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Down are on the up and now it's time to deliver: O'Hagan

 

By Declan Bogue

On a roasting day in Ballybofey, it all began for Darren O'Hagan.

He was standing on the sideline, waiting to be introduced for his first taste of Championship action. The man with a hand on his shoulder giving him his final instructions was manager James McCartan, a bona fide genius and a monument to the days when Down could swash and buckle with the best of them.

An hour previous he was warming up in the saffron jersey of Clonduff, the Down management reminding their side that they came from their clubs but would transform into the red and black tradition.

O'Hagan came on for Kevin McKernan - who would win an All-Star later that year - and Down came out on top of an extra-time thriller.

They lost the Ulster semi-final to Tyrone - O'Hagan replacing Conor Garvey - but when McCartan and his bootroom of Brian McIver and Paddy Tally watched the tape back, they couldn't believe how close Down were to winning.

They edited the tape down to the chances for each side, showed the team before training, and asked them to do something special.

They reached an All-Ireland final, losing, by one miserable point, to Cork.

He had started and played the full games against Longford and Offaly, but lost his place for the Sligo game. Although he appeared as a sub, he did not feature in the quarter-final win over Kerry, or the semi-final against Kildare, managed by tomorrow's opposition manager, Kieran McGeeney.

"I was thinking 'Jeez, this inter-county lark is going to be great, I am going to be playing in Ulster and All-Ireland finals every year.'

"But the script does not be long changing…" And how.

For a few years there, James McCartan worked wonders in Down. But he could only do so much in the face of injuries, loss of appetite and form with some key players and the recurring hammer blow of untimely departures of his best Gaelic footballers to play Australian Rules footie.

In the meantime, O'Hagan has struggled on. He is 27 now. A builder. He know the importance of foundations. Still , he can be forgiven for throwing a wistful eye back down the road.

"It feels a while ago now, but then it was seven years. Sometimes I have to remind myself 'Jeez, I am playing inter-county football seven years now!'

"There were good times. The journey was great. Even in 2012 when we got to an Ulster final, we had a great run because any day you are winning games in Ulster is a good day."

Winning games in Ulster hasn't come easy. Winning any games was impossible there for a time as Down went 22 months in league and Championship without a single win from the tail-end of Jim McCorry's time in charge until the end of February when they beat Meath in Newry.

Last summer they surrendered meekly to Monaghan, a 19 point loss their record defeat in the Ulster Championship. Worse was to come when they were fired out the backdoor by Longford.

It was a short and brutal summer, admits O'Hagan.

"It was really tough I have to say, especially after the defeat to Longford.

"I know Monaghan gave us a tanking. We were in the game at half-time, but we had a few debutants on the field and when they got the goal after half-time, heads just dropped and it just became one-way traffic."

He continues, "When you are getting beat like that your legs just start getting as heavy as lead, just like when you are winning and you feel that you can run for another hour.

"The Longford game was very disappointing. We were very disappointed to lose that game in the qualifiers."

For reasons of nostalgia, most neutrals want Down to do well because of the way they presented themselves and their style of play in the past.

But watching on as they lost their first league game to Fermanagh at home by 16 points it seemed inconceivable they would stay up. And so they did on the very last kick of the league, a '45' sent over the bar by Jerome Johnston enough to keep them up on scoring difference.

After they lost to Clare in the second round of the league, they brought former Westmeath manager Brendan Hackett in as a sports psychologist. They talked their way around things and got it together to beat Meath in the next game.

By that time, the reputation of team and management was debated far and wide. Former player John Clarke went as far to say that Down should get Pete McGrath back in as manager, while Danny Hughes tore holes through the county, starting at county board level and working his way down, sparing nobody in an explosive radio interview.

"I did not think that past players would talk like that but I suppose they are involved in the media now and and that's their job," is all O'Hagan will say on the matter now.

"You just ignore it. I would not say that I feel sorry for Eamonn Burns, he knew what he was coming into and, in fairness, thank God he has got us back on the right road."

On Sunday, O'Hagan gets to lead a Down side out at home in the Ulster Championship. It is the first time they open the Championship campaign on Newry soil in 19 years.

And it is Armagh who stand in their way.

"People will be saying that we are going in positive and Armagh are not. We got a last minute free to stay up and they conceded a last minute goal to stay down," he states.

"It is heads or tails at the minute; you flip a coin and see who will win."

Fear of losing, of losing to the closest opposition, will make this a tight affair. But there is enough relaxed defensive systems and attacking talent to make this the first entertaining Ulster Championship game of the summer.

By God, do we not need it.

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