GAA Football

'I remember actually lying in the bed laughing, thinking what the f**k did I do to deserve this?'

Before last night's clash with Mayobridge, it had been almost three years since Darragh O'Hanlon last featured for Kilcoo in a Down championship match. In the first of a two-part interview, he tells Neil Loughran about the physical and mental battle of recovering from the back-to-back injuries that ground his career to a halt...

Darragh O'Hanlon has fought his way into contention for Kilcoo after spending 26 months of the sidelines following back-to-back injuries. Picture by Mal McCann

DARRAGH O’Hanlon was 24 the last time he turned out for Kilcoo in a Down championship game. That day - October 1, 2017 – will stay with him forever.

Captain of the club that is so much a part of him, his chest swelled as he gazed down upon the black and white hordes from the middle of the stand in Pairc Esler, every face one he recognised.

The family connections with the club go back generations, from his great-grandfather Steven Hughes – a part of the all-conquering Kilcoo side of the 1920s and ’30s - to dad Terry, who played through some of the lean times before, as club chairman, helping spearhead the revolution that has seen the Magpies become the dominant force in Down and reigning kings of Ulster.

Bringing the Frank O’Hare Cup back to their tiny village in the Mournes, the crowds of young and old waiting patiently to welcome the returning heroes off the bus, these were the moments Terry’s son lived for.

That was the cherry on top too after an impressive summer in county colours, one that saw him pick up an Irish News Ulster Allstar before being named Down Supporters’ Club player of the year for his part in the Mourne County’s unlikely and unexpected run to an Ulster final.

Life, football – he was on top of the world.

Darragh O’Hanlon is 27 now.

And last night, 27 months of injury hell finally came to end when he ran on for the dying moments of Kilcoo's victory over Mayobridge, returning to the scene of his finest hour for a first taste of Down championship action since.

The physical pain of recovering from a complicated back injury, and the cruciate ligament that went within five minutes of a pitch session days ahead of his planned comeback, was one thing.

The mental torment of suffering consecutive setbacks, the bizarre concoction of emotions as the friends he had grown up with - the friends with whom he had shared the same dreams since underage - finally reached the Holy Grail of an Ulster title before representing Kilcoo in an All-Ireland final, all without him, was something else entirely.

Around this time last year, I sounded Darragh out about working together on a monthly column charting his recovery. For reasons that are obvious now, he wasn’t keen.

When you’re on the run of luck he had endured, adding any potential scuds into the mix, or the possibility of a public fall, just didn’t make sense. Instead we have met and chatted at different times throughout the past 12 months and agreed that, when he was ready, the entire journey would be recounted.

“You just have to go with the hand you’re dealt and face it head on,” he said in that initial text exchange back in July 2019, five weeks before he would undergo knee surgery.

“I’m 100 per cent determined to overcome this.”

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May 4, 2018

IT doesn’t take much for expectations to soar in Down and, after their exploits the previous summer, the Mournemen were considered outsiders worth watching heading into the 2018 Ulster Championship.

On the field was a different story though. A demoralising defeat to Meath on the final day of the National League had seen them relegated from Division Two, a year after a Houdini act in Cork granted them a stay of execution.

With their Championship opener against Antrim just three weeks away, Down boss Eamonn Burns organised a three-day training camp at a hotel outside Dublin. This was supposed to be the springboard for their summer but, for Darragh O’Hanlon, it was the beginning of a long, painful process.

“We came down on the Friday and played a challenge game against Laois that night. My hamstring had felt a bit weird, but I didn’t say a thing to anybody, just played on.

“We had training sessions on the Saturday and the Sunday then – the Sunday session was a real tough one – and it just felt like the hamstring was getting worse. We trained on the Tuesday but when I got up on the Wednesday my hamstring was really tight.

“I went to the pool and I was stretching it out... it just didn’t feel right. That Friday night we were to play Clonduff, I was stripped out to play but I couldn’t even do the warm-up. I told Paul McIver I felt like, if I played, something was going to snap.

“By Saturday morning I was worse still, and when I woke up on the Sunday morning I couldn’t even move my neck. When I got out of bed I was just doubled over.”

While his Kilcoo team-mates prepared for their derby clash, O’Hanlon could hardly walk the width of the field in Hilltown. Within a fortnight he had deteriorated to such an extent that any movement, even a cough or a sneeze, would leave him in excruciating pain.

The worst thing of all, though, was not knowing what was causing it, or how to make it go away.

“It took me about 20 minutes to walk across the pitch that night. I was like an old man, humped over. From there, it just got progressively worse, and the pain went right down into my calf.

“I was having to take tramadol to help me get to sleep, I was on lyrica for the pain... this carried on for the next six weeks.

“Eventually it got to the point where it had gone down to my calf and my foot stopped working; I couldn’t lift my heel. I knew then we were into the serious stuff. This wasn’t something run of the mill.

“I tried physios, chiropractors, osteopaths, I even went to sciatic healers. You hear these oul wives tales... drink this drink with a whiskey in four weeks’ time and it’ll go away. It was just like soil with a bit of water in it - rotten!

“I tried all that, people who bless you, curers... everything. But nothing was working.”

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October 18, 2018

IT was over five months after the first red flag when he finally went under the surgeon’s knife. An MRI scan revealed a bulging disc close to the base of the spine and, despite obvious trepidation, a date was set for a discectomy at the Ulster Independent Clinic in Belfast.

Insult had been added to injury five days earlier when Kilcoo’s bid for a seventh Down title in-a-row was brought to an unceremonious end by Burren, though it wasn’t long before that pain was replaced by another.

“They removed the L5 S1 disc, that’s where the trouble had been coming from. In the couple of months before that the pain had actually gone because where the disc was nipping at my nerve at the start, it had now come out and squashed it altogether.

“That was doing silent damage and I ended up trailing my leg. I met the surgeon, Dr Niall Eames, and that’s when things started to get scary.

“You hear all these stories about people who never walk again. I had no second thoughts about it, I wanted it straight away, but you could see people around me – my ma, my granny – they were worried what might happen.

“I just wanted to get it sorted and get back playing as soon as I could. They told me I was one of the youngest people they’d seen getting this done, and there was a small percentage chance that you could be left worse.

“You have to weigh it up and make that call, but I had nothing else in my head only to get back playing football.”

Immediately he set the goal of being back in black for the start of the club season the following May.

“Even the next day after the surgery, I could feel the pressure off my sciatic nerve. Obviously you were sore but they had me up walking, gingerly; it was nearly like learning how to walk, and the rehab was tough.

“There was a bit of scar tissue hitting the nerve so I was getting pain down the leg again, if you were trying to run or whatever... it was so frustrating. Just a nipping sensation in my calf, I couldn’t shake it off.

“But through time, it started to get better. The first session I did back with the club was a Tollymore session, running up hills, doing sprints. I cycled down from home and I did the whole thing. In the gym, I was able to do everything - lifting weights, sit-ups... I just put everything into getting back.

“The next step after that is doing wee small-sided games. You think you’re fit but then you do proper match training and you’re blowing out your arse. It was brutal, but at the same time it was just brilliant to be back.

“That was what I wanted, what I had been working towards, but then...”

Darragh O'Hanlon gives the thumbs up after undergoing a discectomy at the Ulster Independent Clinic in October 2018 - just days after Kilcoo had lost to Burren in the Down SFC final

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June 27, 2019

THERE has never been much love lost between Castlewellan and Kilcoo, and Darragh O’Hanlon is itching for action as he sits in the dugout at Pairc Eoghan Rua on this crisp summer evening.

Mickey Moran, the man whose Slaughtneil side had killed off Kilcoo’s Ulster ambitions in 2016 and 2017 en route to lifting the Seamus Mac Ferran Cup, was now in charge of the Magpies.

The buzz around the place, it was like nothing they had ever experienced before.

“No harm to anybody else who had been there, and there were some great men, but something felt different when Mickey came in.”

Moran, as well as selectors Conleith Gilligan and Paul Devlin, had kept in constant contact throughout O’Hanlon’s rehabilitation, and the plan was to break him back in gently.

He was never going to play against Castlewellan that night but being back on the bench, ready to go, made him realise just how close he was. The match ended in a draw and the hope was that, by the following Friday night against Rostrevor, he would be ready to play some part – only for disaster to strike once more.

“Mickey asked me how I was, how I felt about the game - ‘great Mickey, I’m raring to go’. Then five minutes into the training session on Monday night, bang - cruciate gone. Right back to the start. Worst luck ever.

“I knew straight away. I heard the pop – bang. Nobody touched me, Ciaran McClean won the ball, turned one way, I planted my foot, all the weight... I thought the bone had actually broken. I couldn’t look, I just let a roar out of me.

“Everybody came running over, they thought it was my back, but I was shouting ‘my leg’s broke, my leg’s broke’. It was excruciating pain, brutal, and all because of the way I turned.”

Paul Greenan scooped O’Hanlon up off the field and carried him to Felim McGreevy’s van, and they headed straight to Daisy Hill hospital in Newry. He remembers waiting for what seemed like hours, numb, frantically Googling on his phone in the hope those initial fears were misplaced.

They weren’t.

“I was hoping it wasn’t serious, but I knew. I got an MRI the following morning, and the bad news came that evening.

“Some people have said maybe there was a weakness there because of the back, but I don’t believe so. Some have said maybe it was a blessing in disguise because it’s given your back more of a chance to heal. They might be right, but when it happens it doesn’t feel like it. I just think it was bad luck.

“That night my da was ringing me – ‘well, what’s happening, what’s happening’. I told him ‘that’s me finished, I’m not going back. That’s me f**king done’. After the back injury I never had any doubts I would come back, not a bad thought in my head, but this was different.

“I was in bits. I remember actually lying in the bed laughing, thinking ‘what the f**k did I do to deserve this?’

“My ma and da were going to China for my da’s 50th but was in that bad of form they weren’t going to go - they were worried about my mental health, worried about leaving me here, because for those first couple of weeks I didn’t want to speak to anyone.

“Everyone was texting me ‘bad luck’, ‘sorry to hear what happened’ - I’d stuck the phone on airplane mode. People are genuine, but you’re sitting in the house and your head’s already all over the place.”

O’Hanlon and girlfriend Nicole had been due to go on holiday to Spain the following week. He could have seen it far enough, but the decision to go was “the best thing I could’ve done”.

Before they left, though, he was back in the all-too-familiar setting of the Ulster Independent Clinic to meet Dr Chris Connolly and discuss his options. August 26 was the date set for a second operation in just over 10 months.

The wheels were in motion; the comeback, after the comeback, was on.

“I had torn my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], MCL [medial collateral ligament] and suffered bone laceration – I needed a total knee reconstruction, a whole new knee.

“That’s not easy to get your head around and I was down in the dumps, but you can only wallow and be miserable for so long. Sitting there in the sun, something came over me and from it feeling like the end of the world, I told myself I was going to come back.

“I’m going to deal with this because, like, what the f**k else are you going to do? When you’re in that situation, you don’t have too many options.

“I wasn’t going to get better moping about. F**k it, this has happened, I’m going to deal with this in the best way I can.

“I’ve done it once, I can do it again.”

In Monday’s Irish News...

“At the time it feels like somebody’s ripped your heart out but the club made history, so I can’t be sulking or trying to make it about me - because it’s not”

In part two, Darragh O’Hanlon discusses the pain of following Kilcoo’s historic journey from afar, and finally getting back to what he does best

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