FOR ANY Steelstown player in doubt about what the step up to senior football entails, Sunday’s visit of Tyrone Senior County champions, Dromore, provided the perfect answer.
Michael Wilson was at Celtic Park
Photographs: STEPHEN Latimer
The three point reversal won’t matter ahead of what will be a historic season for Brian Ogs but the manner of this Ulster League defeat might. Dromore arrived having won three Championship titles since 2007 and they weren’t at Celtic Park just to make up the numbers.
The opening 30 minutes had all the hallmarks of two sides feeling their way into a new season with players on both sides in unfamiliar positions but the intensity stepped up after the break, as did the ferocity of the tackles. So much so that Steelstown lost promising back Chris Beales to a suspected fractured jaw when he was elbowed by Dromore midfielder Barry Collins.
That, with the defeat, would have been enough to upset most managers but Hugh McGrath’s post-match demeanour didn’t suggest annoyance. If anything McGrath will have been privately delighted by his team’s response to the physical challenge laid in their path.
No-one in Ballyarnett is under any illusions about the step up they are about to take but Sunday suggested a club ready to fight for the right to play senior football.
“The most positive thing we can take from the game is that it showed we can be competitive against any team in our own back yard,” explained the Steelstown manager.
“Dromore had seven players starting that started last year’s Tyrone County Final and they brought another three on, that shows the calibre of the opposition and it was a very good work out for us.
“They weren’t going to do us any favours, they were coming here for a game and we have to expect the hits to be harder this year and the game to be faster. From that perspective, it was a very good workout for us.”
Both sides were considerably under strength with neither Ryan McMenamin nor Colm McCullugh in the visiting squad while Steelstown were without a host of normal starters. What that did though was present an opportunity for the younger players and most took full advantage.
Beales in particular was impressive, doing a decent job on Dromore dangerman, Eoin McCusker while Gareth Logue looked a lively prospect in around the forward line. In the absence of any recognised midfielders to partner Stephen McAuley, McGrath was forced to move Mickey McKinney in and the former Derry minor did not look out of place, even if the visitors probably shaded the middle third.
One aspect of play that will have caused McGrath concern though was his side’s inability to take chances. Logue formed a two-man full forward line with the hard-working Ryan Devine with Aidan Cleary and Gary Cunningham sitting deeper but only Cleary, with 0-3, got on the scoreboard despite some nice approach play.
The absence of Stephen Cleary was keenly felt although offset slightly by the second half introduction of Daniel Jackson who immediately set alarms bells ringing in the Dromore defence and helped himself to 0-2.
“The frustrating thing at the moment is we are doing everything well until the last third and that’s when you realise how you miss a player like Stephen Cleary, someone who makes that difference in the final third and who can get on the end of things,” conceded the Steelstown manager.
“Chris (Beales) had an excellent game and did very well on McCusker who is one of Dromore’s ‘go-to’ guys. It was a good test for Chris and the other younger players and none of them looked out of place.
“We moved a few players about. Mickey (McKinney) did well at midfield but he is a natural footballer. He hasn’t spent a lot of time there but his performance will give us options.”
After a nervous start in which both Aidan Cleary and Logue missed easy frees and Marty Dunne stopped a certain goal from Ciaran McCoy, Steelstown should have had a penalty when Logue was bundled over by Shane McMahon but appeals were waved away.
With the teams at 0-02 each, the visitor’s experience looked crucial as they moved through the gears to lead 0-7 to 0-3 at the break, a lead they extended to 0-8 on the restart when McCusker should really have hit the back of the net but could only blast over.
Steelstown’s revival coincided with Jackson’s introduction, the forward’s pace and eye for goal giving the city men a vital outlet for forward passes. Two scores from the substitute and another for Cleary had three between the teams with still a quarter of the game to go.
Collins was lucky to stay on the field for the clash with Beales with 10 minutes remaining but, with both defences on top, neither side was able to find the target for the remainder of the game although Conan Doherty was only inches away from a Jackson centre that could have brought the sides level in injury time.
Steelstown Brian Ogs: Martin Dunne; Chris Beales, Kevin Lindsay, Jamie Feeney; Neil Forrester, Paul O’Hea, Oran Sweeney (0-1); Stephen McAuley, Mickey McKinney; Aidan Cleary (0-3, 1f), Gareth Logue, Ryan Devine; Conan Doherty, Gary Cunningham, Liam Heffernan. (Subs) Daniel Jackson (0-2, 1f) for G Logue, 38mins; Pearse O’Doherty for O Feeney, 38mins; James Jackson for R Devine, 44mins; Rory O’Connor for N Forrester, 51mins;
Dromore, St Dympna’s: Peter Ward; Shane McMahon, Raymond McGoldrick, Ryan O’Neill; Emmett O’Neill (0-1), Thomas McKearn, Sean McNabb; Paddy Montague (0-2, 2f), Mathew McCaffrey; Ronan McNabb (0-1), Barry Collins, Ruairi Sludden; Colm McCrory, Ciaran McCoy, Eoin McCusker (0-5, 2f). (Subs) Sean Muldoon for S McNabb, H/T; Aaron McNulty for R Sludden, 37mins; John Taigue for E O’Neill, 46mins. Aaron Taggart for C Beales, 51mins.
Referee: Kieran McShea (Donegal).