OPINION: Steelstown BLUEprint can be way forward for future City GAA success
Must have been around 1pm. I’m not normally nervous about the events I cover; even those, like Sunday’s final, in which the charade of impartiality goes out the window. But this time I was. Sunday felt different.
The flags that passed on the motorway were all blue and yellow but they just as easily could have been the red and green of Pearses, the red and white of Dolan’s, the blue of Culmore or the black and amber of Colmcille - Hugh McGrath’s team were representing Derry, but more specifically they were representing city GAA and showcasing a potential many have scoffed at down the years.
Their memorable Derry and Ulster triumphs were already tangible proof but suddenly the whole country was paying attention to Gaelic Games in Derry city thanks to a group of hard working lads from Pairc Bhrid. The mistake many make when a remarkable achievement like Steelstown’s is suddenly thrust on to their screens is to underestimate the work that has gone into it. Journalists search for that key moment when things ‘changed’, the catalyst that sparked a series of events so historic that they will be rightly celebrated for decades to come by everyone at the Brian Ogs.
But there isn’t one. No single epiphany exists. This isn’t Hollywood. There was no ‘big bang’ moment for Hugh McGrath’s squad; no Rocky style high tempo rock montage of Ben McCarron and Kevin Lindsay running up and down Ballyarnett Park’s hills in the snow.
As ‘Fo’ said in a speech that is likely to have sent shudders down every county and club captain in Ireland who must be thinking, ‘How do I follow that?’, Steelstown’s was a triumph built more on hard work than on skill. And not just the hard work of a sublimely talented squad of players.
Watching the celebrations in Croke Park and at Pairc Bhrid over the weekend, my mind couldn’t help but wander back to 2010 in Celtic Park, 2016 in Owenbeg and 2020 in Bellaghy. It could have wandered further to 2003 and a Junior Final defeat to Glen Thirds. Difficult days but those defeats in finals were setbacks, they weren’t losses because Steelstown have known loss.
Loss is Brian Og McKeever, immortalised as the ‘true captain of Steelstown’ thanks to Forester’s brilliant and poignant Croke Park address. Loss is Charlene Griffiths or the ‘Mother Steelstown’ as she was known to her club mates, team-mates and the hundreds of young girls she inspired to play Gaelic Football, and not just with Steelstown. Hearing those names mentioned from the Hogan Stand, or broadcast in the national media where their stories now reside thanks to the success of McGrath’s team, is worth even more to Steelstown than the Kieran O’Sullivan Cup - or the Derry Senior Ladies Championship title for that matter!
Stories about this team will resonate for as long as Steelstown exists but watching Chairman Paul O’Hea beam with pride on Sunday, I couldn’t help but recall his 2010 squad who lost out to Castledawson in the club’s first Intermediate final. The rights and wrongs of that particular defeat wrangled with the club for quite a while after but their reaction to the heart wrenching one point defeat said so much about a mentality that eventually brought them to Croke Park.
One thing most would agree about 2010 though was that the squad of O’Hea, Marty Dunne, Aidan Cleary, Stephen Cleary, Mick Moore, Liam Heffernan, Darren McDaid, Eamon Gibson, James Jackson, Gary Cunningham, Dan Jackson et al had at least one Intermediate Championship in them, possibly more. The interesting thing about that squad though, with Hugh McGrath, now in charge, having been a player the previous year, was they took the collective decision following that Celtic Park defeat to make promotion to Division One and senior football their priority, something not many GAA clubs would have done.
They were pushing themselves and the club, comfortable in the knowledge that they were probably sacrificing their own championship medals. It wasn’t about them as a group of players, it was about THEIR club and putting it at Derry’s top table for the first time, something they achieved so memorably in O’Cahan Park against Newbridge.
They had some notable victories, including a senior championship win over Magherafelt and held their own for a couple of seasons but not even the most optimistic Steelstown supporters was expecting a senior championship challenge at that time and it didn’t come.
What did arrive though was heightened ambition and a desire to push for the top even if it was never going to happen in the short term of the individual players’ careers. O’Hea and his team-mates set a standard that the young players at the club were watching and even if the club had to eventually drop back down a division, the die had been cast for the likes of Eoghan Concannon, Eoghan Bradley and McCarron.
That exposure, watching their senior team regularly take on the likes of Slaughtneil, Ballinderry and Lavey normalised something which, at that time in the city, was anything but normal. It destroyed any inferiority complex that the club didn’t belong among such names and was reflected in the underage sides making the step to A grade football.
It all meant Sunday had been coming. Fuelled by those losses, those setbacks and the determination and long term vision of so many who had the club as their priority, even over personal success, this was no flash in the pan success. The good fortune side of the Steelstown story was having a group coming through whose talent matched that work ethic. Well, that and a certain Saul native bumping into O’Hea, Dunne and Cleary at Queen’s where he managed the Freshers team.
Steelstown deserve every accolade that has been coming their way and it’s a uniquely GAA phenomenon that their success becomes not only Derry’s, but the city’s success. In few other sports will you see intense rivalries set aside the way they are in Gaelic Games when another club is in pursuit of a greater goal.
And Steelstown’s success can be the city’s, and the county’s too for that matter. The Brian Ogs blueprint is no great secret. There’s no magic formula. It’s hard work and a ‘club first’ mentality and the other city clubs are already up and running with underage numbers rising all the time and facilities ever improving.
But back to the M1. It’s shortly after 1pm now and Dublin is in the distance. We’re almost two hours out from throw in when suddenly the wind and rain that has battered me from Derry through Omagh and on past Aughnacloy comes to a shuddering stop. The skies turn blue, there’s even a hint of yellow as the sun tries to make an appearance.
Yep, Sunday’s not going to be a bad day after all.
IN PICTURES: The All Ireland Champions come home!