A LITANY of injuries had him thinking it was all over at 24, but Darach O’Connor has always had perspective on his side.
It is six years now since the Buncrana man started for Donegal in the Ulster and All-Ireland finals of 2014. The world was his oyster and, for Donegal, he was the future.
Picture: Darach O’Connor watches in agony as a shot rolls to the wrong side of the Kerry post in the 2014 All-Ireland SFC final.
In the five-and-a-bit campaigns since, Donegal supporters haven’t seen a fully-fit O’Connor.
He wonders himself if they ever will.
A half-an-hour in his company, over the phone, is engaging and enlightening as he talks about the injuries that have derailed the express train we saw steam down the tracks in 2014.
“When I done the cartilage in 2017, I thought I wasn’t going to go back, and last year when I got hurt against Convoy in the Junior Championship, I thought that was me finished for good,” he says.
It was the Junior A semi-final at O’Donnell Park and O’Connor, just back from a year in San Francisco, the place of his birth in 1995, was back in the Buncrana colours.
The memory is clear: “I had just said to the boys that it was the first time I hadn’t been thinking about the knee since I did the cruciate. I jumped on the left leg and it was: ‘What are you doing?’ I felt the pull and thought the cruciate was gone. ‘That’s me, retired’. It was the longest wait of my life, waiting for those scans.”
Until the Covid-19 shutdown, O’Connor ticked over with Buncrana Hearts in the Inishowen League and was feeling the fire burn again.
“This time last year, I’d have retired, but with the break now the body feels a lot better,” he says.
“You only have a short career. You have your 20s once and your 30s once.
“They’re dark times, yeah, but look at Inishowen in the last couple of weeks. The place lost some of the biggest clubmen you could find. Derek Smyth was a top man, Stevie Doherty, I didn’t know that well but you see what he’s remembered for and Mickey ‘Gill’ (Doherty) was a neighbour; he was Cockhill, I’m Buncrana and we always had good banter.
“I’ve just got an injury…”
Since walking off the pitch in the 2014 All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry, O’Connor has played 21 minutes of Championship football for Donegal, but he’s not wallowing in any pity.
“You have to sit back and realise how lucky you are at times. It’s not the end of the world. We’re sitting here in Ireland and could be in a lot worse places in the world. You have to take a step back at times. I haven’t always done that.
“For me to get back, I’d need to be flat out for a pre-season. At the moment, I’m not good enough and I know that. If I got myself right, would I be? Yeah.
“The last few months has built more of a want to get back. I haven’t had that for about five years now.”
Jim McGuinness spotted the raw potential immediately.
O’Connor, even at a tender 18 and still in his Leaving Certificate year at Scoil Mhuire, was recruited by McGuinness in the winter of 2013. That summer, Donegal and relinquished their All-Ireland and Ulster crowns, but McGunness still believed. He stuck around, re-setting his back room team almost entirely and enlisting the help of, among others, Paul McGonigle from Buncrana.
The squad met on a December Saturday at the Station House Hotel in Letterkenny. Many of the players mightn’t have been aware of the 5’9” forward in their presence. He knew them, though.
“It was scary,” he says. “I went in not knowing what to say.
“I knew the likes of Ryan McHugh, Odhrán MacNiallais from the Under-21s, Paul (McGonigle) was the assistant manager and Michael (Murphy) had been down for a few words with the Buncrana minors.
“I was still playing with the club minors and the MacLarnon Cup with Inishowen so I wasn’t put straight back into a pre-season, which definitely helped me – I’m not built for the hard slogs!”
In May 2014, McGuinness sprang a surprise when handing O’Connor a Championship debut from the start in Celtic Park. A few weeks earlier, Derry were Division One finalists, losing to Dublin, on the same afternoon that Donegal were beaten by Monaghan in the Division Two final.
That morning, O’Connor and some team-mates attending morning Mass. The team had stayed the night in the Redcastle Hotel. O’Connor had a missed call from McGonigle when he returned.
Back at base, O’Connor was told that he was in from the off. At wing-forward.
“I’d never played that position at senior level,” he said. “It was a shock for me to get the start. I was going well so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rory Kavanagh was suspended and Karl Lacey was injured. They asked me if I knew the kick-outs and that was that. I never get nervous as such. I was wild excited.”
Club-mates Caolan McGonagle and John Campbell played in the minor game, which Donegal also won. O’Connor followed up a useful debut with a goal in the semi-final against Antrim, just days after finishing his Leaving. A hamstring injury two nights after the Antrim win stunted his progress, but McGuinness kept faith with him for the Ulster final.
Just 25 minutes in, O’Connor’s number went up. Monaghan’s physicality was proving troublesome and Patrick McBrearty was sent in.
Many might’ve sulked at getting replaced so soon. Not O’Connor.
“I wasn’t annoyed one bit coming off,” he says.
“If you’re being replaced by Patrick McBrearty after just finishing the Leaving Cert, you can’t really complain. You have to realise how hard those places are to get.
“These boys were my idols. How was i going to go in there and throw the arms up? I was lucky to be where I was.
“County football is wild demanding. If you’re in there and training hard, you feel you win together when you win something. You’re in the gym the same, you’re pushing hard at training; even if you’re not playing, you’ve got men where they are. When something that like leaves a dressing room, that’s where a dressing room falls apart.
“My advice to any young player is not to expect to play straight away. I was lucky to be moving well and get in, but I worked hard for the chance.
“Just because I didn’t play or got taken off I wasn’t going to go on the beer or f*** off to America. You have to deal with stuff like that.”
O’Connor born in San Francisco in November 1995. His parents, John – a former Roscommon footballer – and Catherine met there and were settled on American’s west coast.
Darach’s memories are almost non-existent of the early years ‘bar a concrete slide I used to play on’ and he wasn’t back in the City by the Bay until 2018.
The thoughts of home were fuelling the O’Connors, but a permanent return was accelerated in a tragic haste in August 1998.
They had just jetted back for a holiday when the news broke of the Omagh Bombing.
Among the 29 dead were three Buncrana schoolboys. One of them was eight-year-old Oran Doherty from Knockalla Drive.
“I remember one of the anniversaries, I was about 10 or 11, and it was the first time I realised what exactly had happened,” O’Connor says.
“That’s when it hit home how my cousin had died in the bombing.
“At the time, I was too young to remember what happened or to know what happened. Kids were kept away from it.
“I never really knew the full extent of it until that day years later. It’s something that has always been there, though.”
He went back to his birthplace in 2018 and stayed almost a year, playing for Sean Treacy’s and experience a different life.
In the 1980 All-Ireland final, John O’Connor scored a goal for Roscommon against Kerry after just 35 seconds. It was a moment for fame for ‘Jigger’ senior, but a day of regrets as Kerry left with Sam.
The same regrets were felt by Darach in September 2014.
Thrust once more under the spotlight as McGuinness handed him a start, O’Connor was a whisker from altering that afternoon’s course. He beat Brian Kelly, the Kerry goalkeeper, with a low shot in the first half, but it trickled wide and, three minutes later, Christy Toye was replacing him.
“If that goal had went in….but it didn’t,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter a f*** now. You look back and Donegal lost the game. That’s what matters.
“I had a feeling that I was going to play. I was moving well. I didn’t train well before the Dublin game so I wasn’t surprised to be a sub that day. I was going alright before the final and was told that morning I was going to play.
“I wasn’t annoyed by getting taken off. It was all about getting a result. I was a Donegal fan before I played for Donegal and I’m still a Donegal fan now. I knew what was best.”
Donegal had sent seismic ripples through the land with a semi-final win over Dublin. It’s regarded as one of the county’s memorable hours as they rocked the immovable force.
Within the group, though, O’Connor insists that the 3-17 to 0-14 win was not a shock on any level.
“Jim said to us that day in the Station House that he wanted us to win everything,” he says.
“The All-Ireland was built into us. That Dublin game – there was no way in my mind that we weren’t going to beat them.
“Anyone who’d say different to me I was like: ‘No way, no way.’ Michael Murphy is the best ever, Neil McGee one of the best full-backs ever, Colm McFadden was in his pomp, boys like McBrearty, Toye, (Rory) Kavanagh, (Karl) Lacey, Big Neil (Gallagher), Frank McGlynn. Looking back, that’s probably not as big a shock as it was made out to be.”
O’Connor’s injuries would begin soon after.
In 2015, he suffered a knee injury against Galway in a challenge game, but battled on to finish the Under-21 Championship.
In his first game back with Buncrana, it happened.
“I went around the ‘keeper, he made a good save and then…” O’Connor remembers.
“I went to protect the right leg and the left one was vulnerable. I took six weeks out and was rehabbing away. I went back to running in a straight line and it popped. I went to Santry and the cruciate was gone. That was 2015 and 2016 out.”
It was the beginning of what he thought was the end, but there’s a spark kindling again.
O’Connor believes Donegal are the team most capable of taking down Dublin’s colours.
He’s unwavering in his assessment of Michael Murphy’s talents.
“He’s the best ever, no doubt,” O’Connor says.
“Every year he comes back with something new. A few years ago, he added the long-range score so anything inside 50 metres was a score. Then he becomes the best midfielder in the country. Now, he’s started to go back and turn ball over. How many players are marked so tight when the other team has the ball.
“Take away football, he’s the best person you could meet. He’s absolute cut-throat when it comes to football – but you have to be like that at his level. In terms of being a good person, he’s the person you’d want to be.
“Look at the rest of the teams now, if Dublin play Kerry I think Dublin beat them by five points. Kerry had the two best games last year and Dublin beat them. Dublin were off the pace so maybe that’s a sign Dublin are coming off. Donegal, because of the likes of Murphy, McBrearty, (Ryan) McHugh, can beat them.
“Other teams don’t have that. No-one has it.”Tags: