GAA Football

The Hitchhikers' Guide to the GAAlaxy... Tyrone's Damian O'Hagan on a lifetime in Gaelic Games

Top dogs. Damian O'Hagan is mobbed by players and supporters after Coalisland Na Fianna win the Tyrone Senior Championship in 2018. Pic Philip Walsh
Andy Watters

HE was just outside Fermoy when a Ford Cortina pulled in up ahead.

The driver wound down the window and asked where he was going.

“Anywhere but here,” thought Damian O’Hagan before explaining that he was travelling north and that a lift in the general direction of Mullingar or Tullamore would do the job.

“Hop in,” says yer man and O’Hagan, with his football boots in his bag and a few coppers in his pocket, did just that.

“What part are you from?” yer man would ask and O’Hagan would explain that he was from Coalisland and was travelling home to play for Tyrone the following day (Sunday).

When they reached the end of their road, the lanky 20-year-old said his goodbyes, hopped out, stuck out his thumb again and hoped for a little luck on the next leg of his long solo journey which he’d do in reverse on the Monday.

When he had a few quid he got the train but, money or no money, he made sure he was there and to find out why you need only to scratch the surface.

His father John-Joe was a ground-breaker. A member of the Tyrone minor team that won the county’s first-ever All-Ireland in 1947, he won another in 1948 and went on to win the Red Hands’ first-ever Ulster Championships in 1956 and '57.

His son grew up listening to tales told by and about Barney Eastwood and Eddie Devlin from the minors of the ’40s and from Frank Higgins, Jody O’Neill, Thady Turbett, Iggy Jones and Frankie Donnelly, the boys of the ’50s.

“My father lost his great friends Frank, Thady and Barney over the last few years,” O’Hagan explains.

“They would have got into the car every second or third month and gone up to check the building of Garvaghy, they would have met the boys on the site and got a look at the pitches and then went for a coffee.

“Barney called at our house every year with a Christmas box for John Joe. He was something else – he used to ring me, even from his sickbed: ‘What do you think of Tyrone this weekend, are they worth a pound?’

“When Tyrone were playing on the Sunday you were always sure to get a phonecall from Barney and the first time he got his hands on the O’Neill Cup was when Coalisland won the championship in 2018.”

On a clear day you can see the Clonoe O’Rahilly’s pitch from the Na Fianna grounds in Coalisland. John Joe was an ‘O’Rahilly man’ and is one of just half-a-dozen players in the club’s history to hold five Tyrone senior championship medals.

But his son didn’t follow in his footsteps.

A precocious talent at the age of nine, he wasn’t picked for the Clonoe U13s so he went to Coalisland instead and he stayed there.

Half-a-century on, his defection remains a delicate matter.

“There are still Clonoe men who would say to me: ‘You should have been an O’Rahilly,” says O’Hagan.

“I just say: ‘Well I didn’t make the team!’

“I played for Coalisland and I was happy to play for them.”

PLAYING in the age-group above was the pattern of O’Hagan’s time in underage football. He was a four-year county minor (starting at 14) and played in the 1975 All-Ireland final just three months’ after his 15th birthday, scoring two of his team’s four points against a Kerry team that included future senior adversaries Jack O’Shea (a team-mate with Ireland in 1986), Mick Spillane, Charlie Nelligan and Sean Walsh.

Tall and wiry, he was a gifted athlete and from the ages of eight to 12 was a keen member of the Coalisland Athletics Club. He was Irish triple-jump champion and a talented 400m runner and sprinter.

“Och there’s a whole history of stuff there,” he says.

“I was always a skinny beast! There was no weight on me and I loved athletics but I moved on to football.”

Yes, football was his “number one” and at school he played two years’ with Tyrone’s Vocational side reaching the All-Ireland final in 1975. After those four years at minor level, he was called up to the senior squad in 1979 by Coalisland clubmate Jody O’Neill.

“I had no fears going up to senior,” says the former Ulster star.

“I was looking forward to getting on to the Tyrone senior panel.”

But his senior career might not have happened at all. Against the background of the Troubles, O’Hagan moved to Cork for work and began playing with Grange GAC in the north of the county.

His form there did not go unnoticed and Billy Morgan invited him to line out for the Rebels.

“I did say I would join them the following week but then Art McCrory was made the Tyrone manager and he wanted me to go up the following Saturday for his first training session,” he explains.

“How could I turn down the man that took me into the minors when I was 14? I said: ‘Well I’ll be there’ so Cork went out the window.”

As luck would have it, Tyrone were beaten by Cork in the 1980 U21 semi-final and the Rebels went on to win back-to-back All-Ireland titles. Had O’Hagan accepted their offer, he would have been part of both wins.

“I met the Cork manager a few years later and he says to me: ‘If you had come to us you would have had two All-Irelands’.

“I says: ‘Well, if I had gone to you I couldn’t have gone back to Tyrone!’

“On a Sunday, you were the best thing since Walls ice-cream in Cork,” he adds.

“On a Monday, you were a northern f**ker!”

Up against Omagh full-back Paddy Quinn during his playing days with Na Fianna

HE won a Cork Junior championship with the Grange in 1979 (still the club’s finest hour) and played his club football down there until he returned home in 1984 to a job running Coalisland’s social club.

He captained the Na Fianna to the county intermediate championship and league and, coincidentally, that was the same year that Frank McGuigan came home to Ardboe from New York.

With McGuigan and O’Hagan back in harness, Tyrone won their first Ulster title since 1973. McGuigan kicked 11 superb points in the final and got four more in the All-Ireland semi-final but that wasn’t enough to beat Dublin.

Two years later of course, Tyrone were able to go a step further and reach an historic, first ever All-Ireland senior final.

O’Hagan had scored six points in the Ulster semi-final win over Cavan and two more in the final against Down. His three points against Galway, three more from skipper Eugene McKenna and a Kevin McCabe penalty were enough to turn over Galway in the semi-final and send the Red Hands into unchartered waters and a Sam Maguire decider.

Playing at full-forward, O’Hagan scored a point, laid a goal on a plate for Podge Quinn then helped create a penalty chance and, despite a poor start, the Red Hands were ahead by seven points and looking good to cause an upset after 50 minutes.

A withering Kerry fightback over the last 20 minutes dashed Tyrone hopes and O’Hagan admits he has never watched a replay of the game.

“It was a massive achievement for the county to get to a final and a massive honour to get stepping out onto Croke Park on All-Ireland final day,” says O’Hagan, who travels throughout Ireland and further afield in his job as sales manager with county Armagh-based bar and restaurant design specialists Derry’s Ltd.

“No-one gave us a chance in ’86, we were total underdogs and it was heart-breaking not to win it, to get so close and yet be so far. But great teams go and win it – we were a good-enough team but not a great team.

“We weren’t able to finish it out but then we were up against an exceptional team who hit us with a couple of quick goals – another team wouldn’t have got those goals. At that time there was no such thing as closing a game out with a packed defence - today that would have been the way to do it.

“I don’t think our panel was as strong as Tyrone panels since then but there were five or six players that would have walked onto any Tyrone team, including the teams that did win All-Irelands.

“Today’s team would have a better all-round balance than the ’86 team and the All-Ireland-winning teams were absolutely tremendous. The likes of Kevin McCabe, Eugene McKenna, Jon Lynch, Kieran McGarvey, Frank McGuigan (didn’t play in ’86) could all have adjusted to any era. They could have walked on to any of the teams in my eyes.”

The All-Ireland final was an opportunity missed but at least 1986 ended on a high for O’Hagan. A couple of weeks’ later he travelled Down Under with the Ireland team for a bad-tempered International Rules series which the visitors won despite the thuggish tactics of the Aussies for whom ‘The Dipper’ (Robert Di Pierdomenico) and Garry McIntosh (sent off for an infamous assault on Dermot McNicholl) were among the worst offenders.

He missed the first Test loss but scored 13 points in the second and 11 more in the third as Ireland recovered to win the series 2-1 and he rates Ireland manager Kevin Heffernan highly alongside Art McCrory (Tyrone), Brian McEniff (Ulster) and Brendan Hampsey (Coalisland).

He took lessons learned from all four when his time came to go into management himself…

The Tyrone All-Ireland minor championship-winning team of 1948. Damian's father John Joe is back row, second from left, Barney Eastwood is front left

CLUB football in Tyrone is an intense dog-eat-dog world. As a manager, O’Hagan guided Coalisland to their first senior championship in 20 years in 2010, alongside Peter Herron and Joey McNeice, and he repeated the feat in 2018 with his son Jarlath joined him and Herron in the dugout.

“We had great times,” he says.

“I had been involved with that squad of players from they were U10 up to seniors and we won everything that was probably possible to win throughout Ulster

“My motto is: Keep it simple – don’t bamboozle players with tactics and drills - and work hard. If the workrate is at the right level you can go anywhere if you have the tools to work with and players with the vision to read the game.”

He did his time and retired at the end of last season. He has no plans to get involved again.

“I’ve never managed anybody only my own club and that’s the way it’ll stay,” he says.

“I get asked to go into management somewhere every month but my interest is in Coalisland Na Fianna.

Tyrone skipper Padraig Hampsey and Michael McKernan were both in his Na Fianna side last year and they’ll line-out this afternoon as the Red Hands of 2021 retrace the steps of the men of 1986 and once again face the Kingdom at Croke Park as underdogs. O’Hagan doesn’t rule out an upset which would be a remarkable achievement for new management team Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher who have delivered an Ulster title and had to cope with an outbreak of Covid-19 in the squad.

“Tyrone are on an upward curve,” says O’Hagan.

“Mickey Harte did an unbelievable job but like all great managers and players, time moves on and it’s great to see Feargal and Brian winning an Ulster title in their first year. Let’s hope they can build on that and I think they can.”

An Anglo-Celt Cup is a good return from Logan and Dooher’s first year but an All-Ireland final appearance would be even better. Today, Tyrone would certainly take the position that O’Hagan and his team-mates engineered: 20 minutes left, seven points up… They’d take that alright.

“Nobody gives them a chance but the big thing for me is: ‘What has Covid taken out of their legs?’ They’re going to have to be 110 per cent to take on an exceptional Kerry team who have been hurting beyond hurt since Cork beat them in Munster last year and they’ve never forgot us for beating them in ’03 and ’05 - that’s the way they’re bred.

“The thing that has to be working on Tyrone’s mind is the mauling they got in Killarney. If ever there was an incentive for Tyrone to get up for a game, that’s it. You have to draw a line in the sand and say: ‘That’ll never happen again’ and that should be enough to drive them on.”

That’s the hitch-hikers’ guide. He'll kick every ball with the Red Hands today…

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