Steelstown manager McGrath salutes his Ulster champions as Brian Ogs fairytale season continues
Around 17 years ago, he was a Down GAA emigrant searching for a club for what he thought would be a temporary sojourn in Derry city. His choice was aided by the fact one club, the youngest in the city at the time, had chosen the colours of his native club, Saul.
Fast forward to Sunday, January 9th 2022 and Hugh McGrath is no longer that emigrant. He's a Derry and Ulster Championship winning manager at a club where he's found his spiritual home. And while it may not have been a classic spectacle, Sunday's 0-6 to 0-4 Ulster Intermediate final victory over Moortown continues a fairy-tale season for the Brian Ogs and McGrath could not be prouder.
"I'll be honest, the aim at the start of the year was solely Derry," admits he Steelstown manager, "That's what we wanted, that's what we were after but it was amazing, the next day when we were sitting having a beer, enjoying the win, the focus turned almost immediately to, 'How far can we go?' 'How good do we think we are?'
"I think we showed today against a really resilient Moortown team that had a plan that worked so well for them in the first half, we showed what we were about.
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"Yes, we can put up big scores and can punish teams that make mistakes but we are not afraid to dig in and say, 'Right, we're here to play ball, we're here to fight for the victory'. That's the way the final panned out in the end."
Having only won their first championship at senior level in November, Steelstown now have an All Ireland semi-final against either Kerry champions Na Gael of Corofin from County Clare to come at the end of January. That will be another red letter day but for McGrath, hearing people across the north talk about the late Brian Og McKeever, whose name adorns the Steelstown club, has been one of the most satisfying parts of their recent success.
"The biggest thing we have enjoyed all week is the name of Brian Og being talked about al over Ulster and beyond," he explained, "We all know within the city what Brian Og meant to us and just how big a character he was, how big a personality, but to hear his name mentioned in provincial terms was superb.
"For us it was a big year. Brian Ogs' 30th birthday would have been last year just gone and we are so proud to be here representing Derry, representing the city, but most of all representing Brian Og."
Having racked up some impressive scores against Donaghmoyne and Butlersbridge en route the the final, Steelstown were made to dig deep against a defensive Moortown outfit but McGrath says he wasn't expecting anything but a difficult encounter with the Tyrone champions
"I've said it all along in the build-up to the game, this was always going to be a fight. You don't win the Tyrone championship by being a poor outfit or not being organised. Anyone who knows teams which Mickey Hassan has been involved with knows that they will be set up well and will have their homework done on the opposition.
"We knew it was going to be a tough, tough battle and Moortown's game plan worked so well in the first half but we fell into the trap to make it so successful. There were a couple of tweaks at half-time, I thought Gareth Logue when he came in was superb and Emmet Deane, who has hardly played a minute of football for us, he was unbelievable when he came in. He showed that in training which is what we want boys to understand with this group. If you are going well in training and you are showing what you are about, you'll get a go at it, you'll get a chance.
"Has he made my job a bit more difficult for the semi-final? Absolutely he has but those are problems you want to have at this time of year."
A low scoring final saw Steelstown behind until Cahir McMonagle, who hit five of his side six points, finally bring his team level at three points apiece with only nine minutes remaining and McGrath admits it was a frustrating watch at times.
"I'm usually very patient on the sideline but I couldn't be patient today. There were things that happened that were frustrating in the game. We were missing easy frees, taking wild shots, kicking ball away, things that we had worked on all week but that's nerves. This is the first time these boys have ever been at this stage so you have to expect that but when it really mattered, and they needed to dig in and execute the plan, they did.
"Some of the big ball we won in the middle of the park and then used the ball effectively going forward thereafter, it shows what these boys are all about."
The impact of substitutes Emmet Deane and especially Gareth Logue, who was superb once he came in, proved critical as Steelstown turned the tide in the fourth quarter with McGrath again pointing to how crucial the Brian Ogs' strength in depth has been to their success.
"There are players galore in this group. I mean I look at the likes of Ryan McCloskey. Ryan got hurt against Castledawson in the Derry championship and hasn't got a sniff since but only because other boys are going so well now they are in there. Emmet who has been going so well for so long; Adam Harrigan who played in goals for most of the league but I can't look past Eoghan Heraghty at the minute because he has been superb.
"I think even within our own group, they may not have believed how important the entire squad was but now they understand and are under no illusions that this is now a 30 or 32 man game these days. If you're not getting a game, then you're helping the guy that's in there to be better and make sure he doesn't drop his standards."