Ciaron O'Hanlon keen to make up for lost time with Armagh

Ciaron O'Hanlon, pictured playing against Tyrone, is back to give Armagh another crack after a three-year absence
Ciaron O'Hanlon, pictured playing against Tyrone, is back to give Armagh another crack after a three-year absence Ciaron O'Hanlon, pictured playing against Tyrone, is back to give Armagh another crack after a three-year absence

PAUL Grimley was never afraid to roll the dice. In his illustrious coaching career, the big Pearse Og man got more right than he ever got wrong.

In 2013, he’d taken the Armagh reins in a period of deep transition for the county. At that time, some Gaelic football coaches were trying desperately to claw their way out of the quicksand of blanket defending.

Grimley was one of them.

Before Armagh rolled into Kingspan Breffni Park to face Cavan in an Ulster prelim joust, the bookmakers couldn’t separate the two counties.

There were no secrets about Armagh’s tactics. They would play on the front foot, press high and hope the explosiveness of Jamie Clarke, Tony Kernan, Kevin Dyas and Caolan Rafferty would mine enough scores than their hosts.

But it didn’t work out that way.

By the full-time whistle, Armagh’s brave step away from the received tactical wisdom of the day proved to be premature. At least for the group of Orchard players.

Cavan minded the house and, as The Irish News report the following day said, Martin Dunne and Eugene Keating were afforded the “freedom of Cavan town”.

It was a chastening experience for Armagh as they made a humble exit towards the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

One of Grimley’s gambles that day didn’t pay off. Killeavy teenager Ciaron O’Hanlon was one of those leap of faith selections.

Rather than hold the St Paul’s, Bessbrook MacRory Cup starlet back, Grimley gave him an unlikely debut in the Armagh attack.

In the build-up to the game, O’Hanlon was chosen as the Man of the Moment by this newspaper.

It read: ‘The last teenage scoring sensation from Killeavy to play for the Armagh senior team was Stevie McDonnell. McDonnell was 19-years-old, and four months’ shy of his 20th birthday when he made his League debut against Cavan on March 7, 1999.

‘McDonnell would have to wait another year before he made his Championship debut against Tyrone on June 4, 2000.

‘Ciaron O’Hanlon is still only 18-years-old. He was the star play on the Killeavy minor team which won the county title and reached the Ulster final. He was also the best player on the St Paul’s, Bessbrook side which came agonisingly close to winning this year’s MacRory Cup.

‘Young, confident and gifted, O’Hanlon can enjoy his debut in Breffni Park as his tender years will grant him a full pardon if it doesn’t work out.’

It didn’t work out for Armagh or O’Hanlon on May 19 2013.

The dreaded player rating read: ‘Played close to Stefan Forker and Jamie Clarke, but could probably count on one hand the touches he got. 5’

In the 50th minute, O’Hanlon was replaced by Johnny Hanratty, and that was effectively the end of his debut season.

Now 26 and recalled to the 2021 Armagh senior squad for the first time in three years, O’Hanlon never quite felt a full pardon from that day seven-and-a-half year ago. Not personally anyway.

It was days like Breffni in 2013 why he’s back involved again.

“I suppose at that age when the manager comes up to you and says, ‘You’re starting in the Championship in your first year,’ you’re not going to turn it down,” O’Hanlon says, a precocious forward hurtling through the underage ranks back then.

“Obviously there was a lot of pressure. We came off a good MacRory Cup campaign and I’d a pretty good season with St Paul’s, Bessbrook.

“Paddy O’Rourke had been onto me the season before that, but he was bringing me in halfway through the campaign. I think he wanted me to just get used to the set-up and to see what it was about.

“Paul [Grimley] then came in the year after, but the pressure probably did take its toll and that’s why I haven’t done as well in an Armagh jersey as I would have liked.”

He winces at the memory of his Championship debut and Cavan’s counter-attack picking the Orchard off.

The slight figure of Martin Dunne from the Cavan Gaels club had one of those dream Championship days in Terry Hyland’s attack, hitting eight points from play.

“Yeah, Martin Dunne did the damage against us that day,” O’Hanlon ruefully recalls.

“Nothing went well for us at all. It’s a day you try to forget, especially on a personal level. I remember I was trying to take shots and I felt a wee bit out of my depth, physically. But, it’s one of those things: if we had won and I’d kicked a couple of points it might have been a different story.

“I didn’t play another minute that season and I stepped away the following season [2014] when Armagh went on that run and were beaten by Donegal [in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Croke Park].

“In 2015 I came back in and that was me up until 2017 when I left for Australia. I was in and out of the team during those years. Injury played a big part too.

“I had to get shoulder surgery in 2016 and that set me back and it was hard to get back in. When it came to the Championship, though, I always seemed to get game-time. I flirted with different positions as well but couldn’t settle into one position.

“I think that was a problem in itself too, sometimes being able to play in different positions doesn’t help you.”

O’Hanlon’s name dropped off the inter-county roster as he and his girlfriend decided to give Australia a try for a couple of years in 2017.

Working as a cabling engineer, O’Hanlon won a league and championship with the McAnallen’s club during his two years in Sydney before returning home last year.

“I’ve definitely no regrets about going away. I think it’s one of those things you have to get out of your system. Like, I know what my focus is now, I’ve done my bit of travelling.

“I could have easily gone the other way and stayed for longer in Australia, only my girlfriend’s sister was getting married and our visa was coming to an end, so we just decided to come home then. We’d been there for a couple of years, and I could easily have done another year. I loved the lifestyle, it was real laid back, work was fine, I enjoyed the football there too.”

The couple spent time in Thailand, Bali and Tasmania and soaked up everything the southern hemisphere had to offer - but all the while O’Hanlon envisaged wearing the Armagh jersey again.

“I want to give it a proper rattle next season. I probably haven’t really proven myself in an Armagh jersey even though I’ve been involved for maybe four seasons. I probably haven’t done myself justice so there is definitely some making up to do.

“It probably hasn’t sat too well with me, even when you go travelling, it’s still playing in the back of your mind. So I’m looking forward to putting some things right, hopefully.”

Back on home soil for the guts of a year now, O’Hanlon returned to his Killeavy roots and had a brilliant Championship and was unlucky to finish on the losing side in an absorbing semi-final with Crossmaglen.

Club-mate Stevie McDonnell said: “Ciaron has been excellent for us. He’s at a good age now to take his game to the next level. He’s very athletic and with a lot of natural ability.”

O’Hanlon candidly admits that being away from the county set-up for three years is a significant absence, but he was thankful for the words of encouragement from backroom member Denis Hollywood.

“Being away from the county scene for that length of time is a long time, especially with the way things have evolved over the last few years, and the commitment levels as well which are massive,” O’Hanlon says.

“They are the sorts of things you have to think about when you’re jumping back into something. My family 100 per cent back me, my girlfriend and her family as well, and all my friends who would like to see me back in an Armagh jersey.

“I was doubting myself that I wouldn’t be up to the pace of things but it was actually Denis Holywood who was talking to me. He just said: ‘Never doubt yourself. You’ll find that you’re not that far behind.’ And I’m not as far behind as I thought I might have been.

“I’m moving alright now. There is still obviously a lot of work to be done but hopefully when the League starts I can be competing for a place.

“It’s probably no better time to be back involved and I’ll do what I can to help the team out.”

Ciaron O’Hanlon is better for the bitter experiences of 2013 and being heralded as the county’s bright new hope back then.

But there are a few more chapters to write - and he’s more determined than ever to leave a different impression of his boundless talent on the inter-county stage.