Barry O’Hagan – The Road to Recovery

By Shaun Casey

THE pitch-black evenings and the swamp-like football fields all around the country can only mean one thing. Pre-season. Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year but December, and the few months after, are certainly the most dreaded time of the year for club and county footballers alike.

Racing around the muck and gutters, gazing through the lashing rain pelting down from the heavens, prowlers, sleds, running tracks. It’s in these training sessions that players often ask the questions. Is it really worth it?

One man that has a smile on his face while trudging through the saturated turf is former Down captain Barry O’Hagan. It’s been a long time since he felt the pounding of the ground beneath his feet and he’s loving every second of it.

“I’m back on the pitch running, back in with the group which is a great place to be,” said the Clonduff attacker who is slowly but surely making his way back from injury.

“It was really lonely there when I was just by myself but I’m glad to be back running now and doing a bit of gym work to try and get the knee as best as it possibly can be.

“The first day I did a running session I think I’d counted that it was nine months since I ran so the lungs were pretty shocked. But it was good, I was glad to get back running. I didn’t think I’d ever say that, but I’m looking forward to running, definitely.”

It was round two of the National League in early February when O’Hagan’s life turned upside down. Conor Laverty’s side welcomed Andy McEntee’s Antrim to Páirc Esler, and both sides played out one of the most entertaining games of the season.

Down stole it at the death, snatching the two available points from Antrim’s grasp with two late, late goals, but O’Hagan didn’t see any of the excitement. Before the half-time whistle sounded, the sharpshooter had been stretchered off the field of play.

The Down corner-forward was bundled over at the sideline on the terrace side, having been felled with no one else around. There was pain, of course, but the 30-year-old schoolteacher didn’t realise the extent of his injury until later on.

“It was the cruciate, the medial ligament and the meniscus ligament. I tore all three so it needed three reconstructions but the most pain was the dislocation of the knee.

“Once that was settled, the cruciate was pretty fine, With the operation, I had one or two days of pain, but I have very little pain now, just a wee bit of inflammation. As a lot of people know, it’s a long process, it’s tedious.

“You’re by yourself and it’s the wee finer things that are the most boring but at the end of the day it has to be done. It’s trying to get flexion and extension which is the hardest thing and it’s not the knee, it’s trying to get the calf and the hamstring stronger.

“Realistically, the knee needs all of them to be effective for you to work so that’s what I’ve been working on. The knee is good, it’s everything else that now that needs to catch up because the hamstrings haven’t been firing, the quads haven’t been firing in a while.

“With the running, it’s making sure that my rehab is the best it possibly can be. My recovery is key so I’m just making sure that I get as much recovery as possible.”

Last year was the best Down have experienced in quite a while. They pushed for promotion in the league, qualified for the last four of the Ulster Championship and reached the Tailteann Cup final, ultimately losing to Meath.

“It was and it wasn’t (tough watching on),” added O’Hagan. “Moreso it was great to see the boys flourish because I’m 30 years old, I’m going in the wrong direction, so it was great to see the young boys coming through and doing so well.

“I love being around the setup and I was still able to do that. But seeing the young boys coming through and what Down have coming in the next few years, for me now more or less my job is to help and guide some of them.

“I don’t mind that role but we have a serious management team so I’m not really worried about the team, I can just focus on me and trying to get back because I know the boys will be ready for the the league and I just hope I can get back.”

There’s no return date noted down in the diary just yet, but O’Hagan is hopeful of pulling the boots on once again in 2024. “The National League is probably gone for me at this stage.

“I’m probably trying to target the Ulster Championship, whether that be the first game or if we make it further, I’m not too sure yet. I’m just taking it day by day and the goalposts keep changing.

“I had to get an injection there a couple of weeks ago because I had a bit of a setback but it’s moving in the right direction. Still, I can’t be certain what date I’ll be back.

“If I’m back this year playing for either Down or Clonduff I’ll be very happy so that’s what I have to go for.”

There was a real feel-good factor around the Mourne County last season and O’Hagan, along with his Down teammates, are hoping that will return once again in the upcoming league campaign.

“People in the past probably just weren’t overly happy with Down but when they saw a bit of bite back in us and a bit of pride, that’s when the people started coming back out and that’s what it’s all about,” explained O’Hagan.

“We’re showing that we want to play for the red and black and that’s the main thing. The lads that we have on the squad now, there’s no one that you can say doesn’t want to represent Down and everyone is putting their shoulder to the wheel.

“Everyone wants to work to make Down a better team and where that goes, I’m not sure. We’re on a journey and hopefully that journey takes us where we want to go.”

It’s the McKenna Cup up first and the pre-season competition was where it all began for Laverty’s lads in 2023. They reached the semi-finals, losing to Derry via a penalty shootout, but it was a sign of things to come.

By just getting to that stage, Down had already chalked up more victories than the entire 12 months previous and now they’re looking to push on in the next season and eye up promotion from Division Three.

Kilcoo legend Laverty called former Derry manager and Tyrone native Ciarán Meenagh into the management setup to improve an already strong backroom team that consists of Marty Clarke and Mickey Donnelly.

“Ciarán’s a brilliant asset and they all bounce off each other really well. We’re sitting nicely, we have the Kilcoo boys back in now too so we’re sitting with a full squad at the minute and that’s all you can ask for, is a full squad going into the league.

“Of course, promotion is on all eight teams in the league, it’s not just us. Every other team is probably thinking that they can get promoted and we’re the same.

“For us it’s just about making sure that we perform week in and week out and that starts with Wicklow on the last Sunday of January. I’ve never been to Aughrim before, so it’ll be a brand-new occasion for me, I’ve never been down that far.

“I’m sure the lads will be itching to get out because if you ever want to get promoted you have to be setting your stall out at the start, so we’ll be looking forward to any challenge that’s coming, I’m sure teams are looking forward to playing us too.”

That McKenna Cup semi-final defeat to the Oak Leaf County was Down’s only home defeat of 2023 and the Mourne men will once again hope to make the Newry venue a fortress.

“We have four home games this year. We’re lucky that we have four home games and three away which is nice because the last couple of years we’ve had three at home and four away.

“You set your stall out that you want to be winning all your home games and then take every away battle as bonus territory as such. We want to make sure that people come to Newry and they’re welcome and that we’re ready to go to war.”

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW