GAA Football

Beating rivals Armagh could be Down's launchpad again: Captain Darren O'Hagan

Down captain Darren O'Hagan marked Armagh's Jamie Clarke in 2017. Will they face each other again later this month?

IT’S at the tail end of the interview when you get a proper snap shot of Darren O’Hagan.

Sitting in the Blend and Batch coffee shop at the bottom of the main street in Banbridge, the Down captain is easy company.

He talks farming, bricklaying, early starts, the after-glow of the all-conquering camogs of Clonduff, his senior call-up, building a new house, the essential need to dislike your opponent, his confidence in Paddy Tally delivering an Ulster title before he leaves Down and his thought processes of being a man-marker.

It’s the last subject that reveals O'Hagan's ultra-competitive streak.

He was more than a decent centre-forward in his teens. He played midfield for the county minors alongside Conor Poland before ‘Wee’ James McCartan drafted him into the senior set-up in 2010 and moulded him into a tenacious corner-back.

For the best part of this decade, the 28-year-old has shimmied between the corner and the wing.

You'd think there comes a time in every corner-back’s life when they just want out. Anywhere. Just out of the corner.

Not O’Hagan. Not this foot soldier.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “I get a thrill out of it.”

Ask him what’s the best thing about being a man-marker, he instinctively replies: “A race to the ball, getting the hand in and taking the ball off the man.”

O’Hagan’s been winning more races to the ball and getting the hand in first ever since ‘Wee’ James recognised his natural attributes for the role.

He likes the idea of marking the team’s most dangerous attacker. Over the years he’s marked some of the best in Ulster: Patrick McBrearty. Eoin ‘Skinner’ Bradley. Conor McManus...

His rationale? He regards every one of them as a vehicle for him to reach peak performance.

“You know that you’re going to be at your best and the person you’re marking is going to take you to your best.”

For the Clonduff clubman, the duel is probably more mental than physical. It’s about breaking your opponent down in every sense.

“I suppose it depends on the player you’re marking,” O’Hagan says.

“Against a player like Conor McManus I could get the hand in six times and the seventh time he gets it and puts it over the bar and he’ll turn around and push you.

“Probably the hardest man I’ve had to mark, in terms of movement, was Mark Bradley [Tyrone]. He just never quits. But the hardest to mark is McManus because if you switch off for a second he’ll punish you.”

In the 2015 Ulster Championship, Jim McCorry’s one year in charge of the Mournemen, O’Hagan had kept Derry's ‘Skinner’ Bradley on a tight leash at Celtic Park.

“Derry got a lead on us in that game and we got it back to a draw. I probably switched off on Eoin Bradley on a kick-out. He was going through on goal and he popped it over the bar. I’d actually done well on him that day, kept him quiet enough, but I didn’t keep him quiet enough for the full match.

“The headlines are always about the forwards… [But] somebody has to do the job, somebody has to stop the best players in the other team.”

The last time Down played Armagh in the Ulster Championship – just two seasons ago in Newry – O’Hagan quelled the significant threat of Jamie Clarke as the Mournemen claimed a virtual second-half shut-out.

The 2019 draw has thrown up exactly the same pairings, with Armagh going back to Pairc Esler determined to right the wrongs of their last Championship visit.

“Going into that game Oisin McConville was saying that Armagh had one of the best full-forward lines in the country and yet they were still Division Three.”

From that comment you’d be right to assume there’s more than a trace of animosity between the neighbouring counties.

“It’s a local derby,” O’Hagan says. “There’s definitely no love lost. It’s real. People probably think it’s not.

"There has to be that hatred there. It’s like us [Clonduff] playing Kilcoo. I know all the Kilcoo players but once they’re wearing a different jersey on the field you hate them. You need that; you need that bit of hunger. That’s why you play county football.”

***

IT’S a good thing your WhatsApp notifications are muted. At 7.04am, O'Hagan asks for a time to meet in Banbridge.

It’s a sunny Friday morning and he’s already been up at the farm looking after the family’s 25 cows.

As a kid, he loved the farm. At 28, he loves it just as much.

When his two brothers reached secondary school they drifted away from the farming. Now, it’s just Darren and his father.

He spends roughly two hours every evening there after laying bricks all day. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s something that my daddy’s had. He got it passed down from his father. It’s part-time, more of a hobby.

“It’s not a whole pile of work. You probably spend more time up at it than you should. There’s always something to be doing on it…

“We’re nowhere near big enough. You’d need 120 cows to make a living out of it. My wife, Paula, calls it an expensive hobby because you’re putting more money into it than you get out of it.”

He was a good student at school, but going on to university was never on his radar.

“Bricklaying is something I always wanted to do. As a kid I did it every summer and as soon as I left school I wanted to be a bricklayer. I love it. It’s relaxing. You’re outside all the time. I got all my GCSEs but going to university never entered my head.”

***

FOR O’Hagan, everything has always revolved around family, farming and football. His natural ability and strength decreed he was probably always going to wear the famous red and black jersey. But he didn’t expect to graduate so soon to the senior ranks.

Just out of minor in 2010, O’Hagan had a missed call on his phone with a voicemail claiming to be James McCartan inviting him to a training weekend at the CityWest in preparation for their Ulster Championship match with Donegal.

McCartan’s offer was authenticated after O’Hagan rang Aidan Carr to check with him the senior manager’s mobile number.

It was McCartan’s number alright.

“I was surprised I was called in that year. The likes of Jerome Johnston [part of McCartan’s backroom team] would have said to me: ‘We’re watching you, just keep doing what you’re doing.’"

O’Hagan wasn’t invited into the senior squad just to make up the numbers. He would see quite a bit of game-time that summer, coming on as a second-half substitute in Down’s dramatic extra-time win in Ballybofey.

Despite losing to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-finals at Casement Park a few weeks later, Down would embark on a mazy run through the Qualifiers and find themselves in Croke Park.

“Damien Rafferty was there, Dan Gordon was pulled back in there, Dan McCartan, Kevin McKernan, Decky Rooney and Conor Garvey – that was the defence that year.”

On a rainy Saturday evening in Newry, O’Hagan made his first Championship start at corner-back against All-Ireland Qualifier opponents Longford.

“I played the following week against Offaly and had a bit of a nightmare that night. I was dropped for the Sligo game [with Dan McCartan winning his place back].”

Had Offaly turned out better for O’Hagan he might well have held onto his place as Down took out Kerry and Kildare in spectacular fashion to reach their first All-Ireland final since ’94.

“If I hadn’t played as bad as I did against Offaly I probably would have started the All-Ireland final [against Cork] that year. I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I was only 18 and I was getting minutes and I was happy.

“When you’re that age you’re not going to say much to management. It would be different now if I was playing alright I would question the management. But, at that age, you didn’t.

“James was 100 per cent, he was straight with me. I probably had no arguments. I didn’t have a good day against Offaly.”

O’Hagan, though, felt he could get used to reaching All-Ireland finals with Down.

They still punched their weight, and more, under McCartan for the next couple of years and if it wasn’t for the revolution happening in Donegal, the Mournemen would most certainly have annexed at least one Ulster title during McCartan’s reign.

“James got the best out of all his players, he really did,” O’Hagan says.

“He had great trainers in with him. He could sit back and watch a lot of it. He’d Paddy [Tally] and Brian McIver in with him in ’10 and ’11. He had Aidan O’Rourke in 2012 and in 2013 and ’14 he’d Niall Moyna from DCU.”

Throughout those subsequent near misses O’Hagan had firmly established himself as an integral member of the Down defence.

But after McCartan departed there were severe bouts of turbulence ahead.

The Down County Board couldn’t ignore the claims of Armagh man Jim McCorry to the top post in late 2014, especially having transformed Kilcoo into a virtually unbeatable unit.

“We started very well that year under Jim. We got promoted [to Division One] but lost Championship games to Derry and Wexford.

“I’d say the squad was maybe split 50-50. Some liked what Jim was doing and others didn’t and the county board was probably 50-50 too. That didn’t help matters. It did anger me the way it was handled though. He was put out.”

The turbulence didn’t easy either as Eamonn Burns took on the job that nobody else wanted.

Down, minus a host of key players, couldn’t buy a win in 2016 – but, against the odds, reached an Ulster final the following summer after two stunning victories over Armagh and Monaghan.

“I could see a massive difference in Eamonn in the three years he was there… At the end of the day, he got Down to an Ulster final in 2017.”

Paddy Tally was probably the appointment that Down needed. Missing out on promotion from Division Three at the end of March, however, was a shattering blow to the squad.

But O’Hagan has every faith in Tally’s project.

After nine years wearing the Down jersey, you ask O’Hagan has he got enough out of his inter-county career.

“No. I want to win. I love playing county football and I love playing club football. I do think Paddy will get an Ulster title out of Down.

“I don’t know if it’ll happen this year, next year or in three years but I do think he can build a team that could do it. You set out every year to win. If we could get a win over Armagh [on May 19] it would be massive for this team.”

DOWN STRENGTHS…

PADDY Tally’s teams are notoriously difficult to break down and by the looks of how they shaped up, albeit in Division Three this year, Down won’t be easily exposed.

Kevin McKernan knows the sweeper’s role like the back of his hand, so Down are well calibrated, defensively speaking.

While Connaire Harrison mightn’t be as effective as previous seasons, Tally’s more precise counter-attacking style is most certainly getting the best out of Donal O’Hare whose economical, looped runs have been working a treat.

Although they plied their trade in a lower division this season, they’re still capable of competing with most sides in Ulster. Johnny Flynn is perpetual motion in midfield and Conor Poland is a player that can announce his arrival on the Championship stage in 2019.

They also have an excellent understanding when they go forward in possession and are exceptionally quick at moving the ball through the hands, as was evidenced by their last-gasp goal against Sligo earlier in the League campaign.

Caolan Mooney and Ryan Johnston also have the legs and nous to come out with the ball and hurt the opposition down the sides. The side has pace to burn too with the likes of rookies Daniel McGuinness and Pierce Laverty showing up well.

DOWN WEAKNESSES…

THERE’S an overwhelming sense of dread when Down have their own kick-outs. Not just this year but for quite a number of years. In their last, most crucial, League game of the season against Louth, there was a seven-versus-four situation in Down’s favour just before half-time and there were still not enough options for Down to go short.

Consequently, they have a tendency to go long but even then Down aren’t blessed with big, imposing men around centrefield, especially with Niall Donnelly out injured, and therefore have struggled. So winning primary possession off their own kick-outs is arguably their biggest weakness. Press high on their kick-out and Down are in trouble.

A glowing feature of the Mournemen’s impressive run to the 2017 Ulster final was how they kicked long diagonal balls into Connaire Harrison to dramatic effect. But that tactic has been ditched in 2019 as new manager Paddy Tally has initiated a running game that sometimes makes Down’s counter-attack a little one-dimensional and predictable.

Down could do with a few more leaders in their ranks too as it seems to be the same men they look to – Darren O’Hagan, Caolan Mooney and Kevin McKernan – to get them out of a tight spot. They may be able to limit the opposition on the scoreboard but they have more work to do themselves to rack up bigger, more convincing tallies.

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