Saturday 17 March 2018

O’Hara keeps on reaching for stars

Sligo stalwart Eamonn O'Hara - seen here celebrating the
Connacht SF final victory over Galway in 2007 - will be determined to put last year's disappointment behind him
Sligo stalwart Eamonn O'Hara - seen here celebrating the Connacht SF final victory over Galway in 2007 - will be determined to put last year's disappointment behind him
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It remains the snapshot image of his career, one indelibly imprinted in the mind whenever his name is referenced. Eamonn O'Hara has made countless lung-bursting runs in his long association with the white or the black of Sligo but only one really seems to matter.

Unless something even more dramatic happens in the coming months or if he extends his now 16-year career by a couple of additional seasons, Dr Hyde Park on Sunday, July 8, 2007, will remain his most fitting epitaph. That goal!

Twenty four minutes in, having clawed back a three-point deficit, O'Hara, like an experienced chess player, read the moves as he saw them panning out and made his run.

Michael McNamara had not yet released his pivotal foot pass when O'Hara began making his run so when David Kelly had gathered and prepared to turn to off-load, his midfielder was already at full throttle.

There was still a lot of space to cross but O'Hara had spotted the gap and had momentum.

A hop, solo and hop later, he unleashed that ferocious shot with his left foot, off balance and under pressure from the closing maroon shirts of Galway.

The ground erupted, Sligo took the lead and they were never headed subsequently, claiming a famous 1-10 to 0-12 victory and their first Connacht title since 1975.

O'Hara didn't finish the game, yielding to a knee injury that would disrupt his preparations for a disappointing All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Cork.

But as much as his goal, it was his resounding belief in his team's ability in the lead-up to the final that had inspired Sligo.

He was born only a couple of months after their previous provincial title in '75 and had been the undoubted marquee player in the county through the intervening years.

So when he told anyone who cared to listen that Sligo WOULD beat Galway for the first time in eight attempts in a Connacht final, his words had a certain resonance about them that stretched beyond the natural confidence that he has always oozed.

Many felt 2007 could have been O'Hara's perfect exit strategy, allowing him a soft landing after so many years spent at the coalface.

But it's a testament to his commitment to his county that O'Hara has extended his career by another two seasons at least, despite the plethora of injuries that have stalked him all season.

Among the current population of inter-county footballers only Kildare's Anthony Rainbow has given greater service in terms of years and only Kerry's Darragh O Se and Mayo's James Nallen are around as long.

He was only a fresh-faced 18-year-old when he made his debut in 1994 against Mayo, partnering Shane Tully at midfield. It was not a match he will recall with much fondness as he was hauled ashore after just 20 minutes in what was a baptism of fire.

But since then he has established himself as the most permanent fixture in a Sligo shirt, making 29 appearances in the Connacht championship and adding another 15 in Qualifiers (including three All-Ireland quarter-finals) since their inception in 2001.

The arrival of the back-door system may favour the best teams but there is little doubt that it has helped to showcase players from less successful counties on a more regular basis.

O'Hara was part of a losing Sligo team in the 1997 Connacht final to Mayo but when they lost to Galway again five years later they had the consolation of another day out and how they embraced it, beating Tyrone in a fourth-round qualifier just over 12 months before the northern county would claim their first ever All-Ireland title.

That afternoon in Croke Park, O'Hara delivered one of his finest individual performances and when he followed it up in two All-Ireland quarter-finals against Armagh, the 2002 All Star selection committee simply had to find a place for him. Later that year he was the team's centre-forward and only Sligo's third ever All Star (Mickey Kearins in '71 and Barnes Murphy in '74 were the others).

Earlier that year New York had put it up to Sligo in a first round Connacht match in Gaelic Park but with O'Hara at the peak of his powers the then-New York manager Paddy Kearney, a Kerry native, gave him perhaps the most glowing endorsement, likening his style to Jack O'Shea.

"It's not just O'Hara's speed, skill and class that makes him special, it's also that presence of mind and physical excellence that sets him apart. A player in the Jack O'Shea mould," said Kearney at the time.

"O'Hara looks like he has another gear when in possession, and it's more than that -- his passing is just first-rate."

His athletic prowess is perhaps his most striking feature. At full tilt he is an impressive picture of motion as those sallow-skinned legs go into overdrive. You can't help suspecting how, if a different sporting climate existed or if rugby had the same national fervour in Ireland as it does in New Zealand, O'Hara would have made the perfect centre.

A regular member of the international rules team in the early part of this decade, Brian McEniff, manager of the 2001 team successful in Australia, was taken by his levels of fitness.

With his local club Tourlestrane a short trip from the Mayo border, O'Hara has always been on Mayo's radar every time they have prepared for a game with their near neighbours.

David Brady had many midfield battles with him and always appreciated the benefits of not allowing him a good start.

"If you let him off to a flyer, if you gave him the head of steam, he could be relentless. But if things didn't go with him it could be different," recalls Brady. "He could get frustrated and if he started talking to referees, pointing things out to him you knew you were on the right road.


"We always understood that if you could frustrate O'Hara, check those powerful runs he made, you were hurting Sligo at their most vulnerable point."

Brady sometimes wonders if O'Hara, once mistaken in a 2006 qualifier game against Westmeath for his colleague, Sean Davey, and sent off in the wrong, accepts too much of a work load, and that he tries to do too much.

"There were times when you thought to yourself 'is he trying too much here'. He knew he had responsibility but sometimes he carried that too far.

"Sligo needed Eamonn O'Hara at midfield but they also needed him at centre-forward.

"It was difficult to commit to both positions."

The value of those runs has been appreciated by colleagues over the years, however, who saw the significance of them as much as the yards they made.

"Watching Eamonn break tackles was always an inspiring sight for any Sligo player," admitted one-time colleague Dara McGarty. "When he made ground we always felt we were going in the right direction."

McGarty attributes his longevity to his ability to look after himself and at 34 in September, he feels there is still time left on the clock for him.

Being a non-drinker and a fitness fanatic has also helped, as has the relatively low ration of games to years -- 44 in 15 championship seasons is less than three per year.

Eight different management teams -- Kevin Walsh is the ninth -- have figured ways to try and get the best about their most explosive player since Mick Laffey and Johnny Stenson first threw him in at the deep end in 1994. Deployment has ranged from half-back to full-forward and on Sunday he is posted at No 12.

For McGarty, O'Hara's decision to remain on is a case of necessity much more than an unwillingness to let go. "Sligo need him right now and I'm sure he's as determined as anyone to put the disappointment of last year behind him."

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