time is now; his will come again.
It will be a moment to be savoured when Darragh O’Hanlon eventually runs out at Pairc Eoghan Rua once more, and one that would be made all the more sweet if it was for the newly-crowned kings of Ireland.