IRISH CUP FINAL: The man for all seasons

Keith O'Hara. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Keith O'Hara. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

It is bold ambition from a player whose career has been defined by quiet authority.

“There is nothing I want more than to get my hands on the trophy,” admits captain Keith O’Hara. “I have great respect for those people who have lifted things at this club.”

Only two captains in the history of Portadown have held aloft the Irish Cup.

O’Hara had an inside view of two of the club’s three Irish Cup triumphs as Brian Strain and Vinny Arkins - in 1999 and 2005 respectively - grabbed the domestic game’s premier knockout trophy. Strain’s history-making era as skipper also included the Ports’ first Irish Cup win in 1991.

O’Hara can add his name to that elite list on Saturday - or, as on seven previous occasions, have to play a skipper’s role of rebuilding broken morale following a showpiece afternoon that ends with regret behind closed doors.

“Our season now comes down to one game and so much can come out of a win in terms of silverware, European football, financial gain and a big moment that could galvanise this group for the future,” admits O’Hara. “It can become the foundation for so much and will come down to who can produce on the day.

“A cup final can go by in a flash and it is the best day of the season but I have lost a few and it is certainly better to win.

“I played a bit under Brian Strain and players from that era have made a massive mark on club history.

“Vinny Arkins was my main captain and he had the respect of everyone.

“We have not had that success but it is a special honour to be captain of Portadown and to win is the aim.”

Greater weight is given to that desire to be part of club history with the passage of time.

O’Hara first got his hands on the Irish Cup in 1999 under unique circumstances as player ineligibility by Cliftonville resulted in surreal scenes when Portadown collected the coveted prize on the steps at Shamrock Park.

“I remember those early days in the firsts and it was weird sitting back inside the dressing room that day watching the celebrations after we got presented with the trophy in 1999,” recalls the experienced defender. “I was left-back in 2005 against Larne when we went 1-0 down but always felt confident that group could turn it around.

“That was a great squad and probably we should have pushed on in the league.

“This will be my fourth final match but first as captain.

“We reached three finals in my first four seasons with the firsts then won in 2005 and I missed the 2010 defeat to Linfield with a shoulder injury.

“It is crazy to think our last cup win was a decade ago now but that gives this group the chance to achieve something special.

“You need big characters and winners in a squad but I look around at people like Michael Gault, Mark McAllister, Robert Garrett, Chris Casement and Gary Twigg.

“We are not far away and have played some outstanding football this season, plus displayed real character to get results.”

O’Hara celebrated a testimonial year last season and his evolution across 17 campaigns in Portadown red has turned the raw youth product into a club leader.

“I suppose it has come full circle and certainly my game has developed with extra experience,” accepts O’Hara. “As well as the captains, I think back to people like Raymond Byrne and Gregg Davidson who talked to me on the pitch so much as a young player.

“The big lessons from back then were to stay calm and not get cocky.

“I am quiet in the dressing room but have white-line syndrome and just want to win once out on the pitch.

“If that means dragging a striker back to defend then so be it but this is a great group and we all know our jobs.

“As a left-back it was about getting up and down the line but things change with time and I have also enjoyed playing right-back and midfield.

“It is always about doing your job for the team and I loved those other positions but certainly feel comfortable now at centre-back.

“You can see everything in front of you from centre-back and that makes it easier to organise our shape and communicate on the pitch.

“I know what the manager wants from the team so can help with those small changes during a game to help us but everyone knows what is expected.

“We all prepare and become motivated in different ways but it is about producing as a team.”

O’Hara’s season has been hampered by hip problems but he is refusing to switch focus to the future at the expense of the present.

“You do not feel in as much pain after a win,” laughs O’Hara. “It is not as bad as maybe some people think and I have a rehab programme to help manage the injury situation.

“You can never tell in football so we may not get another chance at the Irish Cup.

“Every single time I pull on a Portadown jersey I feel pride and just cannot wait for the final on Saturday.”