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Saturday, 22 November 2014

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This beats lonely walks with the dog, says new Carlisle Utd defender

Here is Sean O’Hanlon, wounded hero of the Carlisle United defence, on solitude. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” says the Blues’ new centre-half, whose first war wound – a stitched-up cut to the head – remains visible as evidence of a hard, winning debut.

Sean O’Hanlon photo
Sean O’Hanlon

Last Sunday the defender was back at the heart of a football club again, collecting bruises, and it felt especially good because of the lonely path he has recently taken.

“It was hard,” he says, when the conversation turns to the time he departed Hibernian last September and walked into the unknown. “I was training on my own four times a week, going for long runs, trying to push myself. You get to the end of the week and hope the phone’s going to ring. And it wasn’t ringing.

“So you go out again and try and find the motivation. It was so hard.”

It is unusual to hear these reflections from a man who appeared to typify football’s most rugged position when he helped Carlisle to a clean sheet against Coventry, three days ago. Perhaps this “classic number five”, in Greg Abbott’s words, played so wholeheartedly on his first United outing because he was so relieved to be back.

His route from SPL departure – the victim, he says, of a change of manager at Hibs – to emergency addition to Carlisle’s leaky rearguard took further unusual turns. Not many new signings in League One are scouted in the way O’Hanlon goes on to recount, for instance.

“I’ve got a dog and I was walking it one day. A fella I speak to runs a pub and said there was a local team there, and I could train with them if I wanted, just to break up my week,” he says of his time of limbo.

“So I started doing that, and then once people heard I was training with them, the local semi-professional team invited me down, which was a better level, a higher intensity of training. They kept me going, really. Then the Carlisle thing came up.”

O’Hanlon explains that he wound up at Bonnyrigg Rose, who play in the Scottish ‘Junior’ leagues, because his release from Easter Road came at the end of a transfer window, a time when clubs have done their business and have no more budget space for one more centre-half, even one with his pedigree (more than 300 appearances with Swindon, MK Dons and Hibs, after a good youth grounding at Everton, his boyhood club).

“I was in a position where, even if clubs wanted to bring me in, they couldn’t until the next window. So in the back of my mind I thought January might be the time to get back in.

“I kept telling myself, ‘Make sure you’re ready. Then Christmas came along, and the family were saying, ‘Come on, you can have a drink,’ but I had to knock it on the head because I knew I was on standby, just for that one call.

“I wanted to be ready. Fortunately the Carlisle call came and I was ready.”

That call led to a spell of training with Abbott’s squad and then, after an impressive display in a ‘bounce’ game at Rangers, a half-season contract which began promisingly with Sunday’s hard-earned 1-0 win. There was no better image from Carlisle’s much-needed win than O’Hanlon peeling a bloodied bandage off his head at full-time, revealing the scars of victory as he was cheered from the field.

It may be too early to confer cult status upon the 30-year-old but first impressions have been favourable. O’Hanlon speaks more quietly than you might expect him to, given the way he plays and communicates on the field, and is contrite about the way he picked up that scar: an accidental collision in the air with team-mate Chris Chantler.

“It was probably my fault,” he now confesses. “I should have shouted. I thought Chants was going to leave it for me – he’s only a little lad and thought he’d let me come through. But you see how brave he is, and we both basically smashed each other.”

It is safe to say that O’Hanlon has known more painful times than a routine head-bash. At MK Dons, where he enjoyed five good years and was a team-mate of United’s winger JP McGovern, he overcame the injury footballers dread most: cruciate knee ligament damage. This was a hard spell in an otherwise steady career.

“They do say some players don’t recover from cruciate injuries, and facility-wise [at MK] there wasn’t even a gym – it was just a room that they tried to convert into a gym,” says O’Hanlon, who claims his initial drop from Everton to Swindon in 2004 had been a “culture-shock”.

“There were some dark, dark stages there with the rehab,” he continues. “But that’s what physios are paid for, to keep your spirits high, and the manager at the time, Paul Ince, always included me in the squad.

“I even played at the back end of that season, because the rehab went that well.”

Recovered, O’Hanlon reclaimed a regular place in the Dons team and his shaven head became one of League One's familiar sights, but when a new, young manager Karl Robinson began to look for fresh faces, the man who scored for the Buckinghamshire club in the 2008 Football League Trophy final and helped the Dons to the League One play-offs found himself slipping from favour.

So Hibs, in 2011, was his next destination, a move which promised plenty but ended with regret. “Hibs is a great club, great traditions, but it was the wrong time, really. The season before they didn’t get going, and then we had a really poor start to the season. Then the manager [Colin Calderwood] lost his job, a new manager [Pat Fenlon] came in, and he had own ideas, wanted to bring his own players in, which kind of forced me out a bit. It was difficult but that’s part of football.”

Then, after all the solo runs and dog-walking, came the chance at Carlisle. “On trial everything you do feels more magnified, because all eyes are on you. In the game [at Rangers] I knew it was my big chance. ‘If you mess up here it’s back up the road, doing the long runs,’ I thought. I’m glad it went well and I’m fortunate to be here, to the end of the season.

“This is my job. I’m a professional footballer, I love the game, I want to be involved for as long as I can.

“It’s now down to me to get rewarded with a [longer] contract.”

Given the full-frontal nature of his performance alongside Danny Livesey on Sunday it does not surprise to hear that O’Hanlon was picked to captain a young Swindon team when he was only 22. Now in his peak years, does he feel the weight of duty as he steps into a defence which has been too generous to rival teams in 2012/13?

“I think you can’t always blame the back four if you’re leaking goals,” he says. “If the team plays like it did on Sunday, with everyone taking blows, blocking, tackling – including the midfield and Lee [Miller] up front – we will stop conceding.

“That is how I like to play. I want to try everything to stop the other team scoring. Obviously I’m still a bit rusty but the sharpness will come in the next few weeks."

As 17th-placed Carlisle head off to Crawley this weekend, hoping for another good day in a season of too many bad ones, O’Hanlon speaks as though he isn’t weighed down by any of the baggage of what has happened here before.

Even the P-word gets an airing. “I’d love to get a promotion,” he says, when quizzed about his remaining ambitions. “I’ve got one with MK Dons from League Two to League One, but [although] I’ve been in the play-offs in League One a few times with Swindon and MK, I never quite got there.

“I think Carlisle have got an opportunity to do that, to get to the Championship. That’s still driving me on.”

Let’s take care of Crawley first, you feel like saying, but still it is good to hear from someone so obviously keen to make his impact, and not just in the way that Chantler felt in the 47th minute on Sunday.

“I did miss it,” he adds, reflecting on his return from exile. “My better years have been in League One. It’s one of those divisions where a few wins can have you within touching distance from the play-offs. It’s that buzz.

“Getting that feeling of a win and a clean sheet again... I just really enjoyed it. I’ve never played against Coventry before so to beat one of the bigger clubs was brilliant. To be back playing is fantastic.”

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