ONE door closes, another opens – and Darragh O’Hanlon is enjoying every step of his second coming so far.
O’Hanlon captained both Down and county kingpins Kilcoo before a succession of serious injuries cruelly cut his career short at just 28, leaving him unable to play any part as the Magpies were twice crowned kings of Ulster before claiming the All-Ireland title last year.
However, after an unexpected call from Conor Laverty, O’Hanlon joined his club-mate’s Down senior and U20 management teams – helping guide the U20 side to Ulster glory against Derry last week, having defeated a fancied Tyrone side in their first outing.
And, as the Mournemen look ahead to Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final showdown with Kildare at Parnell Park, O’Hanlon admits this new chapter has helped bury the bad taste from that early finish to his playing days.
At first, though, he wasn’t so sure.
“I was in with the Kilcoo U13s and Conor asked me to come and be a part of it, but at the start I was like no, I don’t know… I just hadn’t got my head around it.
“I rang him back a lock of weeks later - ‘does that offer still stand?’ It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
“It has completely taken my mind off everything else. As well, the likes of young Ciaran Lundy did his cruciate at training… now, I’m not I’m a psychiatrist or anything, but I’ve been there, when you maybe feel like nobody cares. It’s not easy on a young fella like that so you hope you’re able to help in some way.
“Winning an Ulster title in your first year at it, you maybe feel like you’re in dreamland a bit - I know it’s not going to be like this all the time, but these lads’ work ethic and commitment has been phenomenal. They’re a great bunch of lads.
“We’re busy at the minute, obviously last Sunday [against Armagh] didn’t go according to plan, but it has been brilliant and I’m really enjoying it.”
Laverty and Marty Clarke were there two years ago when Down also lifted the Danny Murphy Cup before falling short against Roscommon at the semi-final stage.
Of the playing personnel, only Burren trio Odhran Murdock, Paddy McCarthy and Ryan Magill remain – though captain Magill is a doubt after injury forced him off at half-time against Derry at the Athletic Grounds.
“Ryan came off in the Ulster semi against Monaghan, it looked bad that night but a couple of days later it wasn’t as bad as first thought,” said O’Hanlon.
“He had a few weeks to prepare but last week he had to come off, and we don’t know for definite… at this point in time he’s probably not going to be fit.
“Whether he can play any part on Saturday, it’s going to be a late call, but I’d say he’s more than likely not going to feature.”
Even in Magill’s possible absence, there is no shortage of talent elsewhere in the Down panel – with Loughinisland forward Oisin Savage named Ulster U20 player of the year after some dazzling performances, while Jamie Doran has been sensational any time he was introduced from the bench.
The Ballyholland teenager, who also plays Irish League soccer for Glenavon, scored four from play in the semi-final before bagging Down’s crucial second goal to seal victory over Derry.
And O’Hanlon feels this group is indicative of the progress Down continue to make.
“We have some super players, we really do. The likes of Jamie is still underage next year too…
“Down have won two out of three Ulster U20 titles, and were beat last year by the eventual All-Ireland champions by three points. The gulf isn’t that massive.
“Now it’ll take a couple of years for those lads to progress into seniors – Odhran, Paddy and Ryan have been playing National League football for Down this year, and but for that silly [seven day] rule they certainly would have been featuring in the Ulster Championship.
“So it shows there is good talent coming through.”