Tyrone great Damian O’Hagan on the importance of seizing All-Ireland final day above all others

All Ireland Football Final 21/9/1986
Damien O’Hagan of Tyrone and Tommy Doyle of Kerry ©INPHO/Billy Stickland (Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

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Damian O'Hagan knows what it is to lose an All-Ireland final. Worse, he knows what it is to lose one that was in his team's grasp.

"I've played the game over a million times in my head," he admits.

Before the Mickey Harte era brought the breakthrough triumph in 2003, followed by the subsequent All-Ireland title wins in 2005 and '08, there were near misses for Tyrone.

The O'Hagans endured their fair share of the heartache and the pain. John Joe, Damian's father, played for the Red Hands in All-Ireland semi-finals won by Galway and by Louth in 1956 and '57 respectively.

Then Damian himself played in Tyrone's loss to Kerry in the 1986 final, his performances that year earning him an AllStar and a place in Ireland's International Rules series win over Australia.

Three years later, he was part of the Red Hands team that won Ulster again, only to fall to today's final opponents Mayo in the All-Ireland semis.

When Tyrone finally made the breakthrough 18 years ago, John Joe and Damien were present at Croke Park.

"The greatest sporting day of my life, to be there for that victory with my father, the man who lived to play for Tyrone, and for me too, after playing 14 years for the county at senior level," he told MirrorSport.

"To see Peter Canavan lift the Sam Maguire Cup was a dream to Tyrone people. So many who would follow the team to Timbuktu and back to watch them play.

"It was the fear that we were never going to see an All-Ireland win. The wait had gone on for so long. That day was absolutely sensational."

Tyrone captain Peter Canavan lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2003
(Image: ©INPHO/Patrick Bolger)

Nevertheless O'Hagan has never quite got over his own side's final defeat.

Tyrone let slip a seven point lead as Mick O'Dwyer squeezed one more All-Ireland triumph out of the Kingdom's golden generation.

"The way teams handle it today, the whole preparation around it, has completely changed," said the 61-year-old.

"The euphoria around the team then was magnificent and it was something we had to deal with. We were maybe beaten by the second best team of all-time, after the Dublin team of the last number of years.

"We probably got Kerry at the end of their time but we just couldn't finish it off. These days, teams pack the defence to hold out."

O'Hagan will never forget what John Joe said to him before his first ever All-Ireland semi-final.

He was 15 and the Tyrone minors were to face Kerry and before leaving the house his father, a legend of the game in the county, advised, 'Remember, give it your best, empty yourself, because you may never be back'.

Kerry, with Jack O'Shea and several other future greats on board, beat Tyrone. But those words never left him.

Damian O'Hagan in action for Tyrone in 1988
(Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

They resonated as Damian graduated to senior level and fell just short at All-Ireland level, although he did win three Ulster titles.

"So it's something I would say to the Tyrone lads now," he stressed. "It's about doing everything to make it happen this time for yourself.

"This is the holy grail of Gaelic Football so it's about giving it your all, knowing that it could be your only or your last chance to lift the Sam Maguire."

O'Hagan says his biggest fear is that Tyrone fall into the trap that they have already played their final in overcoming Kerry, but is confident that won't be the case.

"I know for sure that Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan will have guarded against that and that it won't have crept into the camp, I expect that they are very focused and know they have a serious job to do against a strong Mayo team," he commented.

"Mayo were behind for 60 minutes against Dublin but still prevailed but you have to wonder where Dublin were at this year, although you could ask the same about Kerry, who couldn't live with Tyrone's will to win, their commitment and heart.

"It was as gritty a performance as any I'd seen from a Tyrone team.

"Everyone has their opinion around the added week given to Tyrone but they came to Croke Park as complete underdogs – and the Kerry man doesn't take that easy.

"The press had all been looking for that Dublin-Kerry final and didn't get it, and so people weren't happy."

The last time Tyrone were this close was three years ago, when after a good start they were swatted aside by Dublin.

"Tyrone were massive underdogs and in a way it was expected around the country that they would be beaten," O'Hagan said.

"But I think this could be a really close final. The mood in Tyrone is fantastic, the villages are all done up and the atmosphere is sensational. I can't wait."

Damian O'Hagan during his time as Coalisland manager
(Image: ©INPHO/Declan Roughan)

During the week, O'Hagan was on a Young Melbourne GAA podcast to preview the All-Ireland final with Donie Buckley and John Maughan.

One argument from Buckley, who previously coached Mayo, and former Mayo manager Maughan – now Offaly's supremo – stood out for the Tyrone man.

"They kept bringing it to the edge shown by Tyrone, to the black cards (in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Kerry)," said O'Hagan.

"But Mayo are no saints either.

"A lot of people I meet all over Ireland through work fancy Mayo big time and they're entitled to, James Horan has effortlessly put together a new squad and they bring a high intensity and speed to the game, and a lot of hard work."

But he has a good feeling about Tyrone.

"It's a massive task but what I like is that they spread their scores throughout the team, especially through the backline, while other teams depend on a few players to get the scores," O'Hagan assessed.

"I definitely fancy Tyrone but it wouldn't surprise me if it goes to a replay."

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