SOMETIMES Ciaron O’Hanlon wishes time would ease up and give him a chance.
Other times, like now, it can’t go by quickly enough.
In a career blighted by injuries, he suffered the worst one yet last year.
In a club league game, he ruptured his patella tendon. That naturally causes the knee to effectively dislocate, although structurally there was no significant damage to the ligaments, which was the one positive.
Following surgery in July, we aren’t likely to be seeing him in the League this year.
He’s just back doing a bit of running. Everything he’s doing is geared towards trying to be ready for championship time.
It’s ten years this summer since the gaze of the province was focused on him.
The BBC cameras rocked up to St Paul’s Bessbrook to do a focus piece on their 18-year-old student making his championship debut for Armagh.
“My only hope is yourselves in the media and Armagh fans will give him time to grow and develop as a player, and that genuine Armagh fans will be patient with him because give this lad time and he’ll deliver for Armagh,” said his MacRory Cup manager John Rafferty.
O’Hanlon had just been named to start for Armagh in their Ulster Championship opener against Cavan.
Because of Bessbrook’s run to a first ever MacRory Cup final, driven largely by the scoring prowess of O’Hanlon from full-forward, he hadn’t been available to Paul Grimley during the league.
Instead, the boy from Killeavy joined famous names like Diarmuid Marsden and Des Mackin in making their championship bow before they’d played a league game.
Naturally comparisons were drawn to his famous clubmate Stevie McDonnell. In every interview, he’d be asked about Stevie somewhere along the way.
This was May 2013. O’Hanlon’s other knee, in which he now has diagnosed tendonitis, was already giving him bother by then.
He kicked six points from play in the county’s minor championship defeat by Tyrone in 2012 but was barely able to train that year. Most of the time at training was spent on a bike.
“At that age you’re playing club minor, club senior, schools, you’re being pulled every way. That’s probably where it does come from is overuse of the tendon basically.”
In the ten seasons that have passed since his debut, O’Hanlon has started just six more championship games for his county. He’s been used as a sub in another five.
All told, he’s played 483 minutes of championship football. Even removing the seasons he missed through opting out and spending time in Australia, it’s eight hours of football in seven years.
Not nearly enough time.
In the middle of 2022, the ‘why’ that Kieran McGeeney has always driven them to acknowledge changed.
Why are you here? Who are you here for?
Now, it’s his baby daughter.
He was off work for months after suffering the knee injury last summer, but that time at home was precious.
“I’ve spent a lot of time off with her. You take the good with the bad, I was happy at home with her. There’s always some light at the end of the tunnel. It’s maybe a wee bit harder to get out of the house now,” he laughs.
“There’s a goal I have in my head and that’s what I’m gonna try and stick towards. Your ‘why’ becomes different now.
“I’m looking at my daughter, wanting her to grow up and say ‘my Daddy played for Armagh’, to make something for her to be proud of. It definitely changes your perspective on things.”
That’s the internal answer but the question has to be asked: after a decade of fighting his body and all the injuries, why is he still putting himself through it?
As the time flies out of his control, the shadow that he’s left on inter-county football isn’t what he would have liked.
“There’s no doubt it’s crossed my mind [to quit] a couple of times, but it always comes back to what do you want to be remembered as?
“I came in as a young fella, there was a lot of anticipation and in my head, I maybe haven’t done myself proud, family proud, Armagh proud of what I’ve done in an Armagh jersey to date.
“That’s maybe something I’m trying to correct, that’s why I’m still sort of hanging on. I want to go out and make my family and my club proud, give Armagh fans something to look back on.”
The tendonitis is a nightmare for an inter-county footballer. It debilitates his ability to train to the levels he needs to. That creates the vicious cycle of either not having trained enough to play or trying to push things too hard and getting injured again.
“In a way it’s held me back because I wasn’t able to train to the level I want to.
“You think in your mind you can do it, no doubt about that, but the body starts to shut down and you’re still picking up wee niggly injuries, and you still have that knee thing as the main thing in behind, it catches up on you.
“You have to have a great pre-season to be able to push on later in the year for championship, you have to have that foundation, but I struggle to get that in the legs.
“I think that has held me back a bit. It is frustrating, it does get to you.”
He’ll listen to the physios more now than when he was younger and maybe took his body for granted, assuming that it would come good for him.
“It’s one of those injuries where training more doesn’t help it and the way the inter-county thing is, you’re training all the time. You have to be.
“At inter-county level, personally, the reason I probably haven’t featured more is I’m still trying to chase the boys that are able to train all the time.
“Even a confidence thing, you don’t think you’re up to the level those boys are because they’re always on the pitch and you’re doing an off-field session, maybe not getting as much out of it as you would if you were running.
“That always plays on your mind. You just have to do what you’re told and have confidence in behind that you’re doing the right thing.”
He’s 28 now. That seems to have come so soon for the boy that lit up underage and colleges football in Ulster.
Last season, his entire time on the field amounted to 89 minutes, none of it in the summer.
Yet the previous year, 2021, was his best. In contrast to virtually the whole rest of his career, Ciaron O’Hanlon started all six of their games in the abridged season. A revelation at wing-back, he played all but 12 minutes of their four league ties, the whole 70 minutes against Antrim before getting taken off at half-time in the Ulster semi-final against Monaghan.
There have never been any doubts about his ability. If it was as simple as just kicking football, he’d walk into any Armagh side.
O’Hanlon loves it, in spite of the flaws that have unveiled themselves in the plan he would have had a decade ago.
“What’s it like being there if you didn’t want to be there? You’re wasting your time, you’re wasting everybody’s time. You’re there to represent the county, represent your team-mates.
“You’re training with lads four, five times a week, there’s a bond there that keeps you there.
“In terms of Geezer, I enjoy playing under him. I like his way of thinking of the way football should be played, I like his methods.
“Ultimately, personal goals keep me there too. It’s all about enjoyment. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t be there.”