AFTER waiting over 25 years for Sunday’s historic arrival in Derry senior football, it took only 120 seconds for Steelstown Brian Ogs to realise what will be expected of them this season.
Michael Wilson was at Pairc Bhrid
Photographs: Stephen Latimer
That was how long it took last year’s Championship finalists, Kilrea, to extend what will become a familiar welcome to Hugh McGrath’s young side. Two minutes was all it took for Liam Morrow’s men to hit the target three times as the experienced triumvirate of Charlie Kielt, James Donaghy and Sean McMahon set about teaching the ‘new kids’ a few home truths about playing at this level.
Inside those opening seconds Ciaran Og O’Kane, Lee Kennedy and Tiernan Rafferty shot over the bar against a home 15 that appeared to have been caught up in the sense of occasion that prevailed around the Ballyarnett venue. Donaghy was dominant in the air, Kielt surging forward at every opportunity and the Brian Ogs back line were struggling badly against a lively Kilrea attack who were relishing the good service they were receiving
Kennedy’s second point and a Enda McAleese free had the visitors five points to the good with 12 minutes on the clock and Steelstown looked shell-shocked. Step forward Stephen Cleary to turn sharply and register Steelstown’s first point in Derry senior football and suddenly the complexion changed.
That first point was quickly followed by Cleary and Steelstown’s second after good work from Devine and came only moments after Kilrea keeper Paul Morgan almost dropped a high centre into his own net. It was a different game and the teams went tit-for-tat on the scoreboard for its remainder but the damage had already been done. The gap would never close beyond two points but those remaining 47 minutes could yet prove pivotal in Brian Ogs’ season.
The opening 13 minutes suggested a side not fully prepared for the rigours of senior football. The 47 minutes that followed dispelled that notion. The opening quarter suggested inexperience would be found out by experience. The last three quarters suggested inexperience can learn quickly.
In short, those opening minutes suggested Steelstown were out of their depth. The Brian Ogs players spent the rest of the game proving they weren’t. And they succeeded.
In the end Kilrea had just enough to carry them over the line but that opening salvo was crucial and eventually it proved the difference between the teams.
Both sides were missing key attackers, Danny Jackson out with a hamstring problem which could keep him out for a couple of weeks for the home side and county star James Kielt missing for Kilrea due to university examinations.
The loss of Jackson saw Steelstown employ Ryan Devine alongside Cleary in a two-man forward line with Aidan Cleary slightly withdrawn but too often they were starved of decent ball or it was too slow reaching them which allowed Kilrea to funnel back and protect their early lead.
When Steelstown threatened to eat into their lead, Kilrea had the experienced campaigners in key areas who knew how to slow a game down and, more crucially, how to expertly navigate that thin football-line between right and wrong. On more than one occasion a Steelstown runner was blocked off-the-ball. Good defending or cynical tactics depending on which dug-out you were sat in.
Kilrea knew who the city dangermen were. Special attention was given to Neil Forrester and Mickey McKinney any time they ventured forward. Indeed Forrester picked up one of the strangest bookings imaginable after Donaghy hauled him to the floor with a neck high tackle as he sped forward in the second half. The Steelstown man’s crime appeared to be he didn’t lie down under the challenge because when referee Mervyn McAleese went for his pocket it was Forrester who was shown yellow.
Stephen Cleary again demonstrated his ability to take scores at any level and Brian Ogs must endeavour to make sure his return from Amsterdam for the game is not a one-off event. Midfield was a concern early on but with Darren McDaid and Stephen McCauley both only back from injury and vastly improved after half-time, there was enough to suggest they can hold their own against most teams but winning breaking ball will be an important part of the season ahead.
Kilrea, even without James Kielt, always looked like they had just enough to carry them over the line. In Charlie Kielt and Donaghy they had two of the game’s best performers and they possessed a full-forward line who all hit the scoreboard.
Following those opening exchanges which Steelstown will hope were down to first day nerves, it was a very even affair. The introduction of Tony Ling in the 20th minute steadied the Brian Ogs backline but you can’t give a team that sort of start at this level.
Cleary’s second point had brought it back to 0-05 to 0-02 by 15 minutes but Kilrea immediately responded through Brendan McKay and a McAleese free. Two further frees from Cleary reduced the deficit once more before Patrick McNeill finished a superb solo by scoring from an acute angle and Kilrea led 0-08 to 0-04. A surging run by Forrester down the left then set-up Mark Brennan to score and Steelstown would certainly have taken the 0-08 to 0-05 half-time score after the first two minutes.
The home side upped the tempo after the break but it was the visitors who were first to trouble the scoreboard with an O’Kane point one minute in. Ten minutes later the same player made it double scores as Steelstown’s inability to translate possession into points began to look terminal.
It was 0-11 to 0-5 when McAleese was again given too much room but four points in succession, including a superb shot from substitute Gary Cunningham with his first touch, breathed new life into the city challenge. That score was followed by Devine and Aidan Cleary both finding the target with excellent shots. Then when McKinney drove forward from deep to set up Stephen Cleary for 0-11 to 0-9 it looked like the city men might just pull off an unlikely comeback.
It wasn’t to be and just when Kilrea needed someone to settle their nerves, Charlie Kielt stepped forward. After taking a quick free to substitute Eamon Morgan and receiving the return, the county player hit a fantastic 45m point to make sure, at three points, Kilrea had a sufficient cushion with Steelstown never threatening a goal.
Credit to the home side though they pushed to the end with another Cleary free cancelling out a fine individual effort from Kilrea full-back Liam Morrow.
The final whistle brought with it understandable disappointment but rather than signal the end, it is likely to mark the start of what will be tough battle ahead but the second half suggested it is one they are ready for.
Points will be hard to come by and home advantage must be used to the maximum but in defeat, Hugh McGrath may have just discovered that his side has the resilience to survive at this level.
Steelstown Brian Ogs: Marty Dunne; Chris Beales, Kevin Lindsay; Jamie Feeney, Paul O’Hea, Neil Forrester, Micky McKinney; Darren McDaid, Stephen McCauley; Conan Doherty, Mark Brennan (0-1), Liam Heffernan; Aidan Cleary (0-1), Stephen Cleary (0-6, 3f), Ryan Devine (0-1). (Subs) Tony Ling for J Feeney, 20mins; Gary Cunningham (0-1) for C Doherty, 48mins; Brian Scallan for M Brennan, 59mins.
Kilrea: Paul Morgan; Brian Og McAlary, Liam Morrow (0-1), Jonathon Nelson; John Darragh, Charlie Kielt (0-1), Michael McWilliams; James Donaghy, Sean McMahon; Tiernan Rafferty (0-1), Ciaran Og O’Kane (0-3), Brendan McKay (0-1); Patrick McNeill (0-1), Enda McAleese (0-3, 2f), Lee Kennedy (0-2). (Subs) Eamon Morgan for B McKay, 39mins; Eamonn Darragh for J Nelson, 51mins; Denver Johnston for J Donaghy, 62mins.
Referee: Mervyn McAleese.