GAA Football

Time Out: Playing football, accepting it's over and providing inspiration in unlikely places

A mosaic of former Kilcoo and Down football Darragh O'Hanlon, created by primary schoolchildren
Neil Loughran

AM I too late to bring a bit of New Year cheer? Or have you already been ground down by the steady flow of depressing news that heralded the start of 2022, the end of 2021 and, now I think of it, as far back as a faltering short-term memory allows?

The last few years have been tough alright - Covid. Lockdowns. Garden parties. Work events. But, while Boris and the boys lived it up, the rest of us found a way to navigate the strangest of times in our own way – occasional glimpses of the best of human behaviour and generosity of spirit shining a light when darkness threatened to take over.

Nobody will forget the way GAA clubs rallied around their communities at the start of the pandemic, ensuring those struggling most in unforeseen circumstances were looked after. Many of those efforts continue still, and we are all the better for them.

Then there is the personal touch. The few words of encouragement. The unexpected text. It all seemed to matter that bit more amid the trauma of the past few years.

After the past few weeks, Darragh O’Hanlon knows this better than most.

Three days after Christmas, at just 28, the former Kilcoo captain was forced to finally give up any hope of a return to the place he had always been most happy – the football field.

Trying to put that into words in the form of a statement on social media was a painful experience, but a necessary one. A line had to be drawn so that he could move on with life and bring an end to the questions. How’s the recovery going? When will you be back?

Heading towards the end of 2021 he knew, but coming to terms would require time.

Darragh O’Hanlon was 24 when he captained Kilcoo to Down championship glory on October 1, 2017. If he closes his eyes now he can still see every second of it.

Lifting the Frank O’Hare Cup, looking out over Pairc Esler at a sea of familiar faces, it couldn’t get any better. In that moment, he achieved everything he had ever dreamt of.

Earlier that summer O’Hanlon was also a central figure as Down made an unlikely charge to the Ulster final. He was named supporters’ player of the year too in a season when candidates were not in short supply. But nothing could ever top that autumn day in Newry.

Unfortunately for Darragh, a complicated back injury that left him fighting for his future, and the cruciate ligament that went within five minutes of a pitch session days ahead of a planned return, would ultimately put paid to a promising career just beginning to take flight.

The subsequent battle to get back for his beloved Magpies was an emotional and physical investment stretching across four years. In September 2019 Darragh and I met at a coffee shop in Belfast, the plan to meet or chat every so often until he worked his way back to action.

Once his foot touched turf in a Down championship game again, the comeback article could run – not a second sooner. In that period, it was startling to witness his resilience first hand.

Opening up a black book with entries dating back to when his disc issues first began, the tunnel vision was clear. He sought advice where he could, and would have gone to the ends of the earth for anything that might help. There was no self-pity, no woe is me. Not for one second were storm clouds allowed to gather.

Instead, when others suffered similar injuries, O’Hanlon would be among the first to fire off a text, offering support.

And he did get back, albeit briefly, before another setback earlier this year would ultimately signal the end. A few minutes against Mayobridge in August 2020 marked his return before a handful of other appearances as Kilcoo’s Down domination rolled on.

Darragh’s diary articles ran across the couple of days after the Mayobridge game, as promised. In picturesque Glendalough, Co Wicklow – two-and-half hours down the road from Kilcoo – his story would find its way to primary school teacher Brian Flood.

Impressed by Darragh’s strength of character and determination to get back playing, he read both pieces to his football-mad class in the hope it would strike a chord.

When Darragh announced his retirement on December 28 it brought the curtain down on a seemingly endless stream of consultants’ appointments, scans, operations, rehab, hopes raised and hopes dashed.

With a knee that, according to the last surgeon seen, looked like it belonged to a 65-year-old, it was time to do what had been unimaginable throughout his life – accept defeat.

There is a finality to going public and, after posting a statement online, the phone was switched off and stuck in a drawer for a few days. When he finally turned it back on, hundreds of messages from people he knew, and plenty he didn’t, poured in wishing him well. This went on for days and days.

Then, on Monday, January 10 he noticed an email that had landed earlier the previous evening.

“Dear Darragh, I hope this finds you well. I am a primary school teacher near Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, I teach 11-12 year olds in the school.

“My class has assembled a mosaic to give to you to wish you well on your retirement from football. It was made over the last couple of days upon our return to school.

“The mosaic is made from beads that they have assembled together, and is about two feet by two feet. The children use software to guide them as to where they place the individual beads - many hands make light work!

“I mentioned during ‘Our News’ last week that you had announced your retirement. The children are familiar with you as I read them an article about yourself in The Irish News, and a few other articles a few months ago, highlighting various sportspeople who have shown great determination to get back on their feet as you did following your injuries.

“I believe you have really inspired people with your ‘never give up’ and determined attitude. I believe that is what children need to hear about.”

Brian Flood’s email ended with an offer to send the mosaic up to the Mournes. It is currently on its way. But, much more than the gift, it was the sentiment - and the sense that you never quite know who is listening, or who you might be inspiring through your actions - that knocked Darragh O’Hanlon for six.

In the middle of the Athletic Grounds on Sunday, he shook hands with and embraced all the Kilcoo players as they celebrated a second Ulster title success. Had things been different he could, would, have been in the thick of it.

With Kilcoo’s success unlikely to end any time soon, those are moments Darragh must learn to live with.

But at least he moves onto the next chapter knowing no stone was left unturned in a bid to alter his path, making the kind of impression along the way – sometimes on those far from home - that most of us can’t even imagine.

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