Monday 21 August 2017

Hard-hitting O'Hagan hopes to land a blow against the odds

Darren O’Hagan will lead Down out against Tyrone tomorrow; below, in action against Monaghan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Darren O’Hagan will lead Down out against Tyrone tomorrow; below, in action against Monaghan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

It was a line in the matchday programme for Down's Ulster quarter-final tie against Armagh that caught the eye.

Down captain Darren O'Hagan was the subject of a Q and A. One of the questions asked was his hobbies. Most inter-county players tend to answer that they don't have time for hobbies, what with all this football, or else pick a new-wave sport such as American Football or Basketball.

Down captain Darren O'Hagan in action. Photo: Sportsfile
Down captain Darren O'Hagan in action. Photo: Sportsfile

O'Hagan's way of getting away from it all? His handsome collection of over 20 beef cows.

It's a reason for he and his father to get out into the fields around Hilltown after their day's work; "a bit of a hobby on the side," he giggles.

He isn't one for making life easy for himself. The day job is bricklaying.

"I always wanted to be a bricklayer," the 26-year-old reveals. "I had no interest in school or books. I was on the farm flat out and I am the only one in the house does the farm. I love it, I wouldn't change it."

With most of his Saturdays and spare evenings spent working with cattle and a large chunk of the rest with Down and Clonduff, he has to do a bit of nifty time management to organise his October wedding to Paula Gribben, the Down and Clonduff camogie player.

Given her own sporting commitments - this week she staged a camogie camp in the club at short notice to keep children occupied - there is an easy understanding.

"She is as busy at sport as I am, if not busier," he points out. The idea of her becoming a regular feature helping out on the farm tickles him immensely; "She will aye! Get her out in the wellies!"

Occasionally, Paula gets the upper hand when the conversation turns to honours won in their sports. She has several camogie titles at county and Ulster level.

"Five or six club Championships," explains O'Hagan. "They are a serious outfit. She would have a good medal haul and a couple of Junior All-Ireland Championships there as well. She gets the odd wee dig in about that! I have a long way to go before I catch up with her."

He has an ideal chance to start tomorrow. He will bound out of the Clones dressing room and into the furnace that is Ulster final day. Captaining his county against Tyrone, as 5/1 shots.

But that's how they like it. All through this year they have been written off and nobody thought them a serious team until they dragged Monaghan into an Ulster semi-final scrap when they thought they were turning up for a procession.

Along the way, their aggression - most notably relating to O'Hagan - has been highlighted. The skipper remains unrepentant.

"We play the game as it is played, it's physical and hitting hard. It's the way Down used to play football, they were physical and in teams' faces. They hit hard and they play football," he says.

"I didn't think we were too bad against Monaghan. Monaghan probably hit us as hard as we hit them. It's probably something that has been lacking in Down this last couple of years, a bit of physicality. I think we brought that to the table, the last day against Armagh as well. It helps the team.

"Maybe a good hit or a good tackle is as good as a score at the other end."

Whenever Down have been strong, the jerseys have been filled by big strong men. O'Hagan sees that in this panel, citing, "the likes of Niall McParland, Peter Turley, Niall Donnelly, they are big physical lads and that's the way they play football.

"We have those size of lads around the middle area and they won the tackle count. They aren't playing dirty, it's just the way they play football."

And it also rids them of the awfully patronising tag of being a 'nice team.'

"Everybody knows Down for their football and not their physicality. We are still nowhere near the most physical team in Ireland.

"It has helped us over the last two games when we have upped it, but if you look at Tyrone, their physicality is far stronger than us. They are way down the road on that from us."

Brother

One big man they could have done with will not make it; Darren's brother Barry. Up at the other end of the pitch he had been consistent throughout the league but a dislocated shoulder sustained during a league match against Kilcoo has opened the door for Connaire Harrison.

"Ach yeah, he's gutted," says Darren of his brother's absence.

"After the Monaghan match he was the first man onto the pitch to me. He was over the moon. He is a Down man at the end of the day and he was thinking of the team and not himself.

"I suppose when he goes home he will be thinking about it and kicking himself but he is unfortunate. That's football, that's the way it goes. Everybody gets injuries and that's the way it happens."

Tomorrow will not be an entirely novel experience for him. Under James McCartan, the Mournemen also beat Monaghan to reach the 2012 Ulster final, but were wiped out by a Donegal team en route to their second All-Ireland title.

"We were up against a serious, serious animal," recalls O'Hagan, who impressively held up his side of the bargain that day, restricting Paddy McBrearty to one point.

"I don't care who was playing them that day, I think they were going to do that to any team. They had one thing in their head - get Ulster and go on to win an All-Ireland.

"They sort of cruised to an All-Ireland that way. While other teams were ebbing away, they were stepping on the pedal. They were a serious, serious animal that day."

There are those saying similar things about Tyrone already. Let them, he says.

"Tyrone will definitely not underestimate us. They will be going in as hot favourites and rightly so. They are among the top two or three teams in Ireland. Hot favourites and deservedly so.

"Everyone is saying to me sure they are giving us no chance. But sure why should we have a chance?"

Because they back themselves. It's all Down teams ever needed.

Irish Independent

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