Thursday 22 March 2018

Taking the direct route

Eoghan O'Gara has proved his doubters wrong with his fine displays this summer, writes Damian Lawlor

LAST January, Dublin footballers gathered at Ballymun Kickhams' all-weather pitch for a training session. It was just after 6.0am when they rolled in. The temperature dials in their cars showed minus five, a great way to kick-start Pat Gilroy's new twice-daily fitness regime.

A few weeks earlier, Gilroy had assembled a group of 140 footballers, all put forward by their clubs for trials. Most were well below the standard required but he needed to know what was out there.

They split into five regional sides to play a tournament and took on Monaghan three times in challenge matches. It didn't take Gilroy long to spot that the talent search would mostly prove futile. Still, it wasn't a complete waste of time.

Out of the 140 summoned, Eoghan O'Gara and another relative unknown, Mick Fitzsimons, made the final cut and duly checked in for this early morning stint in Ballymun. The squad's first collective task was to take the bleep test. The average level for an inter-county player is 15, but Gilroy raised the pass mark to 17.

Maybe that was when O'Gara really caught the eye. With players floundering to get near 15, the Templeogue/Synge Street man peaked at level 19. It may have been January, far from summer days in Croke Park, but on that ice-cold morning in Ballymun, O'Gara made a statement.

He was given his shot on January 7 in an O'Byrne Cup first-round game against Wexford, managed a point before a straight red card earned him a four-week suspension. Dublin went on to hit 5-34 in three games in that pre-season without O'Gara.

The ban affected his league status too. With the team impressing early, he dropped well down the pecking order. In fact, they played seven league games without him, scoring a healthy 9-77 along the way. If Gilroy was looking to unearth another forward, it seemed O'Gara was not to the forefront of his thinking as he played just seven minutes of that campaign.

He continued to work hard but it appeared that O'Gara was running just to standstill; no game time to show for his efforts. Out of sight, out of mind, he must have wondered if he would ever get a look in, but every now and again, Gilroy would sidle over to him and offers words of encouragement. 'Keep at it; I'll need you in August.'

* * * * *

HAD things panned out differently, O'Gara could have been lost to soccer, having forged an impressive underage career at Shelbourne FC.

"There was a USA scholarship on the cards for him and there was plenty for Eoghan to think about," explains Sean McKiernan, his assistant manager at Templeogue/Synge Street and long-time underage mentor. "He was a very good soccer player, either at centre-forward or midfield.

"He wasn't the first lad we had to fight to hang onto; Anthony Stokes was one of ours before leaving for Arsenal. But deep down, I don't think Eoghan was all that interested in leaving home at the time. He is a real family man."

It would be hard for him not to be. Originally from Eaton Square in Terenure, he was part of a large clan: eight boys and two girls. His father Fergal is from Wicklow; his mother Ann from Donegal and the first challenge was keeping the youngster in the GAA. McKiernan was just one of those who worked hard on that front.

"When they were living in Eaton Square, Vincent Walsh was their next-door neighbour and he was manager of the Templeogue GAA underage teams so Eoghan hadn't much option but to come along with us," McKiernan says, laughing. "Vincent was definitely the key man in him playing club football and that was half the battle.

"But there were other challenges. The team Eoghan played on never played in Division 1 or indeed Division 2. In fact, when he was starting off, we won a Division 7 Féile competition. That's how low a standard we were at. Still, he shone out like beacon in our team but never once showed any interest in leaving us to join a bigger outfit. His whole family are embedded in our club."

Gradually, the journeys out to the AUL soccer complex in Clonshaugh became less appealing and soccer was put on the back burner. It helped that O'Gara's three brothers, Conor, Cathal and Fergal, had begun making their mark with the club, while his younger sister Niamh, still only 14, has played underage football for Dublin. Conor will almost certainly join the county minor panel next year, while Cathal and Fergal are both playing senior club football. Killian, younger again, could yet be the best of them all, they reckon.

The real transformation from soccer to Gaelic football began in his late teens. O'Gara put himself on the radar when Templeogue Synge Street won an intermediate league and cup double in 2007. A year later, under Anton O'Toole's guidance, they won the intermediate championship and turned senior. He was a mainstay of both seasons.

Paul Caffrey called him up to the Dublin squad in 2007 and because of his club status he was also eligible for the 2008 junior championship. Thus, he spent most of that season playing for the juniors before dashing from the Canal End dressing room to link up with Caffrey's seniors.

Although later dropped from the senior panel, he helped the juniors win that 2008 All-Ireland championship. They had a simple but highly effective game plan: Denis Bastic won the kick-outs at midfield and let the ball straight in to O'Gara at full-forward. He did the rest.

"That was the system and it worked every time," notes McKiernan. "The thing with Eoghan is that once he gets the ball his first thought is goal, not point. And he's massively strong. So it's hard to stop him. I'm glad to say that both of our lads, Denis Bastic and Eoghan, played the key roles in winning that junior title for Dublin."

His star was shining but still people doubted whether he had the goods for the top level. Such uncertainty was only compounded when he hurt his shoulder a few months later, missing five months of the 2009 season and only returning to club duty last September.

Gilroy, however, called him into his development squad and handed him another audition on the inter-county stage. Along with other recruits like Michael Darragh Macauley, Kevin McMenamon and Fitzsimons, the 25-year-old blocklayer made the final squad.

The wheel was about to turn again.

* * * * *

IT was a roller-coaster beginning; after making Dublin's first team of this season, he didn't play again until April 11 when he came on for the last seven minutes of the league tussle with Tyrone.

The team was dying on its feet in the Leinster championship opener against Wexford until O'Gara came on in the 44th minute and changed the dynamic of the game, punching holes in the Wexford defence and creating space for team-mates. He was spared most of the Meath humiliation, only coming on for the last 25 minutes. But after that debacle, Gilroy turned the team upside down and, amidst five changes, O'Gara got a start in the qualifiers against Tipperary. He finally notched a point (his first since January) in that game, although he should have scored a lot more that evening.

Against Armagh, the yips in front of the posts continued. Even his strong work ethic couldn't save him that evening as his shots went all over the place, prompting Gilroy to take him off at the break.

Undeterred, he kept the foot to the floor in training, and against Louth he was rewarded for his tenacity with a 2-1 haul. The first goal was a deflection but the second was a masterpiece as he powered past three defenders before delicately side-footing home.

"That's the thing about Eoghan," says a clubmate. "It mightn't be going for him but he'll stay shooting and stay trying all the time. At club level, he's a great goal-scorer and a scorer of great goals so that confidence is there. All he needs is one chance."

That chance duly arrived late on against Tyrone. It was the 65th minute and he'd largely been out of the game. Then, Paul Flynn's shot came off the post and O'Gara buried the rebound.

With 3-1 now under his belt this summer, he's Dublin's third highest championship scorer and has reduced some of the pressure on Bernard Brogan's shoulders.

Opposing teams are wary of him. Graham Canty or Michael Shields will most likely pick him up today and know what to expect. "O'Gara throws caution to the wind," says Shields. "He puts his head where other fellas wouldn't put their foot. You've got to compliment him. He's been a revelation so far."

His team-mates have also recognised his development. "Eoghan has been working very hard and has got his results," says captain David Henry. "It's only his first season but his confidence will grow. Every game will bring him on."

While eyebrows were initially raised when he replaced a quality forward like Conal Keaney -- and although the jury is still out -- O'Gara has quickly gained respect from his peers with an unselfishness and strong work ethic.

The recent three-goal salvo hasn't gone to his head either. After scoring the winner against Tyrone, he must have briefly considered relishing the attention but instead turned around and urged team-mates to settle down.

Offers of endorsements and appearances have been flying in, with magazines and PR gurus looking for him to adorn their covers and grace their events, but he's kept the head low and turned them all down.

Instead, he spent the summer working as a Cúl Camp ambassador whilst waiting to commence a sports management course at IT Tallaght. He knows there is much development still needed on the pitch. For instance, Cork will surely target the fact that he's one-sided -- when he gets the ball he automatically tries to get it onto his right foot. But team-mates say he is quiet and will be unaffected by the hype and fuss surrounding him.

"Eoghan will deal with hype," McKiernan says. "He comes from a big family and they'll only let him stay at the top of the tree for a short time. His brothers are coming up behind him and they'll want to knock him off the perch, so there will be no fuss there," he laughs.

Descriptions of his style and ways have been wildly varied. The more over-the-top comparisons have likened him to Kieran Donaghy while newspaper reports have labelled him anything from 'inelegant but madly industrious' and 'throwback to the past' to 'strong, direct and free-spirited.'

It remains to be seen what heights he will reach but he has brought a youthful enthusiasm and honesty to the team. He has no inhibitions; if he misses three chances today, he will simply keep trying. Call that what you like, O'Gara or Dublin won't mind, especially if he delivers again this afternoon.

Sunday Independent

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