GAA Football

"My biggest fear would be getting stuck somewhere doing the same thing every day": Stephen O'Hanlon on football, basketball and life

Stephen O'Hanlon's football career so far is best remembered for his winning goal against Dublin in the 2019 Allianz League. Picture by Philip Fitzpatrick / Sportsfile

TRINITY-Pawling 71 Canterbury 71.

The buzzer is about to go on the Miles Hubbard ’57 Court as the ball arrives in the hands of Stephen O’Hanlon.

This pasty-white 17-year-old basketballer from Monaghan, standing still shy of his adult 5’11”, takes the shot from the three-point line. Nothing but net. Trinity win.

Fast forward five years and O’Hanlon is back home in Carrickmacross, wrestling with the WiFi as it tries to sustain the demands of him, his brother Kevin and his parents during lockdown.

Now a county footballer, he was out shooting the previous evening. But it wasn’t with a size five O’Neills ball.

“I’d go out shooting or play one-on-one with Kevin. For the first two possessions, one each, it’s fairly relaxed and then out of nowhere it turns into a full-on NBA finals level of competitiveness.”

Basketball was his first love and is still something he sees as part of his future.

Football, with county and club, have taken over in recent years.

But at 23, O’Hanlon is a qualified psychologist with a Masters in Business. He’s a certified strength and conditioning coach and a man with a joint-venture into plant-based milk very close to fruition.

He’s more than just the Monaghan fella that used to play basketball.

Just as that goal against Dublin won’t define his career, football won’t define who he is.

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MOVING alone to upstate New York at the age of 16 didn’t take a fizz out of him.

His father, Eugene, played county football for Monaghan. He and his wife Louise had long been involved in coaching the local girls’ basketball club, Carrick Cruisers.

Their three children all played. Kate was talented but, like the boys, hugely driven academically and, unlike the boys, drifted away early.

Kevin was called into the Irish U16 squad a year early and Stephen, two years younger, recalls travelling to Estonia in 2010 and Macedonia the following to watch him in the European Championships.

“You’re a young lad looking up at your brother. I’m watching him play and from there, that’s all I wanted to do because he was doing it.”

Do it he did. He was just 16 when he won Most Valuable Player in the U19.5 All-Ireland ‘B’ final after leading Patrician College to victory.

Stephen O’Hanlon would follow Kevin in representing Ireland at U16, U18 and U20 level.

The younger sibling would spend his time in the early part of that journey in America.

Cork native Francis O’Sullivan acted as Trinity-Pawling’s Irish scout. He’d previously sent over his son Adrian, who now plays professionally in Spain. He spotted O’Hanlon in a couple of games and passed his name on.

“I’d no reservations at all, I couldn’t wait to get over.”

Beginning with morning weights (“lifts”, as they called them) or a skills session at 6am, each and every day was mapped out until you were either in the library or studying in the dorm he shared with Rickey Calvin, an African-American kid who’d landed in at the same time from Chicago.

The lingo dictated that they practiced rather than trained.

It’s a term he likes. One he better understands the use of.

And for someone with a foot in the strength and conditioning industry, his views on Gaelic football are almost at odds with that profession.

Stephen O'Hanlon pictured with the MVP award in a championship final win while playing for Dublin-based outfit Kubs in early 2014.

“I’m working with a couple of [GAA] teams now and we’re talking constantly to the coaches about this.

“If what we’re doing in the weight room or a conditioning sense is impacting on the players’ ability to play the game and improve at the sport, then we’re doing something wrong.

“Strength and conditioning has become the foundation in the GAA and not an add-on, and to me that’s really strange. The foundation you lay should be the football.

“We had lifts and whatever else, but you went to practice two hours a day. That was the main thing.

“If you weren’t well or managing an injury, you always skipped the other obligations, you made sure as best you could that you were there for practice.”

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DURING the summertime, O’Hanlon would throw 2,000 shots a day.

He was a point guard whose speed of limb and thought allowed him to stand out.

But within weeks of arriving in New York, he got the first indication that he was up against it.

He’d been cut for two games in a row and knocked on coach Bill Casson’s door to find out why.

“I went to him and said ‘Coach, I’m not here to give out, I just want to know what I can do to get back into a starting line-up’.

“He essentially said they were looking a full-court press and he wanted big guys at the front of the press and at the back of the press.

“Really they were going with a bigger line-up. And I was like, well, I can’t really go back to my room and hang from the door and stretch myself out.”

He studied the game, studied himself, studied other players. His lack of height would, in the end, work against him but he wasn’t for giving in to it.

“I would always have been fairly stubborn in that way. I basically ignored it at the time. Flat out ignored it.

“It didn’t really dawn on me for a long time that this would be an issue, I just thought ‘this fella’s wrong’.

“I only discovered then coaches have like a minimum entry point for recruitment, which I can understand more now having watched more college basketball.

“There was a minimum requirement of ‘you have to be this height, this weight, this athletic and then I’ll look at him as a basketball player’. I thought it went the other way but it doesn’t.”

What he also struggled with was the individual competitiveness of high school basketball.

He’d find himself starting an attack and by the time he’s spun into position, he’s back on defence because someone has taken a shot in a bid simply to be noticed.

“I was 17 but there were a couple of boys who were 20 and a lot were 19.

“For a lot of them, it was get a scholarship and go to college, or don’t go to college. If they didn’t perform this year, they’re gone.

“I found that very difficult. You’d come down the floor and run a play, you’d give up the ball once and it’d be shot.

“Guys were very much focussed on getting themselves to a certain place and I was naïve in that regard, thinking of what we’d do as a team.”

Looking back now, he understands it. He emphathises, even, with the singularity of that determination.

O’Hanlon threw himself into the books too, hoping that a high Grade Point Average (GPA) might convince college teams to take a look at him.

He would become a college prefect. He would win the prestigious James K. McDougal Award for best track athlete.

Stephen O'Hanlon pictured third from left after being named a prefect at Trinity-Pawling, a New York school at which he had a two-year basketball scholarship.

On the court, he would continue to excel. But he just didn’t grow enough.

In the end his willingness to be educated on all fronts led to conversations with a handful of Ivy League schools, but it didn’t come off.

He considered taking an offer in Wisconsin but the fees, while reduced from $75,000, were still coming in around $13,000 a year.

O’Hanlon had always intended to come back and live in Ireland. It was at most a four-year project, but he turned down the last two, partly due to the fact that had he been out of the Irish school system for more than two years he’d have been treated as an import and made pay school fees on his return.

“I just thought I was better going home. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live for the rest of my life. I love the States but I always knew I wanted to come home and live in Ireland.”

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IF Stephen O’Hanlon walked into the kitchen at home and saw a National League game on TV, he could turn and walk out again without a second’s hesitation.

It’s not that he doesn’t love Gaelic football. He does. So much of his time is passed watching the Tyrone and Armagh teams of the noughties on YouTube.

But overtly defensive games in the muck and clabber? Pass.

“I wouldn’t be a GAA nut in that I’d be following it inside out. I do really enjoy the game, I do enjoy watching it. From the point of ticking boxes and making sure my due diligence is done, I would watch it.

“From an enjoyment perspective, I’d be picking and choosing games.”

His love of playing up front for his club, alongside his brother Kevin, Stephen Gollogly and the two Downeys shines through.

He recalls heading to an Irish training camp at U16 and getting poked by coaches for not keeping up with the conditioning work.

“I remember chatting to Adrian [O’Sullivan, now a pro basketballer in Spain] and asking him how I would say to our coach that I’m playing Gaelic football as well. Adrian said ‘just say nothing’.

“I played one of our games the Thursday night and then coming down on the Friday for a training camp and I’m cramping up, and he’s giving out about guys not doing the conditioning work when they’re not here.

“I’m thinking ‘I played midfield last night for the club!’ Obviously I wasn’t saying that. Him thinking I wasn’t doing the conditioning was better than him thinking I was playing football the night before.

“I loved just playing. Anything that will let me play games. That’s really what I love.”

In his senior year in Trinity-Pawling, he took an elective in Psychology. Katie Allen Berlandi was the teacher, a grand-daughter of Norman Vincent Peale, author of worldwide best-selling book The Power Of Positive Thinking.

For his project, O’Hanlon would watch clips of himself shooting accompanied by music. Some he scored, some he missed. Each had a different song attached.

Then he would go and take the shots again with the same music playing and see if his mind would play tricks.

His interest was piqued and he enrolled in the psychology course at Maynooth when he returned home. He finished that in 2019 and thought about a masters in Jordanstown as a way into the cottage industry operating behind inter-county teams.

He thought twice.

“I’ll be brutally honest, it was the GAA that put me off that. As far as I could see in the GAA, the majority of sports psychologists who come in don’t actually have a background in sports psychology.

“It’s not sports psychology that’s getting done, realistically. I was thinking I could go and get educated in this area and I’ll be a 22-year-old lad with a sports psychology degree, and who’s gonna take me on? Who’s gonna look for you to do any work?

“It ends up being guys who have been there and done it, who have won. I was put off a bit by being beaten out for positions because I didn’t have the ‘credentials’.”

He went on to study a Masters in Business at Dublin’s Technological University (TUD) last year instead.

The day before this interview, he and three classmates were pitching their own plant-based milk, Mooze, to SuperValu. It will be on the shelves this summer.

Then there’s the strength and conditioning outfit, O’Hanlon Performance.

At just 23, Stephen O’Hanlon is looking at the world through a wide-angled lens.

“My biggest fear would be getting stuck somewhere doing the same thing every day. Unless I really, really enjoyed it.

“I wouldn’t be keen on pigeon-holing myself in any direction.”

His views on it all are refreshing. At the heart of the young psychologist, the businessman and the physical trainer is a 23-year-old who wants sport to be taken for what it is.

He does see a positive difference in his own performance when he sets aside a bit of time each week to focus on the mental side, yet he admits that going into 2019’s Championship defeat by Cavan, he had gone overboard.

“I used to have a checklist that I got rid of. It was things that I had to do in the weeks leading up to games.

Qualified psychologist Stephen O'Hanlon admits he had gone overboard on his own mental approach to games before Monaghan played Cavan in the 2019 Ulster SFC. Picture by Philip Walsh

“I remember having exams leading up to that game last year, and I didn’t tick off things on the list. And I was going out into the game thinking I haven’t ticked off three or four things. In reality, they probably made damn all odds.

“But when it’s in the back of your head, it actually worked against me that day. At that point I scrapped it and was much more loose in my approach – there’s certain things I want to get done but if I don’t get them done, it doesn’t mean I’m heading out to play a bad game because I didn’t get this kicking session in.

“That one session isn’t gonna make a difference to you, but in my head when I hadn’t it checked off, it’s like the world’s crumbling. I don’t do that any more but I would try my best to try and keep that work as part of my routine.”

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IN a houseful of Leeds fans, he finds an alignment between Marcelo Bielsa and former Monaghan coaches Ryan Porter and Peter Donnelly.

Bielsa’s famed Murderball, in which Leeds play full 11v11 games where players are not allowed to stop running, sets the bar for the way they play in matches.

O’Hanlon admires that about them and says the ability of Porter and Donnelly to incorporate the running into their football is what makes them such in-demand coaches.

“That’s where [coaching] becomes more an art. When Ryan Porter when he was with Monaghan, very rarely were we separating football from the running. Pete Donnelly was the same.

“The top coaches are really good at being creative in how they get the doses of conditioning and strength work in with a focus on the football.”

He loves playing with Monaghan but he doesn’t spend his waking hours worrying about the reputation of this corner-back or that one.

To date, his career is defined by the first touch he had of the ball. Springing above Jonny Cooper to catch, soloing with the right and sliding a crucial goal under Evan Comerford with the left to beat Dublin, he announced himself in the most dramatic of fashions.

Monaghan stats man Jamesie Greenan said to him last year: “Stephen, it was the worst thing you ever f***ing did!”

“I just burst out laughing! From day to day, I don’t really engage in conversations about GAA or players. I only know players from watching them before we play them.

“A lot of the time I watch games on mute, even watching our own games back.

“Whether people have expectations of you, that will vary, and whether you meet them will vary depending on who you’re talking to.

“When I scored the goal against Dublin, you go to play Roscommon the next week and they know who you are. If I’d scored a goal against basically any other team in the country, nobody knows about it.

“But it’s the Dubs, next thing it’s on TV, and everybody knows who you are out of nowhere. I never really felt a weight of it.

“I probably put those expectations out the window when I got sent off the week after. I’d say they fairly dropped after that!” he laughs.

It would be a stretch to call his American basketball adventure the dream, but it’s a journey that he doesn’t believe is over.

“I’m sure at some stage I’ll end up playing the basketball again, even if it’s when I’m 30 or 35.”

A man in love with his sport, but not defined by it.

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