At almost 39, the incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon may have entered the twilight period of her exceptional inter-county career but the initials COH seem set to be appearing on items of Armagh ladies gaelic gear for many years yet.
That’s because strapping prospect Caitriona O’Hagan, a Carrickcruppen clubmate of her hero O’Hanlon, has shown enough in the orange jersey this season to suggest she has a very bright future for the Orchard outfit.
It has been an exciting 2023 so far on the football field for the affable, likeable and straightforward O’Hagan, a first year Environmental Health student at Ulster University Jordanstown, who has rattled the Croke Park crossbar amongst other things!
She was a key figure for UUJ as they won the Yoplait Giles Cup in early March, a final made all the more memorable by being played in what is said to be the world’s largest air-dome, the jewel in the crown of Connacht GAA’s Centre of Excellence in county Mayo.
Having hit two cracking points in the penultimate regular league game against Westmeath at the Athletic Grounds, O’Hagan was handed a surprise start in April’s NFL Division Two final against Laois which resulted in Armagh’s first victory at Croke Park in more than a decade.
The 19-year-old wasn’t in the run-on line-up when the Orchard crew faced Cavan in a curtain-raiser to last month’s men’s Ulster final, but the silver lining of coming off the bench that day was playing in front of a Clones crowd which had swelled to five-figure proportions.
O’Hagan was the first sub used in the subsequent Ulster showpiece against Donegal at Owenbeg and took responsibility by driving over a great point to level the scores, though unfortunately the off-colour orangewomen went on to relinquish their provincial crown.
However, Armagh remain realistic contenders going into what looks like the most open All Ireland Senior Championship in many years and no doubt young O’Hagan will be an important part of McCormack’s plans this summer.
A friendly young woman with a modest disposition, O’Hagan is someone who seems comfortable in her own skin and grateful for the experiences she has had on her footballing journey so far including those highs of the past few months.
“I really enjoyed uni football this past winter. It was a new experience, playing with girls from a range of counties, and our squad was a mix of fresh faces and others who had been there for several years along with the management,” she reflects.
“I suppose university teams change every year, but you get to spend a fair bit of time together so there’s a chance to bond as a group and to work on things, though there’s also a fair bit of freedom to express yourself.
“We hadn’t actually won many matches all season but after edging our semi against DCU Seconds, who had hammered us in the league, we were quietly confident for the final and felt that we’d got our structure together and really knew our roles.”
Managed by current Tyrone boss Sean O’Kane and Lurgan man Tommy Coleman, UUJ thumped Munster Technological University Kerry (MTUK) in the decider, helped on their way by a seventh minute O’Hagan goal shortly after she had raised a white flag.
A great run was followed by a magnificent finish from the centre half forward and the fresher ended up with 1-3 to her name after an impressive performance for an outfit featuring four other Armagh representatives as UUJ won 4-14 to 1-9.
“It was a nice novelty playing in The Dome, it’s an amazing venue with a very different feel to it, and now we’ve special memories from winning there. It will be an exciting challenge facing all the top teams next season when we move up to the (top tier) O’Connor Cup.”
O’Hagan first came to attention at adult level a few years ago as a promising prospect playing in midfield for Carrickcruppen alongside her idol O’Hanlon, and already looking physically capable aged just 16.
“I grew up watching Carrickcruppen playing in county finals, so it was exciting to go from supporter to team member. My mum has a photo of me all pleased to be beside Caroline at a big breakfast and it has been a privilege getting to play alongside her.
“Coming into the Cruppen team at such a young age could have been daunting but the girls were lovely and I was well looked after. I’m fortunate enough to have played in three senior county finals already but am still looking for that first winners’ medal.”
O’Hagan has a strong age group county football background, initially as part of an Armagh team captained by this season’s other Orchard breakout star Emily Druse, which reached the All Ireland Under 14 B final back in 2017.
“It’s a great grounding because coming up you learn that being good at your club is only a first step. You have to fight for your place and deal with challenges and it all helps develop patience and resilience along with improving your football.
“The pandemic came along and that put things on hold a bit but there were positives which came from that period including more matches being streamed and the excitement for football getting going again after those long lockdowns.”
A member of the Armagh Minors team which won their subsidiary Ulster Championship last season, O’Hagan got her first taste of adult inter-county football and the opening point of her senior Orchard career came in the provincial semi against Monaghan in Clones.
“It’s class. Getting to pull that orange jersey on is something I’d always dreamed about. I’ve been inspired by the great role models in my own club and being around the Armagh underage teams since my first year in St Paul’s (High School) has whetted the appetite too.
“Because of following Caroline and others, I’d have watched Armagh matches growing up so being asked onto the panel was a privilege. It could have been daunting but the girls are all lovely and they push you on in a positive way.
“The standard at Armagh is amazing with so many quality players. You just learn so much, both by listening and watching. It’s exceptionally competitive but that has made me want to improve myself and keep developing as a player.
“These past few months have been very enjoyable because they’ve shown that, if you work hard, you will get your chance. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, for the faith shown by management and the encouragement of fellow players.”
The versatile O’Hagan got her first Armagh start at the beginning of February against Monaghan in Middletown when she played in defence but, helped by prolific feats for UUJ, has subsequently been deployed in the forwards.
“Shane had said at training that they’d put me in as a back for a challenge game against Antrim. They felt I’d done well enough in that so I was selected in defence for that Monaghan match,” she explains.
“I’m maybe more of a forward in my own mind but obviously you’d happily play anywhere for your county and being versatile means more openings. But then I scored 5-3 in the Giles Cup quarter-final against Trinity, which Dearbhla Coleman mentioned at Armagh training.”
Caitriona’s next start came at half forward, when she showed her scoring capacity by hitting those superb points against Westmeath, and that performance paved the way for featuring from the off in Croke Park a few weeks later.
“It was good to get on the scoreboard. Everyone has to stand up and do their job, so even as a young player it’s important to back yourself. When you do something good, the girls give you a pat on the back and it increases confidence for future matches.”
The Armagh management must have been impressed because O’Hagan got the nod to start the crunch NFL Division Two final against Laois when the Orchard crew were playing for the title, trophy and all-important promotion back to the top flight after a six-year absence.
“We were training on the Thursday night and Shane named the team in the changing rooms. I was sitting listening and hearing my name at the end was a special moment. (Clubmates) Caroline and Anna (Carr) were buzzing for me and it was nice telling my mum and dad.
“You’re excited but there’s responsibility too because it was such a big game for the team. But you have to take confidence from management having the faith to pick you and I knew I could count on the support of experienced players around me.
“I was on the panel for last year’s Division Two final, so had experienced Croke Park in that general sense, arriving on the team bus and so forth, but realistically I wasn’t going to feature in that match and it’s very different when you know you’re starting.”
After taking part in the traditional pre-match parade, O’Hagan got her hands on the ball early, which helped settle her into it and four Armagh goals in the first nine minutes made for a less stressful afternoon that might otherwise have been the case.
“It was a good occasion but winning was everything for us so although it wasn’t our best performance, it was great to get the result. Some of our very experienced players hadn’t won in Croke Park before so I’m really lucky to get that so early in my career.
“The good days make any of the so-called sacrifices feel worthwhile, the times you can’t go out with your friends because you’ve got training, or all the hard slog in pre-season. You just have to keep putting in the work and hope the rewards will come.
“I tried to take everything in at Croke Park and it was amazing getting to play in front of a fantastic crowd in Clones since then but you have to zone in and not be distracted from doing your job by seeing so many people pouring into the ground.
“You can feed off the support but, whatever the occasion, it’s always a game of football first and foremost so you have to stay focused on that, work hard and try to execute the gameplan because, if you don’t win, the memories won’t mean much.”
The night after that Clones clash with Cavan, O’Hagan was back playing an Armagh league game for Carrickcruppen and made some surging runs, reflective of a big, powerful athlete with a good turn of pace, playing with confidence and looking like a county footballer.
“It was good being back with Cruppen, and even at underage level I feel that players involved in county can bring benefits back to their club. Whether it’s working hard at Armagh training or being effective for club, it’s important to keep pushing hard and proving myself.”
Few aspiring players are lucky enough to work with a mentor of O’Hanlon’s calibre, but O’Hagan is also blessed to have former Armagh manager Fionnuala McAtamney as her club boss, with wise words and even the odd bit of tough love when needed.
It’s evidence of O’Hagan’s rapid personal development that the club has got her involved in coaching in local schools, something she enjoys, and no doubt those young girls will be watching closely as Armagh attempt to bounce back from their Ulster final loss.