In a year when Damian O’Hagan became a leading figure in Tyrone GAA circles once again, by managing his beloved Coalisland Fianna to their first O’Neill Cup success in two decades, having played in their last title win, we bring you an interview with Damian from the Teamtalk archives as the former Tyrone great looks back on his own playing career…
Damian O’Hagan always had the pedigree to become a Tyrone legend because his father, John Joe, had played for Tyrone in the county’s first All-Ireland senior football semi-final in 1956. Thirty years later Damian helped his father avenge that defeat with a landmark victory over Galway. He also won an All-Star award that year, one of many accolades that came his way during a wonderful career with Coalisland and Tyrone.
Damian’s inclusion in Kevin Heffernan’s Irish Compromise Rules team to face Australia in his heyday was a clear indication of the Fianna player’s lofty standing in the game.
Damian now discusses some of the highs and lows of his illustrious playing career….
Q: To begin with, Damian, was football your first sporting interest at a young age?
A: No, it was Athletics. I was a member of the Coalisland Athletic club, as was Kevin McCabe. In 1971 I won an Irish Triple jump championship as well as being part of a winning 100m-relay team. I won Irish medals for the under-11 60-metre dash as well as picking up four silver medals in the All Ireland championships for the 400m. Football began to take hold when I was twelve and I stopped the athletics completely. It had to be one or the other and I devoted all my time and energies to football after that.
Q: Who were the early influences in your football career?
A: My Father, Jackie O’Neill, Eddie Campbell and Barney Herron.
Q: Your father John Joe, a famous Tyrone player of the past, played his club football for Clonoe, so why did you not follow suit?
A: I went to a trial game for Clonoe under-13s at O’Rahilly Park and there must have been fifty lads there that day. I was only ten at the time and I didn’t make the team. A short time later I was doing the bread run with my father when Jackie O’Neill approached me about playing for Coalisland. I asked my father would that be okay and he never answered me, so I took that as a yes. To this day he has never mentioned that decision. I could only imagine what my reaction would be if one of my lads had told me that they wanted to play for Clonoe! In fairness to my father he never once said during my career that I had a bad game. He may have told me that I was trying too hard, or something like that. When you knew that you hadn’t played well you could always rely on going to talk to him and he would give you the lift that you needed.
Q: What about your Vocational schools career with Tyrone?
A: In 1974 we won the Ulster title, beating Derry, before losing in the All-Ireland final. Twelve months later we retained our Ulster title only to lose to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. I remember that was a superb game of football. It was a game of two halves as we let a good interval lead slip and they went on and won the All-Ireland title.
Q: Didn’t you play for a total of four years for the Tyrone minors?
A: Yes, I did. Art McRory was over the team at the time and he asked me onto the panel even though I was only fourteen. I told him that he would need to ask my Dad if that would be okay and I remember the conversation that they had at the back of the bread van. My Dad told him that he could take me but only as a sub for the experience. I was fifteen by the time the championship came around and I remember coming on in the first round. I came on in both the Ulster semi-final and final and we won it. We then beat Kildare in the All-Ireland semi final before losing to Kerry in the final. Ciaran McGarvey and Kevin McCabe were members of that Tyrone side as well, while Jack O’Se, Charlie Nelligan, Sean Walsh and Mikey Sheehy lined out for Kerry. I scored two points in the final, which I started at corner forward before being moved out to centre-half forward. The following year we won the Ulster title again but lost out to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. In 1977, I was captain of a very good team but unfortunately we didn’t win anything. 1978 was my final year as a minor and we came back with a bang to win the Ulster title again. We beat the reigning All-Ireland champions Down in the semi-final at Casement Park, a side that included Paddy O’Rourke. In the final we beat Monaghan at Clones. We then met Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final on a day when Barney Rock scored three goals. I was carried off injured with twenty minutes to go when I went for a ball with the Dublin keeper and he just took me out of it. There were only three points in it at that stage and to this day I don’t understand why I didn’t get a free.
Q: What happened after that campaign?
A: I sort of packed it all in for a while. After that Dublin game I had to lie in bed for a couple of days with a sore knee and nobody bothered to come and find out how I was. I was living in Cork at that stage and had more or less quit playing.
There was a ‘goal of the year’ and ‘save of the year’ competition at that time and they were advertising it on TV at the weekends and were showing the goal that I had scored against Dublin.
I was working away when boys around North Cork found out that I was living in a flat down there. They came to see me and asked if I would be interested in playing for them. The club was a small club called Grange. I decided to play and the following year we won the Cork junior football championship, the first success in their twenty-one year existence. It was a very high standard and we had an exceptional side that featured three Tyrone minors, including Bosco O’Neill, one Cork senior, two UCC championship winners and a member of the Cork team who had won the All-Ireland junior championship. Ten of that side were selected to play for Avondue. That was a side that was made up of a number of clubs that went forward to compete in the Cork senior championship. In the semi-finals we met City side St. Finbarr’s and they only beat us by three points. They went on to win the All-Ireland title that season. I remember in that game we had won a penalty and I set it up to take it but our captain, a guy called Ned Kirby, who played for Cork in their 1973 triumph, ran up and kicked it wide. They came right back down the field and Jimmy Barry Murphy put the ball in our net.
Q: Were you ever asked to play for Cork during your time there?
A: Yes I was. At the end of 1979 I was approached by Cork officials with a view to playing for the under-21s and seniors. I agreed to it but two weeks later Art McRory rang to say that he was the new Tyrone manager and that he wanted me at training. When the Cork officials arrived with the forms I didn’t sign them and I decided to stay with Tyrone and I’m glad that I took that decision. I remember when Cork beat us in an under-21 All Ireland semi-final one of their selectors said that I would have won All-Irelands if I had signed for Cork. I just told him that I could never have gone home if I had done that.
Q: What do you remember about your first Ulster senior final for Tyrone in 1980?
A: At the time I was still living in Cork where I was now playing intermediate football for Grange. I was thumbing a lift up and down as money was tight in those days. Armagh beat us 4-10 to 4-7 that day and I managed to score 2-1. We could have won that game although we were always chasing it and were probably short one or two players. Armagh were a strong side then with a number of survivors from the team that had played in the 1977 All-Ireland final.
Q: How many years did you play under-21 county football?
A: Three in total. In 1979 we lost in the Ulster final to a Down side that included Liam Austin and went all the way to the All-Ireland title. A year later we met them in the decider again but this time it was our turn. We were then well beaten by Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.
In 1981 I played one of my best ever games in a Tyrone jersey against Monaghan in the championship. Gene Sherry was marking me and I scored something like ten of our twelve points that day and still ended up on the losing side.
Q: Did you ever play in the States?
A: In 1981 I won a New York championship medal with Tyrone. We had a brilliant team that included Gerry Taggart, Frank McGuigan, Pat Spillane, Kevin McCabe, Sean Coyle, Jake Quinn and Johnny Corvan. We beat a Leitrim side in the final that contained Laois’s Tom Prendergast as well as Dublin trio, Brian Mullins, Fran Ryder and John Caffrey.
Q: What happened to Tyrone in the Ulster championship between 1981 and 1983?
A: In 1981 Monaghan beat us at Castleblayney. It was a very physical encounter and they hammered us in more ways than one! I did my cruciate ligament that same year and the doctors told me that I would never play again. Art McRory took me to see a specialist and I got my anterior cruciate ligament as well as my medial ligaments repaired. The following year I remember still being on crutches when Frank McGuigan scored a brilliant goal in Newry to beat Down in the championship. When that went in I still jumped up and down! Fermanagh beat us that year in the semi-final. The next year we lost out at the first hurdle to Cavan at Clones and I think that I came on that day as a sub.
Q: How special was it to win your first Ulster senior medal in 1984?
A: It was obviously a big day for me – the dream of all dreams. We had worked so hard throughout the championship to win it and it was just great to be on the same field as Frank McGuigan that day. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin we had our chances early on but failed to take them. We allowed them to get too far ahead and it took us something like twenty minutes to open our account. Tommy Drumm marked me and he was a great player. We just hadn’t enough quality players and it was a big thing for Tyrone to be at that stage again after an eleven-year gap.
Q. What are your abiding memories of Tyrone’s 1986 campaign?
A. Our plan in the build-up to the first round clash with Derry was to play Eugene McKenna at full forward and put every ball into him. I had trained very hard and had lost a stone weight. A week before the game I was struck down by a virus and on the day of the game I was hardly fit to walk. I think I maybe touched the ball twice that day and one of them was to give it to Noel McGinn who smashed it into the net. The next night at training Art revealed to me that he had taken a lot of stick for not taking me off. He probably should have done but he must have believed in me that I could still do something despite not being fully fit. In the Ulster semi-final we beat Cavan at Irvinestown in what was one of my best ever games at senior level. I scored six or seven points that day and really felt that the extra training was beginning to work. We then beat Down in the Ulster final that year. My direct opponent was Paddy Kennedy, somebody who I had weighed up as they had beaten us in a league play off a couple of years beforehand. That turned out to be his last game for the county. We then beat Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, thirty years after my father had played for Tyrone in their first ever All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. I scored three points and was pulled down for the late penalty, which Kevin McCabe scored. Looking back on the final we perhaps got carried away a bit in the build-up to it but at the end of the day it was the first time that Tyrone had made it that far. It was very disappointing to be seven or eight clear and still not win the game. I believe that we would have won it if both Eugene McKenna and John Lynch had not got injured. Any other side might have hit back against us with a few points but I don’t think another side would have got the goals that they did. There is no doubt that the Kerry side of the 1975 to 1986 era was the best ever, as they proved time and time again.
Q: Didn’t you win an All Star award later that year?
A: Yes I was full forward. It was a great honour to win it but of course I only benefited from the rest of the team’s efforts. I had previously been nominated in 1980 at left half forward, where I came up against Pat Spillane and Tom Prendergast.
Q: What can you recall of your next appearance in an Ulster final in 1988?
A: It was in 1988 after we had beaten Armagh in the semi-final at Irvinestown to gain revenge for them beating us at the same venue and the same stage twelve months previously. Monaghan were our opponents in the final and we played poorly on the day. Things just didn’t go our way and I remember the ball bouncing off Aidan Skelton for their goal. Aidan was a brilliant keeper, the best that I ever played alongside.
Q: What about the clash in the first round with Armagh in 1989 at Omagh?
A: That was the day of the famous row in the tunnel when John Lynch got hit. We got to the changing rooms and were trying to calm things down when Eugene McKenna got up and spoke and two or three of the more senior men backed him up. We sorted things out in the second half. Kevin McCabe was brilliant that day and my club team-mate Ciaran Corr got our goal.
Q: Who did you meet after that?
A: We met Down at Castleblayney. John Lynch was sent off early on but Tyrone responded with a brilliant display. Harry McClure was outstanding in the middle of the field and his brother Mickey was brilliant up front. I got a goal that day when a shot from Kevin McCabe came back off the post high up and I punched it to the net. McCabe always maintained that it was a pass!
Q: What about the ’89 Ulster final against Donegal?
A: It was played in sweltering heat and we were nearly beaten the first day. I remember we trailed by a point with time running out and I remember praying that I would get the ball as I knew exactly what I was going to do. The ball did come to me and I took it over the halfway line and just went on, waiting for the first contact. When it came, down I went and won the free that Stephen Conway converted off the post to earn us a draw. I would have to say that referee Michael Greenan was very kind to me that day! In the replay we got a couple of early goals and that set us on the road to victory. McKenna swapped passes with me before he gave it back and I palmed it into the net. I have always said to Eugene since that he was afraid to go for the goal himself.
Q: How disappointing was it to lose to Mayo in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final?
A: It was very disappointing as it was a good chance for us to reach another final. We should have won the game but we hadn’t done enough training in preparation for it and some of the older players were carrying injuries and in truth we were probably getting too old at that stage.
Q: Did you ever captain Tyrone at senior level?
A: I captained the side in the first round of the Ulster championship against Derry in Omagh in 1991, but we were beaten on the day and that was the one and only time that I had the honour of doing so.
Q: Did you play in the 1992 national league final against Derry?
A: Yes I did and that was a huge disappointment to have lost the way that we did. We were the better side on the day and that was another national trophy that slipped through our grasp.
Q: When did you play your last game for Tyrone?
A: A week later against the same opponents in the first round of the 1992 Ulster championship at Celtic Park. I was taken off at half time and I knew myself that it was time to go. When Eugene McKenna took over he asked me about considering a return but I’m glad that I decided not to.
Q: Have you any regrets from your playing career?
A: Not one. I loved every minute of it and made some great friends both on and off the field. The only thing I would say is that the Tyrone players at that time, I feel, could have been better looked after and when I say that, I don’t mean by the managers.
Q: Have you any funny moments from your county career to look back upon?
A: In 1989 when we beat Armagh in Omagh Kevin McCabe was brilliant that day. He must have scored seven or eight points from frees and he had won most of them himself. The next night at training he asked Art what he thought of the free taking the day before. Art asked him what he was talking about and McCabe said “the free taking, wasn’t it good?” (McCabe always fancied himself as a free taker). Art told him that he didn’t see it as he was afraid to look every time that he took one! That was confidence for you!
Q: Who were the best Tyrone players that you ever played with?
A: Peter Canavan, Frank McGuigan, Eugene McKenna, Kevin McCabe, John Lynch and Plunkett Donaghy. That list is not in any particular order!
Q: How many Railway Cup medals did you win?
A: I won two. 1989 was the first in a side that also included Eugene McKenna.
I came on as a sub to win my second two years later. The first final that I played in was back in 1980 when we lost after extra-time to Connacht.
Q: Did you enjoy your career with Coalisland?
A: Absolutely. I came back from Cork in 1984 and that was the same year that we won the Intermediate league and championship double without losing a single game. In 1989 we lifted the O’Neill Cup when we beat Ballygawley in the final at Omagh and that was the ultimate success at club level. Martin O’Neill captained that side. That was the best year of my life as I also won an Ulster championship medal, a Railway Cup medal and my first son Tiernan was born. He arrived at five o’clock on All-Ireland final day just as the Cork captain was lifting the Sam Maguire. In the Ulster club championship we beat Newbridge and Armagh Harps but lost in the final to Scotstown at the Athletic Grounds. I missed that game as I had broken my collarbone in the semi-final win over the Harps. Frankie Devlin was missing that day as well and he was a massive loss for us. We won the league that year as well. Twelve months later we retained the O’Neill Cup when we beat Omagh in the final. That same year we went to Toronto on what was a brilliant club trip. We were only home a week when we had to play Omagh in the league decider at Pomeroy and I remember Seamus Bonner won it for them with a superb free kick from out on the wing. In 1991, we were denied three-in-a-row by neighbours Clonoe. We had reached the final that year with comfortable wins over Moy, Dromore and Moortown and we were really jumping out of our skins. If it had been anybody else, other than the O’Rahillys, we would have won that final. A couple of weeks after the final we got a bit of revenge when we beat them at their place to win the league again. We only needed a draw to win it and we trailed by a point near the end. Ciaran Corr won a free in front of the posts and as I went to take it I slipped and my shot went all the way to the net. Some of the players quit that season too young and we lost our way after that. I played on with Coalisland until 1998.
Q: Did you ever give up in the belief that Tyrone would one day win the Sam Maguire Cup?
A. In spite of the many frustrations along the way, I never gave up that belief. There have been many highs and lows during my career – but at no time would I have given up on the ultimate dream.
Q: Would you agree that the 2002 national league success was a major psychological victory for Tyrone?
A: That was a very important title for Tyrone. That win got ‘the monkey off our back.’ We’d come close before, but to actually win a senior national title was very important for the players and the supporters.
Q: Can you describe how you felt when Peter Canavan finally climbed the steps in Croke Park in 2003 to bring the long wait to an end?
A: It’s not easy to put into words the emotions of that day. It was a marvellous feeling, especially as I was standing alongside my father, John Joe, who was on the first team to bring the Ulster title to Tyrone – in 1956. It was probably even sweeter for the older folk – the end of a very long and frustrating wait. I’ve lost out in several All-Ireland finals, at various grades, through my career – that day in 2003 was a consolation of sorts for all those defeats.
Q: Did you come across any of your old county colleagues on that day?
A: I was actually with Kevin McCabe at the game. A few of us met up behind the stands before the game, but McCabe and John Lynch were the two men I had most contact with on the day. It was a great occasion for everyone with Tyrone blood – probably a wee bit moreso for the people who had represented Tyrone down through the years. It was great coming out of Croke Park, where some Tyrone supporters were cheering and roaring at us. They’d probably shared in our good and bad times – and it really made us feel part of what was going on that day. I suppose Peter’s speech included us all in the victory – those supporters outside the ground seemed to echo Peter’s sentiments.
Q: And finally, Damian, can you ever see a day when you lose interest in football, or is it in the blood forever?
A. I love going to see Tyrone and I love watching football, but I get the greatest satisfaction at the present time from coaching. There’s never a day passes that football doesn’t come into the equation somewhere. I think it’s something that’s in your blood for life – and sure, where would we be without it?