Footballers' Lives with Keith O'Hara: My highs and lows at Portadown and how my wife Lynda has been my biggest supporter despite coping with hidden illness
Former Portadown star Keith O'Hara discusses the pain of leaving Shamrock Park after 18 years, his lasting friendship with Ronnie McFall, family life and his ambitions for the future.
Q: What are your early football memories?
A: I played football constantly as a kid. Where I live now was a back garden, which was basically a football pitch. My dad got goalposts and the whole of Derrymacash came out every summer and we played football tournaments. I played Gaelic when I was younger too. I played for the school team at St Anthony's and one of the other boys in the team played for Lisburn Youth. His dad asked my parents if I'd like to go down with him. I went down for a training night and then a man called Harry Walker came to my house one Friday night - I remember his car parked on the street - and asked my parents if I could join. My dad had a jewellers shop, Boston's in Lurgan, and worked on a Saturday, so my mum would drop me down to the old Lisburn swimming pool where we would meet for matches. It was always good. I loved it. In Gaelic when you score, you keep your position. I scored in my first game and there I was playing with all these Lisburn lads who had gone back to their own half and I was still stuck high up the pitch and they were standing calling me back.
Q: Bar the confusion over the rules, was that a good move?
A It was a very strong club back then and you could name drop an absolute load of people. Every year we went away at the end of the season. We went to Manchester a few times and then as you got older you went a bit further. I went to Germany when I was 13 and later that summer there was a space on the team in the year above and I went out to America to the San Diego Surf Cup. That was a fantastic team. I didn't play too many games. There was Aaron Hughes, David Healy, Grant McCann, Gareth McAuley, Andy Smith, Wayne Carlisle and Gary Hamilton all playing. It was an unbelievable trip. We got to the final against a team from Manchester. I always think back to that when I think about my youth football.
Q: Was that a big step in your development?
A: I think so, because I was seeing the quality others had. I spent a lot of time with Aaron Hughes watching him, he was big and strong then - bigger than I was. Being involved was very good.
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Q: How did things progress in your teens to Portadown?
A: I went to the Milk Cup with County Armagh. We played Tottenham and Peter Crouch was in the team. I think Ledley King played too. Ciaran Toner, who had gone to Spurs from Lurgan, played against us. After a few games Barry McCullough came and asked me if I would go to Portadown. I had a lot of friends, like Marc McCann, who were at Glenavon Thirds and being from the area I thought I might go there, but that never happened. I got the invite to go to Portadown and I never looked back. You never know how these things are going to work out, but it was a good decision.
Q: You were young when you broke into the team, making your debut in Europe at 18.
A: I can remember being with the squad a few times and then went on the trip to play CSKA Sofia. Someone got injured and I came on. It was a fantastic experience. Even going on the trip alone was a major thing. I was playing wide left and I had a really good chance to score within a couple of minutes after I came on, but I probably just freaked out with the atmosphere and the crowd because I'd never experienced anything like that before.
Q: You established yourself quite quickly though, making the left-back spot your own that season.
A: I remember getting a phone call late on a Friday evening a few weeks into the season to say I was in the squad on the Saturday. I remember thinking, 'Oh no, I'm going to play against Glentoran tomorrow'. They were a very strong team at that time and had won the league the previous season. I was up against Tim McCann and I used to read the Ireland's Saturday Night and his face was all over it every week. We lost 5-3 at The Oval and I remember getting beaten twice at the back post - and Tim McCann might have scored both of them. Vinny Arkins was a big character in our dressing room back then and he said, 'To score three goals at The Oval and not win is unreal', so that was his standard and that was me getting a 'wakey, wakey Keith, you can't get beat at the back post every game down at The Oval'. I remember thinking in my own mind that wasn't going to happen again. I like to think that not many times through my career did too many people get past me all the time or like that again.
Q: You came up against Glentoran again at the end of that season, losing to them in the Irish Cup final. What was that experience like at the age of 19?
A: It was difficult losing it. You can't dwell on it, you have to get up and get on with it no matter what age you are. You want more of it. The Irish Cup final is an awesome day, and if you get one and don't win it, you want another one. You want to correct it. If you look at my record, I lost three or four, but still I have one winner's medal, and there was one I didn't play in, 2010, because of a broken shoulder.
Q: You won the league a couple of years later. How big was that for you?
A: That was a great season simply because at the start of it I remember there weren't too many players signed. All of a sudden there were players like Peter McCann and Gary Hamilton signing. Ronnie McFall was always good at getting people in. I don't think we even fancied ourselves that season, but you pick up momentum the more games you win. The tempo in training was good and when we were winning we just knew before kick-off that we were going to win. We were going to places like Coleraine and winning 4-0 and beating Glenavon four and five every time we played them. I remember we lost up at Omagh and it was a terrible feeling. The club was always strong and a good stable team, and it's sad to see where they are now. Hopefully things are on the mend.
Q: You were to lose your second Irish Cup final at the end of that season, missing out on a double. What are your memories of that?
A: Kyle Neil scored early to put us a goal up and Chris Morgan scored two for Linfield. I think sometimes if you look back in recent history, it happened to Cliftonville too, it's one of those things that seems to happen in this country. I'm not saying that you take your foot off the pedal if you win the league, but it's such an achievement to do that. Linfield didn't have the best of seasons in the league, but they were still strong and you could never rule them out - especially on cup final days.
Q: You did finally get your hands on the Irish Cup in 2005. Was that a highlight?
A: I remember going, 'Oh no' in my head when Neil Ogden scored a fantastic free-kick. My mentality was, 'We can turn this round, we've loads of time, don't panic, just keep doing what we do, move the ball quickly, play off Vinny'. Just all the basics. I felt that it wasn't over and that we could get back into the game, which we did, winning 5-1.
Q: Do you think you underachieved that season, given that you were in the running for the title with just a few weeks of the season to go?
A There were numerous times that we were in the running and fell away. We'd always set our sights on winning the league at the start of every season and we had strong squads, even though we might have been small. Ronnie always had the club geared to challenge for trophies.
Q: You won the league, the Irish Cup and the League Cup at Portadown, but do you think the teams you played in should have won more?
A: I do. Glentoran and Linfield were always the big teams then and we were punching above our weight with a smaller squad, but we were in strong positions a few times over the years.
Q: What was it like when Portadown ended up playing in the Championship in 2008 after the application for the league was lodged late?
A: As a player, and being there for a long, long time, I can remember the disappointment. I was trying to make phone calls to find out what was going on and nobody was answering, so you can't get the information. Nobody wanted to say too much because they weren't too sure what was happening. I remember being absolutely gutted. I'd been at the club a long time at that stage and loved the place, and didn't see myself going anywhere else. Ronnie said, 'We're going back up and nobody is going anywhere'. No matter who you were, no matter what you had done before, you were going nowhere. He kept everyone and it was a great squad to be in that league, but that league is tough and we only made sure of getting up on the last day.
Q: How did that feel when you made sure of the result to get back to the Premiership?
A: It was a relief. It was really important to do it. It was so important for the club, for the fans and the people who were putting money in, the board members - everyone really. It was a mistake that shouldn't have happened.
Q: Did you have opportunities to move on from Portadown?
A: That I don't know because Ronnie never told me too much. You hear different bits and pieces from some people that there were opportunities, but I didn't hear too many of them, so not from what I know. Probably when I was younger my aspirations were to go across the water, but that never came about and I never had any approaches.
Q: You were affected by injuries on and off during the latter part of your career. Tell us how those affected you.
A: I'd a pelvic problem, but with injections and time to rest that always cleared up, and as much as Ronnie always wanted me to play, I didn't want to be sitting on the sidelines either, and I'd have said I would play given the opportunity. Probably in hindsight if I was to relive it I might do things differently and take rest, and not so much prolong my career, but I maybe could have played on. I'd a hip problem too, the cartilage was ripped and torn and I had to have a bit shaved off the bone. It's good now. I'm back playing over-35s now so it's fine. It did get to the stage where I felt I had played enough football.
Q: You always had a close relationship with Ronnie McFall, which has continued after you both left the club. Tell us about that.
A: He was always good to me. He gave me my opportunity and obviously saw something in me. We were out for dinner recently and he calls into the shop where I work. He looked after me, but if he had to go through me he did it. There's a good friendship there.
Q: How do you look back on the day that he left the club after losing to Lurgan Celtic in the Irish Cup?
A: I can never forget conceding the penalty that led to their winning goal, but we should never have been in that position. We were playing with 10 men after Mark McAllister was sent off, but we were still better than them and created chances, but couldn't score. For me to make that tackle and for that to happen, I was just gutted. I can't really explain how I felt and for things to happen the way they did was upsetting. The fans were really fickle at that time too. In hindsight, maybe Ronnie should have seen the season out and then make the change then.
Q: How did things come to an end for you at Portadown?
A: I have always said that there is no man bigger than any club, but I'd seen it before when legends, like Vinny Arkins for example, had left the club in not so nice circumstances. I'm not saying I'm a legend, but I would have thought that players like that shouldn't have left the club in that way. I felt that I helped out and I didn't want to leave the club, especially after being there for such a long time. I just wanted to be about the club and help them out. I always see it as my club, but I didn't feel that the club wanted me to stay. It was disappointing for my time there as a player to end that way. I am back now. I have coached the 2005 age group for a long time and now I am coaching the Under-20s and enjoying it.
Q: You have been coaching for a while now. What stage are you currently at?
A: I've been coaching the 2005s at Portadown right from they started at seven-years-old. They are now Under-15s and they are a great wee team. I enjoy it thoroughly. I have stepped away because I'm now with the Under-20s. I enjoy coaching at the youth levels and you get a lot out of it.
Q: Tell us about your family.
A: I have two boys and two girls and it is a house full of sport. It's mental in our house. Jude is playing with Portadown's 2005s and Zach is with the 2009s. Mia plays netball, camogie and Gaelic. The wee one, Darcy, isn't into her sport yet, but she's only five and she loves football. If there is a ball around, she'll kick it.
Q: How has your family managed the hard times you've experienced?
A: My wife Lynda has been my No.1 supporter from the beginning. She would do anything for me to make sure I can get to football. She suffers from colitis. She has a very bad bowel. If you see her she is a good, positive character and a bubbly girl, but it is one of those hidden illnesses that you don't see and you don't see her suffering. She'll speak to everyone when she's out and then go home and be buckled in pain. She has flare ups, and she had one a while ago that knocked her off her feet for about four months. It was quite tough. I was only able to dip in and out of working with the Under-20s and then we were asking grandparents and friends to help out and run children to their things. I'm very grateful to everyone who helps us out because it can be very difficult as a family with four children and lots of sporting activities, you need all hands on deck, organisation skills to get pick ups and drop offs arranged. It's just crazy, but she was bad that last time. She's a great mum, and it's sad because it's a ruthless sickness and it's not nice. It's been going on for eight years, even while I was playing. She was down to about six stone at one time, but is healthier looking now.
Q: How do the children get through that?
A: They are very supportive of her. They understand it and they are all great. Mia, who is 10, is brilliant when things like that happen. The boys just do their bits.
Q: Who are the best players you have played with?
A: It's difficult to pick. Vinny Arkins was obviously a great goalscorer, which is important. Michael Collins, Gary Hamilton - there were many, many great players at Portadown. Richard Clarke is hard to beat. He was a club man like myself and I like that about people. Our careers pretty much ran parallel with each other. He had skill, he had goals and he could tackle. He had a bit of everything about him. He won Under-21 caps and should have got across the water.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A: I really don't know what I want more; coaching I really, really enjoy, while management is something that when I was younger I thought I wanted, but I am willing for either of the two challenges. I want to get stuck in. I have my own ideas and I would love to get involved somewhere along the line. That's what I aspire to do.
Date of birth: February 2, 1981
Place of birth: Craigavon
Previous clubs: Portadown, Warrenpoint Town.
Portadown record: 643 appearances, 10 goals