GAA Football

Down's Darren O'Hagan: 'Louth loss still gives me nightmares - but it could be a blessing in disguise'

Down's Darren O’Hagan and Tyrone's Conall Grimes in action during the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final between Down and Tyrone. Picture by Philip Walsh

DARREN O’Hagan says he still has nightmares about Down’s last-day defeat by Louth last spring – but admits it may have been a blessing in disguise.

While adamant that Down need to be climbing the league ladder in order to progress long-term, O’Hagan hopes the unique circumstances around this year’s league campaign may cast a different light on them missing out on promotion last year.

The Mournemen begin their Division Three campaign with a very tough run of games. They are away to Tipperary and Cork either side of hosting Derry.

And yet Laois, who did go up, have to face the likes of Roscommon, Armagh, Cavan and Kildare knowing that relegation will almost certainly strip them of their senior championship status.

“Maybe it is possible that, had we gone up, would we have come straight back down and lost our status? Maybe it is better that we stayed in Division Two this year and Paddy [Tally] can build,” said the Clonduff man.

“He knows the boys now, he has a year under his belt and we know Paddy and maybe we will be a better team in Division Three this year - a stronger team and go up into Division Two for the next couple of years hopefully.

“When you see the calibre of teams that went down, Cork, Tipperary, and Derry and Leitrim coming up, it probably does leave it harder.

“Last year we scraped through winning games by a point or two and there was nothing in it, so I don’t expect any different this year.”

O’Hagan has been Down’s standout player in recent seasons, and during their McKenna Cup semi-final loss to Tyrone two weeks ago, the way he brought the physical challenge to the Red Hands was notable.

He looked like the man most accustomed to high-level football as he bumped and banged into everything that moved.

Down were completely overwhelmed in the first half and found themselves 11 points down at the break, but fought back to close the gap to five before Tyrone killed it late on.

“It probably is a bit of frustration, but it was nothing more than what they were doing. When we were going forward, you’re getting hit, you’re getting hands on the chest, and people maybe don’t see it.

“There’s nothing wrong with it, there’s nothing illegal about it, it’s just something we’re maybe not used to at the minute. That’s why it was massive we got that game before the league campaign, to try and get us up to that level.

“It’s something I hope I do put in boys. Whether it’s training or matches, I always try to go full tilt. Sometimes you’re told to take it a wee bit easier but some people know no different, you play at full-tilt.

“Hopefully the young boys do take it on board that you have to do that every time you go out on that pitch, give it 100 per cent.”

And in terms of where the gap exists between Down and top tier sides like Tyrone, O’Hagan is adamant that it’s all in the head.

“Brain. Upstairs. It’s how they look after the ball and use the ball. Fitness levels, conditioning, everything’s the same. It’s not that they’re fitter or stronger than you – it’s how they look after the ball, how they control it, how they manage it.

“The turnovers in the first half [against Tyrone] cost us the game – they had 1-2 on the board from three turnovers inside five minutes.

“We’d probably take more out of the first half, to tell you the truth. They set up numbers back but we ran into blind alleys, into traps, kicked ball into corners, which there’s no point of.

“Tyrone got forward and they moved side-to-side and waited on the opening. That’s built into them over years playing at that high level.

“Yes, the second half was brilliant the way we did up it and put a bit of pride back into the jersey. But the first half would be a big learning curve going into the league.”

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