February 17, 1995
AND HIS EARLY START TO A LONG AND EVENTFUL CAREER WITH TYRONE
There are very few footballers who can say they played in an All-Ireland Minor final at the tender age of fifteenTyrone's Damien O'Hagan can. Damien was at right corner forward on the Tyrone team defeated by Kerry in the 1975 final. It was a big challenge for a youngster but one O'Hagan met with a confidence and panache that characterised his entire, eventful career.
In over fifteen years as an inter-county player, O'Hagan won most honours gaelic football has to offer, including three Ulster Senior medals, provincial Minor and Under 21 honours, Railway Cup medals and an All-Star Award in 1986. One of the few honours missing from his impressive collection is an All-Ireland medal but the Coalisland player came within touching distance of that in '86 when Tyrone led Kerry for long spells only to succumb in the closing stages.
"We were ahead by seven or eight points in that final and to lose out was bitterly disappointing for us all. As a team we probably didn't have enough experience and maybe we didn't have the confidence to go and win. Losing Eugene McKenna and John Lynch didn't help either," recalls Damien.
Now in his mid thirties O'Hagan still turns out regularly for Coalisland and has played a key role in the development of the club, on and off the field. Over the past few years he has served as Chairman and during his term in office the club has made huge strides in the provision of top class facilities including the construction of four new dressing rooms, showers, a lounge and a public bar. "We have a very good, hard-working committee and the people of Coalisland and surrounding areas generously help out," he explains.
Skilful, strong and with a sharp eye for goal Damien O'Hagan, at his peak, was one of the top players produced by Tyrone in modern times.a fact borne out by his selection as an All-Star in 1986 and his selection on the Irish Compromise Rules team to tour Australia in the mid eighties.
As he points out he did not pick up his talent "from off the ground". His father John Joe was a noted footballer of the forties and fifties and won two All-Ireland Minor medals in 1947 and '48 in what was first success in the grade. JJ also went on to win two Ulster Seniors titles in 1956 and '57 in a very distinguished career.
At an early age Damien demonstrated he had inherited his father's footballing skills and added on a little bit more himself for good measure. At just fourteen he was on the Tyrone Minor team and a short while later experienced the excitement of playing in an All-Ireland final.
"I was fifteen when I played in the Minor final and it was unbelievable. It was a real dream come true for me. I don't recall suffering from any nerves, the younger you are the less nerves you have. Before the game, my father told me a bit of advice I never forgot and that was to treat every big game at Croke Park as your last and to enjoy it as much as possible and that is what I tried to do," recalls Damien who also reached, and lost a Vocational Schools All-Ireland final with Tyrone in '75.
As it turned out O'Hagan was to make the journey back to headquarters on a number of occasions to contest All-Ireland Minor semi-finals in '76 and '78, an Under 21 semi-final in 1980 and Senior semi-finals in '84 and '89. It was only with the Seniors, however that he made it to the final stage in 1986.
"We played Cork in the Under 21 All-Ireland semi-final and I remember that game especially because was living and working in Cork at the time. I played for Grange, a Junior club outside Fermoy. I went back to Coalisland in 1984 and we won the Intermediate Championship this year. It was a very big step forward for the club," recalls Damien who appeared in his first Ulster final in 1980 and scored 2-1 in the defeat at the hands of Armagh.
In '84 also O'Hagan again appeared in his first Senior Ulster final and played a significant role in Tyrone's 0-15 to 1-7 victory over Armagh. Unfortunately for the Coalisland native the semi-final jinx struck again as the Ulster champions lost out to Dublin by nine points.
"The Ulster final of that year will be remembered by all Tyrone players and supporters for the performance of Frank McGuigan in scoring eleven points from play. He was unstoppable that day. I played in the half forwards and our task was to feed the ball into Frank as often and as quickly as we could. He was an exceptional player and did things most ordinary players couldn't manage. It was fantastic to win my first Ulster medal but disappointing to lose another All-Ireland semi final," he recalls.
O'Hagan played in every forward position for Tyrone and was even known to make the odd appearance in midfield. It was at full-forward however, that he received the 1986 All-Star Award after playing some of the best football of his career. Having lost the 1984 All-Ireland semi-final Tyrone were determined to go one better in '86. "The reason we progressed so far in 1986 was because all the players were very committed and were prepared to work very hard. We put n an unbelievable amount of work and everybody gave 100%. Art McRory was determined we were going to be one of the fittest teams around, he made sure we were very fit and the players had great respect for him, he earned it."
Almost seven years down the line Damien O'Hagan has yet to look at a video of the final, reluctant to re-live the disappointment although he emerged as one of the stars of the Tyrone team that day. Probably more than most O'Hagan had appreciated playing in an All-Ireland and was eager to make the most of the occasion.
In 1981 the Coalisland forward's playing career hung precariously on the balance and for a few agonising months. It looked as if he might never kick a ball again in competitive action. "I received a bad cruciate ligament injury and I was told by a few doctors I would never play football again but I was determined to do everything possible to explore every avenue to get back to full fitness," he recalls.
With the help of friends and colleagues Damien eventually hauled himself back to full fitness. "I was given a great deal of help by Art McRory and the County Board. I had to have a major operation in Jervis Street Hospital and under Dr Brady I received top class treatment and I began to regain full fitness gradually, although it took a lot of very hard work."
Damien O'Hagan's last taste of the big time came in 1989 with an Ulster final victory achieved over Donegal, after a replay. This time it was Mayo who provided the stumbling block at Croke Park. Damien's twelve year career in the Tyrone Senior team eventually came to an end in the early 90's after a Championship defeat to Derry.
One of Damien's biggest honours was representing Ireland in Australia in the Compromise Rules in the mid-80's. "Spending a month 'Down Under' with the best gaelic footballers around was a trip of a lifetime." He would like to see the revival of the games on an annual or bi-annual basis. "It was a wonderful opportunity for me to go to Australia and I certainly regard it as one of the highlights of my career."
Married to Fionnuala with two sons Tiarnan and Jarlath, Damien works with G. and J. Derry, who are manufacturers of contract hotel furniture, and still enjoys turning out for Coalisland in the local Leagues and Championships. He is encouraged by the progress the club has made in the last ten years. The success of Ulster teams in winning the last four All-Ireland titles has also pleased the Coalisland man although he would be happier if Tyrone could join the ranks of Derry, Donegal and Down. "Ulster teams have done so well in the last few years mainly because they have concentrated on bringing on young players and they have spent time and resources on the youth. Ulster was always hard to get out of but now it is even harder. If Tyrone play their best next summer they could do it but it won't be easy," he says.
Many changes have taken place in gaelic football since Damien O'Hagan first made a name for himself as a talented fifteen year old.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
17th February, 1995
Most Read Stories