Let's put pride back in Down shirt: Donal O'Hare
Mournemen facing an uphill fight against Farney boys but Donal is backing his troops to rise to the big occasion and spring a surprise
A wet January night in Newry, and Down's Donal O'Hare is frustrated.
In the 18th minute, he stood before a penalty kick. Neil McGee's despairing lunge at Ryan Johnston had brought a black card. Down found themselves in a good position in their league opener against Donegal.
O'Hare drove the ball hard, but it was at too convenient a height for goalkeeper Peter Boyle to beat back out. By half-time, Donegal were 0-9 to 0-2 in front.
At full-time, that gap grew by another ten points. O'Hare was gone before then, dismissed on a red card for striking Eamonn McGee.
"It was a bad enough start to the league for me," says the 25-year-old classroom assistant. "I went into the year injured, I missed a penalty and then got sent off!"
Suspended for the next game, O'Hare found himself on the bench for the third game, a 16-point hammering to Kerry. Although Down only scored four points from play, their best shooter only played 13 minutes of the game.
Such is the way with modern football, attackers are sacrificed from the team for defensive experimentation.
O'Hare had to tailor his game to feature in Eamonn Burns' plans.
"I suppose I had to," he acknowledges. "This is the third manager in three years so there was a lot of adapting from the start. And a lot of boys needed to get their chance too."
It hasn't been a vintage season for Down forwards, posting the least scores of all the teams in the league, but O'Hare finished top scorer with 2-14 - over 30% of their tally.
In 2011, his former manager at Burren Frank Dawson handed him his debut at club senior level. The following summer, he found himself playing in an Ulster final, already being depended on by the county.
"He had just finished with St Colman's," recalls Dawson of the precocious talent.
"There were quite a few people felt I should have had him in the Burren team, but I was quite conscious of his age and his own development. I wasn't going to expose him to senior football too early."
'Wee James' McCartan was a clubmate at Burren, wanting to nurse him onto the county scene just as Dawson had managed it with the club. But when Benny Coulter broke his ankle in the lead-in to their first game against Fermanagh, Down needed him.
During the week, McCartan named Arthur McConville to start but on the day, O'Hare lined out on the edge of the square, presenting two-time All-Star Barry Owens with a completely different proposition than the one he had prepared for. By half-time, O'Hare had 1-1 and the game was settled.
Dawson feels that players like O'Hare might be best utilised out of the worker-bee system that all-encompassing defences demand.
"Donal is an out and out attacker, so you keep him dangerous where he is most dangerous. I would always try and do that … I am probably putting Eamonn Burns under pressure to play him up there," he says.
While he might be raised in red and black, O'Hare has some precious Armagh blood. His grandfather was Gene Morgan, corner-back on the Armagh side that made the All-Ireland final in 1953 and known as 'The Man With the Golden Hands.'
Gene's sister is Margaret McConville, mother of Oisín. The ties that bind…
"When he was younger, I was growing up and always seeing Oisín winning trophies whether it be at club or county level. To have that sort of person in my family, it would be a waste not to use it. So I definitely used him a couple of times," he says.
He might have needed him this year. McConville played on a few Armagh teams that appeared to be going nowhere until they turned themselves around in the late '90s.
There is a similar feel to Down nowadays, with three different managers in the last three years. A lack of continuity has preceded a dreadful league campaign.
"Results can't lie. We lost seven out of seven going through the league. So we go into the Championship as huge underdogs and that's something as Down men we have got to get used to this past couple of years," says O'Hare.
With St Colman's, he won a Hogan Cup in 2010 and has two Down senior Championships. Which must make the lack of meaningful trophies residing in Down over the last 22 years painful.
But, O'Hare says: "There is one thing about it, this group of players are just as ambitious as the last group of players. Hopefully in the Championship we can get on a good run, get a bit of silverware and put some pride back into the jersey for the fans."
He will recall his second game for Down, the nine-point comeback against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final and his own contribution of five pointed frees that inspired it.
Lightning can strike twice. He believes.
He has no other choice.