Tally's young guns can steer Down back on track: O'Hagan
For a wide-eyed teenager, Darren O'Hagan's first year in the big time was some adventure.
James McCartan took over Down in 2010 and he clearly identified something in the apprentice bricklayer from the Clonduff club. When the Championship rolled around he found himself being plunged into a thrilling extra-time win over Donegal, coming on for Kevin McKernan.
He came on in the Ulster semi-final loss to Tyrone, started in the All-Ireland qualifier wins over Longford and Offaly, came on in the victory over Sligo, though he never saw active service in the quarter-final win over Kerry, the semi-final against Kildare and the final defeat to Cork. He spent the year soaking up the experiences, believing that this was the life he had ahead of him.
And then, nothing. They reached Ulster finals to be beaten by 11 points in 2012 (Donegal) and eight in 2017 (Tyrone), and the current county captain O'Hagan might have expected to have gained more as he heads into his 11th season in the red and black.
"In 2010 it was my first year and wee James (McCartan) asked me in. I thought this was unreal," he begins.
"I thought it was going to be like this every year. Unfortunately, it went the other way.
"There have been a couple of Ulster finals. Down football hasn't had it easy this last 10 years, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be."
Still, he tends to look to the future and what current manager Paddy Tally is building.
"Paddy has come in, he has taken a lot of youth in, blooded a lot. They are really good young lads with a great attitude and it seems like Down football is on the up," he says.
"Even with Kilcoo winning (the Ulster club title), it will do Down football the world of good. It's a Down team winning in Ulster again which hasn't happened in over 30 years.
"Somebody was saying to me the under-16 competitions, the minor competitions, when you go through them, Down teams are dominating them now, so it is a good sign that the youth is coming through."
More than most counties, Down have had an incredible turnover of players.
Under McCartan that work had already started and it evolved under Jim McCorry and the late Eamonn Burns, but last season was drastic.
"It's surreal numbers," states O'Hagan.
"I think it was me that said to Paddy about the numbers of debutants and I think he realised then himself he had used maybe 33 players throughout the league, which was a massive turnaround and few teams would have used those numbers.
"But it's good. He brought in youth and had a wee bit of experience with some players. That league, the Championship against Armagh, Tipperary and Mayo, it should stand to us well this year."
Down start 2020 in the third tier of football. Last year they lost their opener to Laois, before wins over Sligo, Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Carlow left them in a serious position. But losing their last game to Louth undid all that good work and they missed out on promotion by a single point in scoring difference.
"We probably kicked ourselves in the foot last year by not getting up. Louth in the last game, we probably took our eye off the ball that split second and thought we were already promoted. All we needed was a draw," rues O'Hagan.
"We slipped up and it leaves this year far tougher. It's a tougher division with the likes of Derry and Leitrim coming up and Tipperary and Cork coming down, it will be a real dogfight.
"Even at the last whistle I still thought we had a chance. We went in and sat down and then Paddy came in and said no, we were totally out of it, no matter what way the results went the week after in the last game.
"The two teams hadn't played, I think it was Westmeath and Louth, so it did end up a real kick in the teeth and we were so close not to get up.
"But it is what it is - our own fault, so we have another chance this year to get up. The squad has a year under Paddy, and Paddy has a year now with the squad and the different types of players."
Things will not be simple as they head into this league.
"(It's a) tough start, we are away to Tipperary in the first game then up to Derry and away to Cork. It is a really, really tough start and it will define whether you are going for promotion or looking down the table to the other side of things, which could happen quite quickly," he says.
With Derry coming up from Division Four, their second game away to them will dictate much of how their season could unfold. The last thing they need is to see Derry passing them out.
"We definitely wouldn't want that," cautions O'Hagan.
"All we can do is look at the Tipperary game, it is massive and you don't want to be losing it and then trying to lift yourself a week later to try and get a victory.
"We just have to look at the Tipperary game to try and get a good start to the league and get a win down there."