Willie O’Hagan

Signed: April 1911 from Derry Celtic

Departed: Transferred to Airdrie in May 1921

Appearances: 191

Shut Outs: 47

  • Benefit/Testimonial match awarded
  • Record number of shut outs at the time
  • 2 official caps for Ireland
  • 1919 Victory Cup winner
  • Fought in WWI

The one word repeatedly used by the press in relation to Irish goalkeeper Willie O’Hagan was “cheerful”. It appears the keeper played the game with a smile on his face, but the numerous mentions also of his outstanding goalkeeping are probably more telling about how talented O’Hagan was, and it might just be he fitted in perfectly with the stereotype about players that decide to play in goals as being a bit different to the average footballer.

O’Hagan was signed from Irish club Derry Celtic in April 1911, and the young Donegal born man would become over the next few years the first truly great Saints goalkeeper, managing forty-seven shut outs in under two hundred appearances, which is the fourth highest in Saints history. However, the period O’Hagan played was prior to any defensive tactics really being deployed with the emphasis on scoring more than the opposition; therefore, his tally is quite brilliant.

The goalkeeper was born in the town of Buncrana, County Donegal in 1890 at the very North of a then unified Ireland under British rule, and although his place of birth sits in the Ulster province, it is part of the Republic of Ireland today.

As a boy, the youngster played junior football for St Columb’s college and the Derry Guild before joining Irish League side Derry Celtic in 1909. Two years later Saints spotted the keeper playing in a Junior international at Love Street and paid a small fee to take him over the Irish Sea to Paisley, where he instantly became a first team regular and an extremely popular player with the Saints support who had probably never seen such a fine custodian between the sticks in the previous twenty years of league football in Scotland, and at 6ft 1in he was a commanding presence in Saints side.

After appearing one hundred and eight times for Saints, O’Hagan decided in 1915 to help the World War I effort by enlisting for the Scottish Horse regiment of the Territorial Army, a home defence unit which was being stationed overseas as the 13th Battalion and Black Watch due to the scale of the War.

This meant as part of the Black Watch, O’Hagan and the Scottish Horse were deployed in the Greek city of Salonika in 1916 where a large Allied expeditionary force had been established to fight Bulgaria who had declared support of Germany and were engaging in genocide against the nearby Serbian population.

Nothing could sour the cheery disposition of O’Hagan however, and a letter from the goalkeeper to Saints trainer Charlie Durning in July 1917 was published by the Daily Record where he was enjoying time off in Greece (and using politically incorrect language to describe some recreational athletic events between fellow soldiers), but overall seemed to be enjoying the Greek life, minus the mosquitos.

O’Hagan Letter publised on 23rd July 1917 by the Daily Record.

Writing to Charlie Durning, the St Mirren trainer, Willie O’Hagan, the club’s clever young Irish goalkeeper, says –

“I am spending my close season holiday in Greece. That’s going some, eh? W R Applegarth is somewhere in Salonika, I believe, and ‘Darkey’ Eatman, the ‘ped’ has challenged him for three distances; 60 yards, 100 yards and 220 yards. I know who I would like to have my money on. Some of the boys here fancy Eatman for the dash. What do you think?

I am sure the St Mirren directors would be quite pleased with the play of their team last season, both from a playing and paying standpoint. I hear that George Elmore has been killed in France. Is that the case? Do you remember when George used to sing “Thora” in the Corn Exchange restaurant?

I have applied for a commision. Of course you know the procedure. The applicant, on his Colonel’s reccomendation is transferred to a cadet school and if succesfull is sent to France or somehwere else. I expect to hear about it soon.

The weather here is becoming extremely warm, and the mosquitos are very troublesome – believe me, Charlie, they can bite. So far, I am in the ‘pink’: indeed, I feel in better condition now than in pre-war days. Write me about next season’s prospects, and could you send me a pair of spiked shoes for running? Au Revoir, Billy”

Although Saints held O’Hagan’s registration, enlisted players were allowed to guest for other clubs when stationed elsewhere during the war, and the keeper had spells at Linfield, Blackburn Rovers and Third Lanark during periods back home on leave before finally returning to Paisley in 1919 where he played a pivotal part in securing the Victory Cup which replaced the Scottish Cup in celebration of the war ending.

Later in that year, O’Hagan made his international debut for Ireland (who were still playing as one nation during this period) at Wembley against England and early the following year in 1920 he added a second cap against Wales in February, however the keeper was controversially dropped from the Ireland squad for the Scotland match the following month when his uncle and fellow professional footballer Charlie O’Hagan claimed Aberdeen players had received £15 bribes to forfeit a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic in 1908, and to avoid controversy The Irish FA rather harshly dropped the Saints keeper.

With the structure of Ireland as an independent country not finalised, O’Hagan also played several times for the ‘Free State of Ireland’ which was not recognised officially in football circles, but by 1923 would become the Ireland known today, and Northern Ireland were also officially recognised as a separate football nation. However, these additional caps gained by the Saints keeper during this period of uncertainty have never been recognised.

Despite the actions of his uncle, O’Hagan’s reputation remained strong however, and Saints rejected a £1,000 bid from Millwall for his signature at the end of the 1919/20 season, worth around £50,000 today and considering the keeper was nearly thirty years of age when players typically retired back then, this was a considerable sum therefore his value to the side was clearly very significant.  

Later in 1920, O’Hagan had a benefit match at Love Street in April as Saints beat an Irish select 6-3, but the hero status wouldn’t last. Early in 1921 in proof that fickleness within any support existed a long time before today, the brilliant keeper sent a telegram to Love Street on the morning of the 22nd January 1921 to inform the club he would be unavailable for selection for the Scottish Cup first round tie against non-league Armadale due to the ‘barracking’ he had received from supporters the previous week during a 3-1 home defeat to Third Lanark.

It was a bold move by the keeper, and the 3-2 defeat that day to the non-league outfit is widely regarded as the poorest result in Saints history, and ensured O’Hagan would never play for the club again as John Cochrane had been forced to sign on very short notice the Albion Rovers reserve keeper who just happened to live on Love Street!

O’Hagan was transferred to Airdrie shortly after this ‘no show’ incident for a fraction of the £1,000 offered by Millwall just over a year beforehand, and then moved to Norwich City where he played until 1924 before returning to Ireland and signing for Fordsons where the big (mostly very admired) keeper played out the last years of a fine career.

Despite the rather sad ending to his time at Love Street, Willie O’Hagan was the benchmark for St Mirren goalkeepers and the standard was raised significantly in what the supporters, manager and club wanted between the sticks from the moment the Irishman set foot in Paisley. However, despite the ‘keeper leaving Saints close to one hundred years ago, only four goalkeepers have managed more clean sheets than the brilliant O’Hagan in the entire history of St Mirren, and as stated before he played in a period where defending wasn’t particularly focused on, in fact the starting XI only ever had two outright defenders in front of the keeper in the 2-3-5 formation. O’Hagan was and will always remain, the very first goalkeeping hero of the club.

Willie O’Hagan passed away in 1972 aged eighty two at home in Prescot, England.