Steelstown open Ulster with tough trip to Donegal champions Cloughaneely

Ulster Intermediate Club Championship: Cloughaneely v Steelstown (Sat, O'Donnell Pak, 1.30pm)

Friday, 19th November 2021, 8:00 am

Manager Hugh McGrath has urged his Steelstown players to seize their Ulster opportunity as they prepare to face Donegal champions, Cloughanneely, in the Ulster Intermediate Club Championship on Saturday in Letterkenny.

The historic Derry victory over Greenlough two weeks brought a first ever senior men’s championship to Ballyarnett but this won’t be the Brian Og’s first foray into Ulster after a brief appearance in the 2003 Junior club championship. That appearance came after a Derry final defeat to Glen Thirds who could not compete on the provincial stage but this time McGrath’s men are there on merit and he’s urging his side to make the most of an experience that won’t come along every season.

“We are trying to impress on the players that they won’t get opportunities like this all the time,” explained McGrath, “It is difficult to explain to young guys liken Donncha Gilmore that this doesn’t happen all the time, that this isn’t normal. For us, the senior one was the club’s third final. Last year’s Intermediate final and then the ladies getting into their final back-to-back; the seniors winning the Intermediate and then the reserves were back in their county final, albeit they lost out, but that is a roller coaster of a year, the sort you want every season.

Morgan Murray enjoyed an excellent Derry Championship campaign for Steelstown and will hoping to prolong their season when the Brian Ogs meet Cloughaneely in O'Donnell Park, Letterkenny this weekend. (Photo: George Sweeney)

“It doesn’t happen all the time so you have to make the most of it and that’s what we have tried to impress on the boys, these chances don’t come along very often so once they do, you have a go at it and give it everything. Your playing time is short, retirement is long, so when you are in the midst of it, make the most of it.”

Donegal county star Jason McGee is the stand-out name on the Cloughaneely team-sheet but, as McGrath discovered last Saturday watching the Falcarragh club stroll past Dungloe by 1-11 to 0-05 in the replayed Donegal county final.

“Cloughaneely were very impressive,” adds the Steelstown manager, “They had improved massively from the drawn game. They weren’t at their best in the drawn game and had a bit of bother getting ball out of their own defence but they have a system that works for them and they executed it very well.

“The way they moved the ball forward was excellent, they seem to play a very similar style to ourselves in that they want to get the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. Look, it is going to be an interesting one.

“They have some big lads but are very much a footballing side, any team that has Jason McGee running about it is decent. He got, I think, five points in the county final and most of them in the first half in which he was excellent. Cloughaneely bossed the game from start to finish, they were bigger and stronger in every sector of the field. Wing half-back Conor Coyle he had a couple of great scores in the second half while the corner-forward McGarvey was another guy who showed really well and linked up play, bringing other players into the game so Jason

McGee is the big name but they are an all round good side. Boys like Darren McGeever in the middle of the field, Lee O’Brien at centre-half back, they were excellent.”

Steelstown’s cause isn’t helped by the loss of experienced keeper Marty Dunne who was forced off in the closing stages of the Derry final while full back Kevin Lindsay is still working his way back from the injury the kept him out of the victory over Greenlough.

“Losing Marty is a blow because he brings a lot of experience. We do have players who have played at a decent level and who have been about for a while but every time you have one of those lads taken away you feel the pinch of it.

“Now, we are very lucky in that we have two very good back-up keepers in Eoghan Heraghty and Adam Harrigan so while Marty is a loss and we definitely miss him, we are comfortable enough that what we have coming in is good enough to do a job. I haven’t actually decided on the line-up yet. I have a fair idea but there are a few that are real head scratchers that are making me think a bit.”

The 2003 flirtation with Ulster, ended by Tyrone side Killyman after Steelstown were forced to play 24 hours after a Derry promotion play-off against Sean Dolan’s, has quirky parallels with Cloughaneely’s 2014 Donegal Intermediate victory. With Donegal reaching the All Ireland final, a delayed club championship saw Cloughaneely forward to take on Castledawson in Owenbeg just 24 hours after winning their own county title. And remarkably they defeated ‘Dawson in extra-time!

The Donegal men therefore have the edge in terms of experience but that’s not something which unduly worries McGrath.

“I’m not even thinking about Cloughannely’s pedigree, things like that don’t matter to us. We have no pedigree in anything so we are not focused on pedigree or how people are thinking about us or describing Cloughaneely. We know we have some good footballers about us and we will try to put them in a position to compete on Saturday. You know if we are within touching distance, we can be hard to work with ourselves.

“We are over the moon at winning our own championship but when you have players, and we have quite a few, who have played at representative at one age or another, those guys have tasted what the big stage is like and to do that with your club is something totally different and something you want to be involved with all the time.

“This is just the first, very difficult step in that but once you get that chance you thirst for it and you want more so we’re more than happy to be involved in this competition.

“People outside our own county won’t know us and we get a chance to represent Derry and show display how good we can be so hopefully we turn up on the day and show that.”

Another quirk of Saturday’s tie is the fact that O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny is actually closer to Steelstown than to Cloughaneely and a ground Steelstown should know reasonably well but McGrath is under no illusions about the size of the challenge facing the city men.

“There has been a bit of a buzz about this week and we are excited about getting on to the provincial stage and having a real go at it,” he adds, “The pressure of not having won an Intermediate title in Derry, it mightn’t have been obvious as we were going along, but it was definitely there in the background and you knew about it. There’s not that pressure within this.

“We are going up against a Donegal team that has played Division One football all year and has dropped back down into Intermediate so they will be a tough nut to crack and will put us to the pin of our collar. However, for us, it’s about getting out on the provincial stage and testing ourselves against a real good outfit. It’s the sort of test that you want to put yourself up against and one we are looking forward to.”

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