Steelstown and The Latest Championship Crusade!

McFeely Group Derry Intermediate Football Championship Final (Saturday, Ballymaguigan, 2pm)
Saturday will be a fourth Intermediate Championship final appearance for Steelstown stalwart Neil Forester. (Photo: George Sweeney)Saturday will be a fourth Intermediate Championship final appearance for Steelstown stalwart Neil Forester. (Photo: George Sweeney)
Saturday will be a fourth Intermediate Championship final appearance for Steelstown stalwart Neil Forester. (Photo: George Sweeney)

Movie buffs may recall the finale to Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade.

After an epic adventure, the Holy Grail is finally within touching distance though our hero has already seen more than one would-be claimant fail to secure the prize in front of them. The stakes are huge, it’s all or nothing, a bit like traditional championship football in fact.

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Saturday’s Derry Intermediate final may be more ‘latest’ than last crusade for Steelstown Brian Ogs but manager Hugh McGrath will appreciate Indy’s predicament, especially as the booby trap standing between the Ballyarnett club and the Bateson, Sheridan and Lee trophy is almost as potent as those facing Spielberg’s hero, albeit much more transparent in the form of reigning champions, Greenlough.

Since its formation in 1987, Steelstown has yet to lift a senior championship title. It’s a statistic that’s constantly aimed at one of the county’s most progressive clubs, a bat others like to use to remind them of their place at times. There has been no lack of talent, nor opportunity to scrub it from the record, notably in the Intermediate finals of 2011, 2016 and 2020 but the wait goes on.

Now, in the best traditions of Hollywood, the men in blue are back off the canvas and ready to slug it out once more, determined to ensure ‘County Final 4’ becomes a sequel to remember for everyone at Pairc Bhrid.

“I suppose it is remarkable that we haven’t picked one up at this point but you can’t lie about these things, you can’t make any excuses for it, we haven’t finished the job off,” explained McGrath of Steelstown’s ‘elephant in the dressing room’, “Last year we were as close as we’ve ever been. We went four points up and then stumbled through the rest of the game but we still had enough scoring chances to get over the line.

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“People have asked about this ‘monkey’ on our back but we don’t really have that feeling around Steelstown. We think there is a championship going to come at some point, we just hope it is this one rather than having to wait for another chance late down the line.”

If Championship football was played out like sport on the silver screen, Steelstown would have already won one but ‘deserve’s got nothing to do’ with it to paraphrase a certain Mr. Eastwood and McGrath is fully aware anything won will have to be earned on Saturday.

“We are playing a team that are the current champions and have waltzed into the final so if anyone believes we are anything other than underdogs, I’m not sure what they are talking about,” he adds, “There is no better team over recent years at winning Intermediate championships than Greenlough so the pressure is firmly on us to make the jump.

“We have plenty of experience ourselves but we also have more inexperience than Greenlough in terms of the newer boys we have brought on this year, but that can also be a positive thing.

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Steelstown’s superb form this season has plenty seeking to install them as favourites for Saturday’s showpiece, a suggestion that has Co. Down native McGrath laughing.

“Favourites based on what? Greenlough have had no real test in this championship yet, you can’t even call the group stage a big test for them. We have had one very tough test which was more or less of our own making after we went to sleep for periods during the Castledawson game so I’m not sure if either team really knows where they are at but we’ll certainly find that out very quickly on Saturday once the game gets going.

“That will make it a good final, I think it will be open. Both teams have enough scoring power to have a real, proper go at it rather than some turgid game that no one interested in watching.

“In the group games, even though we were playing teams that we maybe looked comfortable against, we still racked up scores but so did Greenlough and that will carry through to the final. I think you will see a decent scoring game.”

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Scoring hasn’t always been a strong point for the Brian Ogs. Under Paddy Campbell’s tenure which brought them to the 2011 final, they were incorrectly labelled defensive, a back-handed compliment to their solid shape and hard working backline. Campbell’s ethos remains but where that side was perhaps over reliant on Stephen Cleary for scores, this year has seen McGrath’s attacking options explode with Morgan Murray, Cahir McMonagle, Mark Foley, Eoghan Badley, Oran Fox, Gareth Logue and Rory Maguire all vying for places alongside county man Ben McCarron. And that’s before you consider All Ireland winning minor Donnacha Gilmore or experienced duo Neil Forester and Mickey McKinney.

The depth has paid rich dividends with the Brian Ogs registering 11-62 in group games against Lissan, Limavady and Ballymaguigan, another 1-14 against Castledawson in the last eight and 2-19 in the semi-final stroll against Limavady.

“Our big focus this year was to get as many scoring forwards as possible. You are always looking and thinking, if games turn into a shoot-out, have we enough to compete and I think we now do. It’s something we needed to do and now I feel we have enough bodies, enough quality to keep us competitive in games,” adds McGrath

“Those last couple of league games we racked up decent scores, again in the group games we hit decent scores and even in the Castledawson game we came out with 15 scores and 15 scores is a good return against a very good outfit, especially a good championship outfit like ‘Dawson.

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“Will you ever stop the likes of Enda Lynn and Niall Loughlin getting at least three or four each per game? No, I don’t believe you will at Intermediate level so you have to be able to do it at the other end yourself. For us, it’s not all about stopping their marquee forwards, it’s about making sure we keep it tight but also leave enough room for our own forwards to go out and express themselves. Hopefully that’s enough to get us over the line.”

Both sides have been earmarked as potential champions before a ball was kicked. Last year Greenlough’s experience proved key amid the wind and rain of Bellaghy but there is very little between the two sides. Much is made of the threat of Lynn and Loughlin for Greenlough and rightly so, they can win games on their own but the role of players like Brian McCallion should never be underestimated.

No side has been able to lay a championship glove on either team as they bulldozed a path to the final but if Steelstown have learned the lessons of last year, there may yet be a happy ending to their championship saga.

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