Monday 20 August 2018

Model skipper looking to do rich bloodline justice

Late bloomer O'Hanlon is desperate to add an All-Ireland medal to his family's collection

Matthew O'Hanlon Photo: Sportsfile
Matthew O'Hanlon Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

On Friday, November 26, 1986, Mick O'Hanlon finally succumbed at Ardkeen hospital after a long illness, the second hurler from the 1955 All-Ireland winning team to pass away. Nickey Rackard, a selector with O'Hanlon when Wexford won the 1968 All-Ireland, departed 10 years before. O'Hanlon was only 66 and had been suffering from bowel cancer for the previous year.

Obituaries saluted a hard-working farmer, a brilliant corner-back, and an accomplished footballer who gave a magnificent display for Wexford against Louth in the 1953 Leinster final.

Photo: Sportsfile
Photo: Sportsfile

With Horeswood, his club, he enjoyed a long career and came out of retirement in 1961 to help them win the county intermediate hurling championship.

His coffin was taken to Ballykerogue cemetery, accompanied by his seven sons and daughter, led by a lone piper, while a guard of honour was provided by his former playing comrades. The ceremony acknowledged not only a distinguished player but one from a team that stood apart, that took a sledgehammer to the hard rock of hurling tradition.

When O'Hanlon died, Wexford hurling was breaking no rocks. That summer they were beaten by Kilkenny in the Leinster quarter-final, gone by the first day of June, floored after one match. As Wexford currently course a route through four championship matches in as many weeks, it is worth remembering how they once had to deal with the other extreme. The year before O'Hanlon died Wexford fell to Laois. When he died they were 10 years from winning another All-Ireland.

And it would be five more years before his grandson Matthew was born. Wexford's current captain, the team's centre-back, received early lessons on his ancestor's exploits. His grandmother Alice had numerous stories of her husband whenever he visited the home as a child. The house he grew up in is only a mile from the place where his father Luke was reared, taking over the farm when Mick O'Hanlon died.

The old house has all the mementoes. As a child he would join his cousins in the farmyard and hurl away, using a window as a target, devising a scoring system based on the distance the shot was delivered from, and how the strike was executed, mid-air or off the hand, left or right. The cousins had the edge on young Matthew for a while, being able to practise there constantly, but he eventually made up the ground.

His granny lived until last year, long enough to see Matthew O'Hanlon carry on the tradition that Mick has started. It is his ambition to win an All-Ireland like his grandfather and there is a growing fever around the team now similar to the 1950s when Wexford lit up a decade in Ireland that is generally depicted as impenetrably dreary and downbeat. Wexford looked exotic, larger than life. Among the many photographs from that era is one from a Wexford trip to the US which shows Ned Wheeler and Mick O'Hanlon in New York with the boxer Jack Dempsey.

"Mick was a great all-rounder, he did pole vaulting and came down one time and broke his left wrist and in the hospital put plaster of Paris on it, while it was still twisted and he came out of hospital and the hand was that way - twisted like that and he hurled with the hand that way for years," Wheeler recalled in an interview four years ago.

"He farmed. I think he was the last farmer in the country to buy a tractor and the reason he gave was that the tractor couldn't have a foal. There was a public house in Carlow that Mick would go into and have his half one of stout on the day of the match. And he'd play great stuff. Can you imagine giving it to one of the lads now, he might run amok."

And it was in that house where Mick lived that a young Matthew O'Hanlon, along with the cousins Michael and Shane and Rory, forged a connection to a game that is now a central part of his life.

"You'd always be out cutting lumps off one another in the yard," O'Hanlon remembers. "I was always the one in fourth place because they were out there every day. I only got there once a week. Eventually, I got up to speed but yeah, anytime you'd be over there you would be in getting a cup of tea with Granny, asking her how she is and there'd be pictures all over the wall and she'd be telling you stuff about what Mick used to do."

His older cousin Michael hurled with him on teams in Good Counsel College and later with the county minor and under 21 teams. He continues to play for Horeswood. Another cousin, Shane, a few years older still, is the coaching officer with Wexford County Board. Rory, meanwhile, moved to Canada.

Matthew O'Hanlon grew up in a house that rests on the border of the two neighbouring clubs but school in Ramsgrange led to friendships and a lasting link to underage teams in St James', often coached by his father.

"I suppose my relationship with St James' has always been with my father involved in some way. And then Dad worked for about 15 years for Wexford County Board as a GAA coach as well. He is madly passionate about the games, more so football to be fair but he travels to all the games. He played county football and hurling, mostly football, he got a really bad injury playing hurling back when they didn't have faceguards. A guy threw up a ball to hit and he went to block the ball; he blocked the ball but the guy continued his swing and hit him straight in the eye socket. He broke his eye socket in five places, he knocked out five or six teeth, he was very lucky not to lose his sight. I think after that he stuck to the football. He would have played with Horeswood and won county championships at various levels with them."

Given the proximity and the family ties to Horeswood, he's asked if there were tensions. "There is rivalry there all right. When I was growing up there was always running commentary every time I met my uncles and my cousins. C'mon we'll get the transfer forms out, when are you coming over? There would have been approaches several years for me to go over. But I was always committed to St James'. I had been to school there. I'd my friends there. I'd played there all the way up.

"And to be honest St James' were playing second fiddle to Horeswood a lot of the time. And I get a lot of my kicks from trying to prove people wrong. I was kind of stubborn in how I kept pursuing it and as the years went on we won an awful lot at underage. We were playing in Division 4 and 5 in Wexford and then by the time we got to minor we were playing in Division 1 and 2. And then in under 21 higher grades again and then up until I started playing adult hurling we were playing junior B hurling, the lowest level possible, and now we are intermediate, one step off senior.

"Now we have passed out Horeswood in both grades. They're a grade below us in hurling and a grade below us in football. I feel kind of proud that I made the right choice and I stuck it out. I would have played against three or four cousins up along. My cousin Shane, even last year in senior football championship . . . he was marking me."

The time he spent later in Good Counsel opened his eyes, he admits. "I suppose coming from a small rural club in Wexford which is predominately a football area, the New Ross district, where we'd hurled at lower levels and going into Good Counsel where I was playing with a lot of people from south Kilkenny made a difference.

"I didn't really blossom as a hurler until maybe minor level or later. I remember not making an under 14 Tony Forristal team and being absolutely devastated about it. I think I then made an under 15 development squad, and then an under 16 team and played in that Arrabawn tournament. My confidence grew and then I got a bit bigger and stronger when I came into minor level and I remember I was on the minor team, Liam Dunne and Tom Dempsey were over us. And I was 17.

"And I remember starting the first couple of games, playing Dublin in a Leinster semi-final, marking Liam Rushe. And he was a big star back then, he was a year or two older than me, and he got a goal or two off me that day and I got dropped for the next game. And that was a kind of kick in the teeth. I came back for the All-Ireland quarter-final, came on, but it was the next year that I really started to develop. I played full-back for the whole year and we had a really good season, got to an All-Ireland quarter-final, and played pretty well in the games. And thereafter I was called into Colm Bonnar's senior set-up."

The minor match he refers to was the 2008 Leinster semi-final against Dublin at Parnell Park, where Rushe scored two goals in a match that ended in a draw before Wexford won the replay. O'Hanlon was taken off after 32 minutes. His cousin Michael played full-forward. The following season, his last as minor, he held his place at full -back through a similar journey to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

He played his first senior league match in February 2011 against Galway, marking Aonghus Callanan, a game they lost by 21 points. Other challenges that came his way in that maiden season included Michael Cussen and Eddie Brennan. Wexford were poor for much of it but managed to avoid relegation with a strong finish in Division 1 before a restructure of the competition reduced the number of teams by two and they went down.

Dunne made the team competitive over five years in charge but couldn't get them out of the second tier. Arriving in a blaze of publicity, Davy Fitzgerald brought fresh impetus. They are riding the crest of that wave still. "There's probably a handful that have won All-Irelands as a player and as a manager and to have that success you automatically get respect from players," says O'Hanlon. "We know that he's been there, done it before, and there is no reason when he has done it once he can't do it again."

He talks of the "professionalism" that the new regime has ushered in, and the tactical renaissance. The sweeper system took some time to adapt to but they swear by it now. "I think it gives us more freedom than anything else. If I make a run from centre-back 100 yards down the pitch I know that I can stay there for a while and do something and make an impact."

High fitness levels are paramount in making this kind of game work. "I suppose looking back on the four or five years, against the top, top teams, we could probably compete for 50-55 minutes, but the last ten-15 minutes at the end was when teams tended to pull away from us. And that was put down I suppose to a lack of fitness, well maybe not a lack of fitness, actually no, yeah, it was a lack of fitness. We weren't able to keep going at the same high level consistently. So that was one thing we identified early on. So we did a savage amount of work in the pre-season the first year."

Every day out is a school day for a team learning at each turn. The Leinster final last year, when they sifted through the evidence later, they could see how the possession they enjoyed in the first half didn't translate into scores. They could see missed chances, blocks, 1-1 going astray just after half-time. And in the Waterford All-Ireland quarter-final, how they failed to avoid the trap set and Tadhg de Búrca mopped up too much ball.

"Teams are so smart now that the ball they're playing into the forwards is designed to avoid a centre-back. See the way Kilkenny are playing now, they are working it out from the back, they are trying to avoid the way we set up too. They are learning ways to deal with it, so you have to constantly keep evolving. That's what we are trying to do as well.

"A lot of people think that playing with an extra defender can be perceived as negative, in some ways it can be, but it allows us more space to hit the ball into, and when played correctly there is the ability to get big scores out of it because there's more space."

This year's league semi-final defeat in front of their own crowd was another lesson to be absorbed, but staying in Division 1A meant their bottom-line goal had been achieved. "We fouled too much. You can't allow TJ Reid to score 12 points from frees and expect to win. That was the number one area we needed to improve on. Number two, I think they got a couple of goal opportunities from breaking ball where high ball came through and there were runners off the break and they got through a couple of times, that's an area we need to improve on as well. The common denominator is we didn't work hard enough across the board.

"It was probably our worst performance in the last 12 months. I don't think we'll be as bad again this year. There were 17,000 people in Wexford Park and we let them down. We let ourselves down because we know we are better than that. We pride ourselves on fighting to the bitter end, and I think in that game we didn't show much fight."

In their opening Leinster championship match last weekend some of the fight was evident as Wexford salvaged a match at the death that could have slipped away from them. The win meant the ideal start but their toughest assignments are in the latter half of a hectic four-week run, with Galway coming to Wexford Park on Saturday, followed by a trip to Nowlan Park a week later.

O'Hanlon, if he can avoid injury, will be leading them out each time. In the last two years he was All Star nominated, Lee Chin was the only other Wexford player nominated in 2016. Leadership is best demonstrated by example. He admits that he has vague memories of Wexford last winning the All-Ireland, when he was just five years old. Even with his family history it is all about creating a new legacy.

"As a group we are confident in our ability and feel we can win something big. I suppose that confidence is the strongest it has been in my time playing. And I suppose the belief is reinforced when you beat top-six teams consistently over the last two years and play big games consistently. It's now time to take the next step."

Matthew O'Hanlon was speaking at the launch of the 2018 Beko Club Bua award scheme, Leinster GAA's accreditation and health check system for clubs in the province. For more information visit leinstergaa.ie/club-bua/

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