When the O'Hare's stole the show: PJ and Darren remember a balmy Championship day at Casement
IT’S 18 years since I last sat in PJ O’Hare’s living room up in Hannahstown hill. Ted, the family dog, is a springer spaniel. He barks in the hallway at this stranger more with excitement than menace.
PJ is sitting with an iPad on his lap and The Irish News nearby. Using a foot rest, his mobility isn’t what it used to be but his dry wit remains as sharp as ever.
Peering upwards, he says: “There’s no Wagon Wheels this time!”
Both of us laugh hard.
It’s too long of a story to explain here, but his quip refers to the last time PJ, his son Darren and I sat down together back in June 2003.
Moments later, Darren breezes into the room.
The years have gone by in a blink of an eye. On May 25 2003, both father and son were bathing unashamedly in the after-glow of a rare Ulster Championship victory for Antrim.
Played in front of 8,000 spectators at Casement Park, the day turned out to be PJ and Darren’s ‘15 minutes of fame’. Mattie Kerrigan’s Cavan team didn’t know what had hit them.
Ten minutes in – boom.
The towering Darren O’Hare announces his arrival on the Championship stage with a goal, rising above his marker Thomas Prior to fist Kevin Madden’s free into the Cavan net.
Deep into first-half stoppage time – boom. O’Hare grabs his second goal of the day, profiting from big Joe Quinn’s flick on, to put the Saffrons 2-6 to 0-4 ahead.
“Both of the goals came in the first half,” Darren recalls.
“Kevin Madden was never shy of shooting – sometimes he would shoot from too far out and it would drop short – and that’s where I got both goals from. The first one dropped short and I punched it in from five or six yards out.
“My Da had spoken to the team before the game and told them that Joe Quinn was going to go into corner-forward for the last five minutes of the first half. So, the second goal Joe flicked it on and I tapped it in from a yard out. Both goals came from high balls that fell for us.”
At half-time a dishevelled Cavan were dead and gone.
Rarely exposed to Ulster Championship wins, Antrim held their nerve in the second half and despite a late goal from Cavan’s Dermot McCabe, PJ O’Hare’s merry band of brothers booked a semi-final meeting with Mickey Harte’s Tyrone - and father and son marched into Championship folklore.
Delve into any Ulster Championship summer in those days and you’ll find narratives that bring a smile to your face.
The weighty newspaper archive file flaps open to May ‘03.
Alongside O’Hare, St Gall’s club-mates Colin Brady and Kevin McGourty made their Championship debuts against Cavan.
“I’ve seen pictures of that 2003 team,” says former Antrim defender Gearoid Adams, “and it was far better than the 2000 team that beat Down in the Ulster Championship.
“In ’03, that was near the end of the likes of myself and Anto [Finnegan], but you had the likes of Kevin McGourty, ‘Nibs’ [Kevin Niblock] who were coming through. That St Gall’s team was so strong.
“So you had all those flair players around Darren – and you still had Kevin Brady and Kevin Madden in attack who helped him.
“Darren brought something different, a presence on the edge of the square that we didn’t have for a long while.
“There was great satisfaction in that win. It cemented the idea that 2000 wasn’t just a flash in the pan.”
PJ O’Hare twice managed Antrim - between 1991 and ’94 and again in 2003 and ’04. His timing could have been better as Ulster football was on a crest of a wave on both occasions.
You run through the class of '03 with PJ...
Sean McGreevy? “Good goalkeeper. Totally reliable.”
Gearoid Adams? “His speed was his greatest asset.”
Colin Brady? “Colin Brady was deceptively fast. People looked at him and thought they’d get the ball in front of him. Brady was a 100-metres sprint champion and he’d a great pair of hands too. He wasn’t the biggest but he could read the game well.”
Tony Convery? “Good player. A utility player. Could play him at full-back or centre half.”
Anto Finnegan? “Gave his life and soul to Antrim.”
Mark McCrory? “Great player. Plenty of time for Mark.”
Joe Quinn? “Joe could play with the best. The higher the level, the better he played.”
Kevin McGourty? “Brilliant.”
Kevin Brady? “He played the game a long time, was totally dedicated, and he could play.”
Kevin Madden? “I used to tell him the sheep don’t tell the shepherd what to do! [laughing]. Madden was an enigma - but good.”
Fast-forward to the big full-forward of the team, his son? “He did the business for me.”
UP until those two Championship goals, the jury was out on O’Hare’s ability to cut it at inter-county level.
Accusations of nepotism were water off a duck’s back to the larger than life and highly respected coach.
“If I didn’t pick him I’d get no dinner!" PJ laughs.
“I always picked what I thought was the best team at all times to suit the occasion. I never let anything like that affect me.
“I was proud that day because of the circumstances of it, but I’d move on to the next game very quickly.”
Darren interjects: “The first League game we played London at Casement and I played well. I think I got man-of-the-match and it gave me a bit more confidence.
“I wasn’t sure if he was just picking me because I was his son. I thought: Do I deserve to be there? But as the year went on I got a bit more confident.”
Adams says: “Big Darren was quiet. He was like his daddy with that dry sense of humour. It was around that time all the managers were trying to get me away from half-back and put me in the corner, so I marked Darren a few times in training.
“When I was going forward he wasn’t sticking with me but when the ball was in the air he was a handful. He was very smart. He would knock it down to somebody who was coming in. He obviously gained confidence with that St Gall’s team who’d won a few championships.”
Adams supports the overwhelming view that PJ, in coaching terms, was way ahead of his time.
Against Cavan, he played four big men across the middle of the field – Kevin McGourty, Martin McCarry, Mark McCrory and Joe Quinn – and had devised an attacking diamond formation before the phrase was ever coined.
At one point during the ‘03 League campaign, PJ dropped Adams and over the next few days the St John’s defender was determined to pull the pin on his inter-county career. But before doing so, he wanted to give PJ a piece of his mind.
Before going up to the manager's house one evening he’d rehearsed a few water-tight points over team selection. When he walked in the door, the pair shared a cup of tea and a joke, and Adams was back on the panel before he left.
“We were sitting drinking tea and eating custard creams and I was thinking: ‘How can I start having a go at this man?’ He’d just a nice way about him.
“PJ was tactically astute. There is stuff happening in the game now that PJ was trying to implement with us back then.
“He was a great basketballer so he had that basketball knowledge – a lot of St Gall’s players did.
“He was very good on the line as well about cornering the opposition’s weaknesses. He’d names for them. He’d call the weakest player on the opposition a ‘dummy muffler’. He’d say: ‘Number two is a dummy muffler’ and that meant we had to isolate him…
“On the back of the dressing-room door in Casement, I remember PJ drawing tactics for the game with a permanent marker. He’d nowhere else to write. There were X’s and triangles, all smart forward play. I remember sitting looking at it years after he’d left before the door was eventually varnished.”
ON an overcast Sunday afternoon at Casement Park, Antrim’s match winner didn’t know where to turn at the final whistle. In the mind’s eye, he can still see the photographer beseeching him to “put your hands up in the air”.
“I remember thinking: ‘Nah, I’ll look like a d***’…’
Headline-hunting reporters flocked around the 20-year-old rookie forward. He remembers saying something about Antrim could beat anyone, and the sub-editors had a field day with the Antrim man’s post-match exuberance.
The entire Antrim squad piled into the ‘Bot’ [Botanic Inn] later that night, kings for a day.
Television crews quite literally flocked to their house in west Belfast wanting the back story to father and son.
All the while Tyrone, Antrim’s semi-final opponents, were lying in wait.
“There were 8,000 for the Cavan game but the crowd for the Tyrone game was unbelievable,” Darren remarks.
“I always loved the parade at the start of the game. It gave you a bit of confidence. Some players take it very seriously, but I’d try and be relaxed as much as possible. During the parade I’d have a wee look about me and enjoy it. I always felt I could perform my best on Ulster Championship days because I didn’t get too uptight.”
Delivered with the same crushing angst of 18 years ago, PJ still beats himself up for giving his club-mate Sean Kelly the onerous job of man-marking Peter Canavan.
Regular full-back Colin Brady had booked a holiday and was absent for the semi-final.
Even though Kelly was emerging as one of the best front-footed defenders in Ulster, he was also a very good man-marker.
But the plan back-fired.
“The biggest mistake I made in my life was playing Sean Kelly on Canavan,” says an animated PJ.
“I thought if I could get Canavan to chase Kelly that would nullify him but I should have thought deeper into it. I should’ve played somebody else – anybody else – and played Sean Kelly in front of him and Sean would have denied him the ball.
“Sean Kelly was our best defender, best marker, best everything. But I shouldn’t have played him on Canavan.”
Fresh from a handsome first round win over Derry, Tyrone steadied themselves after a harsh penalty decision against them and booked their final spot with eight points to spare.
PJ tried three different markers on the uncontainable Ger Cavlan.
Antrim’s reward for reaching the provincial semi-finals was a Saturday night meeting with defending All-Ireland champions Armagh at Casement Park in Round Two of the relatively new All-Ireland Qualifiers.
Antrim played their best football of the season against the Orchard men, who were still licking their wounds from the previous month’s provincial exit to Monaghan, and lost by three.
The following summer Antrim left the Championship stage with a whimper. Well beaten in Donegal and a meek back door exit to Louth was their sum total.
IF PJ carries grudges he must carry them lightly, but it doesn’t stop him shooting from the hip over how he was denied a third year as manager. An interview process was put in place – always a sure sign the current incumbent’s days are numbered.
“Somebody didn’t want me and they hadn’t the guts to tell me that because if they had told me I would have stepped aside. But on a matter of principle I went to the meeting.”
PJ turned up for his interview at the Adare Arms Hotel and faced the entire county executive.
“I went in and told them: ‘You are interviewing me for this job and there must be eight of you sitting there who know nothing about football – and you’re going to make a decision on the county team.’ They were speechless…”
St Gall's club-mate Mickey Culbert took the Antrim reins.
A phone-call out of the blue and PJ was persuaded to take up the offer of managing Castlewellan where he guided them to a Kilmacud Sevens title in 2006, beating none other than his home club St Gall’s along the way.
“How did I feel beating St Gall’s?” PJ reflects. “I was managing Castlewellan so I was going out to beat them and I knew how to beat them.”
A coaching development officer in Antrim for many years, PJ returned to manage the Milltown minors.
He started winding down a few years back. His mobility became a problem and laughs at the memory of coaching the St Gall’s youngsters from a chair in the middle of the pitch.
As for Darren, he fell out of love with Gaelic football and didn’t kick a ball between the ages of 24 and 28. He started a family and that’s where his priorities remained.
He made cameo appearances during St Gall’s golden years but doesn’t try and oversell his contribution to the club's county, Ulster and an All-Ireland honours.
“I knew my limitations,” says Darren who turns 40 later this month.
“I knew I wasn’t a point scorer from 40 yards out. I would always hand it off to players who could score better than me. I knew I hadn’t got pace and I wasn’t going to get away from you, but if I got in front of you, then it was a long way round. I knew my job was to get the ball and hand it off.
“I’m happy with the time that I got. Plenty of people don’t get the opportunity. But I enjoy coaching the ladies at St Gall’s now. One of my girls won a ‘B’ Championship last year and I got more enjoyment from that than playing.”
Antrim didn’t own many Championship Sundays, but when they did there was always something special about them.
In many ways, PJ and Darren O’Hare can rightfully claim ownership to a large chunk of the summer of ’03.
Boom… Boom… Antrim’s new man child slaying Cavan - and PJ the crafty alchemist.
“PJ and Darren O’Hare are two gentlemen," says Adams. "Football men. They wouldn’t pass you. It’s ironic now that I’m helping out with our U16 girls and Darren is helping out with his U16 girls at St Gall’s.
“We met each other not so long ago and had a bit of craic during the match. He’s won a load of championships and he’s still very modest.”