Steelstown are Croke Park bound after defeating Na Gaeil to make All Ireland Final
Steelstown Brian Ogs 2-06, Na Gaeil (Kerry) 0-07
All aboard. . . . . next stop Croke Park!
A journey that began on September 5th 2021 with a routine, if low key, victory over Lissan in Pairc Bhrid will reach its climax against Meath champions, Trim next Sunday in Croke Park after the 'Steelstown Express' set a course for the All Ireland Intermediate Club Championship final thanks to a thrilling victory over Kerry and Munster champions, Na Gaeil at the Connacht Centre of Excellence.
And they did it in typical thrilling fashion following a game that saw goals, chances missed, black cards, one red and the tension of an injury time penalty to seal the deal!
Three weeks ago, after helping secure a first Ulster title, and with all around him ecstatic at an historic victory, one man's celebrations were muted given the circumstances. Ben McCarron was delighted, yet disappointed in himself, believing his scoreless performance hadn't helped his team-mates enough.
It prompted a quiet phonecall to manager Hugh McGrath through the week who opened the pitch and left a bag of O'Neill's on a night Pairc Bhird wasn't in use so McCarron could fire away by himself. The result? In the biggest game in his club's history, McCarron stood up, hitting 1-04 in a virtuoso display that Kerry star Stefan Okunbor was powerless to stop.
McCarron's display lit the touch paper for a game which will go down in the annals of Steelstown history. Pitted again a side made firm favourites for the All Ireland crown the moment they emerged from Ulster, Steelstown were hungry, intense and relentless. They were superb.
The result was all the more remarkable for the fact the Brian Ogs played most of a dramatic second half with 14 men after 'Player of the Season' Diarmuid Baker was harshly sent off on two yellow cards in the 39th minute.
And the finale couldn't have been more Hollywood if Spielberg himself had drafted the script.
Having withstood a second half Na Gaeil onslaught thanks to the strength of Shane O'Connor and Ryan Devine in midfield and the brilliance of Eoghan Concannon, who was sublime, Oran Fox and Kevin Lindsay at the back, substitute Gareth Logue won a break and sent Cahir McMonagle away into the now vacated Na Gaeil half.
McCarron was in support and McMonagle cleverly drew the defender before finding his team-mate. Now clear, McCarron was in the process of rounding keeper Devon Burns to slot into an empty net when the Na Gaeil No. 1 upended him and sent both himself and McCarron crashing into Okunbor who was tracking back at top speed. Even after the inevitable black card for Burns, the Na Gaeil midfielder came off worse in the collision and needed lengthy on field treatment with McMonagle, who had already hit the cross-bar when faced with an empty net, waiting to take the spot kick.
The tension was unbearable. The clock had passed 73 minutes with the referee signalling there would be one final minute of added time after McMonagle struck the penalty. Two points up, still one minute to play, it had to go over the bar - right?
Wrong! Even with that earlier miss fresh in his mind, McMonagle didn't hesitate, planting a brilliant, left footed penalty into the top right hand corner of the net and Steelstown were off the Croker!
It was all a far cry from the opening seconds of the match. Diarmuid O'Connor, despite wearing 14, started at midfield, promptly won the throw-in and surged forward to feed Andrew Barry who pointed, all with 25 seconds.
In many ways that was the worse thing that could have happened to Na Gaeil. It set false expectations, expectations Steelstown quickly set about dismantling for their Kerry opponents. Na Gaeil didn't help themselves with some erratic shooting. They hit eight first have wides and 12 in total, the normally accurate Darragh Carmody accounting for seven, including five from frees. It all pointed to the fact Steelstown had managed to unnerved their illustrious opponents and no man more so than McCarron.
The Derry player equalised that early score with a second minute free and doubled his tally in the eighth minute after Neil Forester had been fouled. A point up, Steelstown wouldn't be caught for the remainder of the game.
Shane O'Connor placed McCarron for a lovely score from the left before the impressive Jack Barry responded for 0-3 to 0-2 on 18 minutes. Just one minute later though the Brian Ogs had the confidence injection they craved and McCarron was the man to provide it once more.
Eoghan Bradley was trying to engineer space to shoot but found himself swallowed up by Na Gaeil defenders. The ball broke more than once but eventually found it's way to the feet of McCarron, just left of centre, and his superb low shot found the back of the net for a four point lead. It did more than that though, it had Steelstown believing.
Carmody's only free of the day finished the first half scoring at 1-3 to 0-3 and Steelstown could be more than happy with their opening half's work.
The second period started as the first had, O'Connor surging forward from the throw-in to this time point himself and suddenly the Kerry men had all the momentum. Seconds later Jack Barry's second of the day had the deficit back to just one point and nerves were beginning to show in blue.
The Kerry men were stretching the game, adding width in an attempt to unsettle Steelstown and their cause was helped when Diarmuid Baker, harshly booked for an innocuous clash with Dan Goggins in the opening half, this time ran into Carmody. It looked like the Na Gaeil man was trying to slow Baker's break but referee John Gilmartin thought otherwise and the corner-back was gone.
Hugh MCGrath's response was to introduce Morgan Murray and the forward's contribution was crucial, adding pace, direct running and a welcome out ball as Na Gaeil tried to forced Steelstown back. His 42nd minute point for 1-04 to 0-5 was exactly the tonic Steelstown needed and when McCarron added a free on three minutes later, Steelstown had their three point cushion back.
Bradley then saw a chance to kill the game slip away as he brilliantly got himself clear, rounded Burns only to loose his footing and shoot, off balance, high against the post with the goal at his mercy.
Worse was to follow though as Murray's superb run teed up Forester who squared the pass soccer style to McMonagle but with the keeper absent and the net empty, he skewed his first time effort off the cross bar.
It looked a costly miss too as Diarmuid O'Connor and substitute Darragh Keen, either side of that miss, brought it back to 1-05 against 0-07 with seven minutes to play.
Yet Steelstown wouldn't yield with Concannon imperious and wouldn't you know it, McMonagle refused to let that miss be his last word. With Na Gaeil laying siege to the Steelstown half, Donncha Gilmore this time won a turnover and sent the young forward away. He went for goal and it took a wonder save from Burns to deny him but it came at the expense of a point and Steelstown were two clear.
The stage was set. The game was on a knife-edge but Steelstown's intensity never dropped. It forced the turnover that led to the penalty and it won a place in the All Ireland final.
Steelstown scorers: Ben McCarron (1-04, 3f); Cahir McMonagle (1-1, 1pen), Morgan Murray (0-1)
Na Gaeil scorers: Jack Barry (0-2), Diarmuid O'Connor (0-2), Andrew Barry (0-1), Darragh Carmody (0-1, 1f), Darragh Reen (0-1)
Steelstown Brian Ogs: Eoghan Heraghty, Oran Fox, Kevin Lindsay, Diarmuid Baker, Donncha Gilmore, Jason McAleer, Eoghan Concannon, Oran McMenamin, Ryan Devine, Shane O'Connor, Neil Forester, Ben McCarron, Mark Foley, Morgan Murray, Eoghan Bradley. (Subs) Morgan Murray for M Foley, 40mins; Gareth Logue for O McMenamin, 43mins; Emmet Deane for E Bradley, 55mins; Oran McMenamin for S O'Connor, mins.
Yellow Cards: B Baker, 16 & 39mins. Black Card: M Murray, 63mins. Red Cards: D Baker, 39mins
Na Gaeil: Devon Burns: Enda O'Connor, Niall O'Mahoney, Damien Bourke, Fergal Barry, Eoin Doody, Andrew Barry, Jack Barry, Stefan Okunbor, James O'Connor, Dan Goggin, Jack Sheehan, Darragh Carmody, Diarmuid O'Connor, Eoin O'Neill. (Subs) Jack Bourke for E O'Neill, 25mins; Thomas O Hainfein for D Goggin, 40mins; Kieran O'Donovan for A Barry, 45mins; Darragh Reen for J O'Connor, 50mins; Shawn Duggan for Stefan Okunbor (inj), 61mins;
Yellow Cards: D Goggin, 16mins; J Barry, 56mins. Black Cards: D Burns,
Referee: John Gilmartin (Sligo)