'Pulling on the Down jersey is a great honour' says defiant Mourne skipper Darren O'Hagan as Ulster Championship opener against Donegal looms
DOWN have played four Championship matches (three in Ulster and one in the Qualifiers) in Paddy Tally's two seasons at the helm and the Mourne manager has used 33 players over those games.
Of those 33, only seven have started all four fixtures and the number will be reduced this weekend because Donal O'Hare is injured and won't feature against Donegal and Conor Poland and Jerome Johnston are no longer part of the panel.
That leaves Rory Burns, Kevin McKernan, Caolan Mooney and Daniel Guinness as the only ever-presents in the Down line-up and that is an indication of the unsettled nature of the Mourne set-up and the high turnover of players manager Tally has had to contend with.
Team captain Darren O'Hagan missed last season's Championship because of injury, otherwise he would have been a certain starter. The Clonduff clubman was brought into the Down panel as a teenager and has seen players come and go at an alarming rate since then but, for him, wearing the famous red and black jersey has lost none of its magic.
“James McCartan brought me into the panel when I was 18 and that's what county managers need to do,” he said.
“You see it happening in other counties, they get players in as young as they can and they try and blood them so they get a taste for it and they want to be playing for Down for as long as possible.
“I love playing for Down and I get the same thrill out of it every year from playing League games and Championship games. Pulling on the Down jersey… it's a great honour.
“There has been been a big volume of players and a big turnover but it has never been in the back of mind to walk away. I didn't think I would have been playing this year with the injuries I had last year and I'm over the moon that I am playing.”
Mayobridge forward Corey Quinn and Darren's brother Barry have featured at some stage in all four of the Tally-era Championship clashes and they will be the leaders of the Down attack on Sunday, particularly after Barry finished with a career best 1-9 against Laois last time out.
“It's good to see him stepping up and showing a bit of leadership,” said Darren of his younger brother.
“Barry has been on the panel for five or six years but he has been in and out of the team. The likes of Donal O'Hare aren't there this year and Jerome (Johnston) has stepped away from the panel so it's good that Barry and the likes of Corey Quinn have stepped up.
“It helped that both of them have played a lot of football under Paddy even when the other boys were there so they knew what level they had to go to.
“We were concerned that we would miss Donal this year. Jerome has been in and out of the panel over the last few years. I know he went on a scoring spree against Cavan but before that he wasn't a regular and he missed a lot through injuries as well.
“Donal was always reliable to finish a match with 1-5 or 1-6 and I did look at it and think: ‘We're maybe a bit light up front?' But we racked up decent scores through the League – we hit 2-19 against Laois which is good kicking any day.”
O'Hagan described that relegation play-off against Laois as “do-or-die” and is well aware that Sunday's Championship opener falls into the same category.
“The season is over if we lose,” he said.
“It's the biggest game of the year - this is our Ulster final.”