Steelstown 1-8 Banagher 0-8
THE knack of winning games. For all the thrills and spills, for all the talent and the demands of perfection, that’s what this business is all about. Winning games.
Seven years ago, Steelstown took its first timid steps in intermediate football. Moneymore came to Páirc Bhríd for the club’s first ever game out of the basement of Derry’s hierarchy and a struggle began with a young side, a green side which would go through more twists and turns, peaks and troths, and more coming of age stories than a John Hughes movie.
To jump straight from that historic day in 2006 to Friday night wouldn’t seem like it would fit, it wouldn’t seem like you were back down at the side of the same pitch at the bottom of the same Cornshell Fields.
To jump straight from a Division Four league playoff defeat to Faughanvale in 2007 and arrive back down at Ballyarnet and witness a Banagher side being physically and mentally broken, it’s almost daydreams.
Except it isn’t.
Somewhere along the way, lessons were learned, boys became men, and grinding out victories like Friday’s was the net result.
Somewhere along the way, the Tony Jacksons of this world who guided the team away from the junior ranks, the Raymond Traceys who delivered the club’s first senior silverware, the Paddy Campbells who set sights farther than they ever were looking, they all indented something into a squad which, under the grip of Hugh McGrath, hasn’t even glanced backwards.
Because games like Friday’s, games like the Craigbane victory in April, like the Magherafelt home fixture last week, they might well have been lost any other year. Heck, they would’ve been lost last year.
But, from September – when the Óg’s had to wait until the last match of the season to secure their fourth victory last year – to the start of this campaign, glorious failures, messages of hope, pats on the back, they were traded in at the gates of Páirc Bhríd. In their place came stubbornness, a refusal to lose, belief. In their place, came wins.
In fact, you only need to cast your eye on the 2012 championship, cast your eye on Steelstown’s final game of last year and see how a late five-point lead was squandered naively to the advantage of Banagher. The same Banagher who would go on to take Ballinderry to a point in the championship semi final. The same Banagher who would be made to look so, so ordinary on their first senior visit to Steelstown.
And, whilst Hugh McGrath will bemoan a lack of fluidity at times on Friday, whilst he will bemoan some costly mistakes and a first half when the Óg’s were playing well within themselves; for the occasion, for the conditions, for the two priceless points, he might well have made his peace with just pure grit that dragged his team home.
Because, as it took the Steelstown players a full half to realise that Banagher weren’t offering much in front of the posts except from a dead ball, Mark Lynch capitalised with ease every time a maroon jersey was dragged down inside the 45’ and, after Eunan Murphy got the visitors into an early lead, the county captain made no mistake from his set pieces, hitting two in quick succession.
But, with Michael Moore deployed at centre half forward, Steelstown had brought their own ace to the table. A position he hasn’t often found himself in throughout his career, Moore’s selection on the 45’ was somewhat of a masterstroke as the number 11 ran Banagher captain Paul Cartin ragged.
He didn’t just have the energy and work rate to keep tabs on the opposition centre back and nullify him for St. Mary’s attacks but, when the Óg’s had possession, Moore went to town.
His jink and his pace were enough to roll Cartin and fire over to register the first score for the hosts when, moments later, the trick was repeated. But Moore wasn’t fed nearly enough of the ball when he had the opposition back line spread on toast and, as the Steelstown attacks broke down, their north Derry rivals stretched the lead with Rory Colgan raising a white flag before a free kick each from Padhraic Murphy and Mark Lynch kept the scoreboard ticking.
Mickey McKinney kept his side in touch though when he darted in from the left and hooked effortlessly over his shoulder before Darren McDaid got on the score sheet and ensured that, despite playing none, the Óg’s were in touch at the break.
Half time: Steelstown 0-4 Banagher 0-6
At the start of the second period, Banagher’s attacks were hit with a force field. For 22 unrelenting minutes, the visitors were hounded all over the park and their forwards were granted nothing by way of inches by a merciless resistance defending the Madam’s Bank Road end with their lives.
Paul O’Hea moved onto the roaming Mark Lynch and the Banagher danger man was no sooner silenced than he was put on the back foot by the Steelstown skipper whose second half drive set the tone for the city outfit.
And, although the Óg’s racked up a succession of wides, a succession of missed chances after the restart, they kept on coming as their backline turned over ball time and time again.
Eventually, Mickey McKinney – whose second half shift was nothing short of monstrous – found the target after a lung-bursting run from deep. McKinney was dictating play all over the field and as he popped up in different positions, the away side couldn’t deal with the threat of the number 12 who would curl over two more beauties to fire his side ahead for the first time in the game 20 minutes into the second half.
At 0-7 to 0-6, Banagher mustered a response much more threatening than their sliced pressure kicks were offering for most of the second period. A marauding Eunan Murphy run looked to have given the wing forward a sight at goal from the right hand side but, as Marty Dunne closed him down, the Banagher man drilled convincingly wide.
Moments later though, Dunne’s goal line should’ve been breached but for three passages of skill, heart, and luck to divert the size five to safety.
Mark Lynch reared his head and cut straight through the middle of the Óg’s backline to work another opening but, as a scramble of bodies descending on the goal mouth, Kevin Lindsay and his outstretched dive blocked down the initial effort. Gavin O’Neill thought he had hammered home the rebound only for the back-tracking Shane O’Connor to heroically hurl himself in front and, as Mark Lynch tried again with men hanging off him, the base of the post came to the rescue and the siege was lifted. Steelstown would not wilt.
In the next passage of play, they came again. Every maroon shirt was being tagged and harried. Banagher ran down one channel, they were forced back. They ran down another, they were rocked to their bones. Padhraic Murphy then worked an opening but, as he dared to pull the trigger, Neil Forester and his stifling dives crippled his advances from behind before the wing back was up again to block down a second. Paul O’Hea picked up from where he left off. A menacing shoulder on Eugene O’Kane saw possession spill out to the 45’, the centre back slid to his knees and got a hand in before the onrushing Oisin McCloskey could.
And, although Brian Óg McGilligan eventually drew the free, although Mark Lynch eventually leveled up with a huge score, that blunt Steelstown refusal was a biting message of intent.
With the next attack, the Óg’s were back in front when Ryan McCloskey bombed forward once more from the back and kicked the sweetest ball he will ever kick to split the posts with the top of his laces from audacious distance.
They looked to be holding out, they looked value for another one-point win, much like they were against Magherafelt but, when substitute Eugene O’Kane worked an opening and sent over Banagher’s solitary second half score from play, Steelstown had to go back to the same well they had already been to. They had to go back and dig deeper.
Cometh the stroke of the hour, cometh the man. Neil Forester. The same player who carried the ball to safety against the Rossas would have the final say once more on Steelstown’s very own fortress.
Stephen McCauley had come in for the final 15 minutes and the midfielder had a huge influence. He showed for everything, he got his hands on primary ball, he sprayed passes. It was he who climbed highest for the kickout to flick down for Forester to hoover up in trademark fashion.
The wing back looked up, he decided to run. 50 yards, 40 yards, 30, yards, 20, the Steelstown vice captain was no longer happy with the scruff of the neck, he had taken this game, dragged its jersey over its head, and with two gripping hands, forced it aggressively in Steelstown’s direction.
A fist pass to the overworked Aidan Cleary running miles, in the full forward line all evening, was the one ball the number 14 needed. It was the one ball the game needed.
A first time flick to his left with both class and bite had bounced the ball devastatingly back into the chest of Forester who rifled home with his side foot into the bottom right hand corner to send the crowd, as soaked and as anxious as they might have been, into raptures.
There was time for one last scare when Banagher tried to force the issue at the other end with the final play of the night but, as a blue tide planted itself in front of Dunne, Rory Colgan, who had taken possession on the 13 metre line, was forced left, he was forced wide, and he sliced despairingly outside the posts.
A fourth victory for Steelstown was confirmed with three shrill blasts of Barry Cassidy’s whistle. Another side, who they had failed to beat last year, had been brought to their knees in the city.
It was far from pretty though, it was very far from perfect. But it was also far removed from the days when these games would’ve been lost.
Improvements, big improvements, are needed if the Óg’s are to give the championship a proper rattle this year. But that, in itself, was the underlying theme of Friday’s resistance, that they could afford to plan ahead.
For the first time, Steelstown are looking at the senior championship. By hook or by crook, they’ve already taken another step.
Steelstown: Martin Dunne; Ryan McCloskey (0-1), Kevin Lindsay, Tony Ling; Neil Forester (1-0), Paul O’Hea, Eamon Donnelly; Darren McDaid (0-1), Ryan Devine; Conán Doherty, Michael Moore (0-2), Mickey McKinney (0-4); Brain Scallan, Aidan Cleary, Liam Heffernan
Subs: Pearse O’Doherty for E Donnelly, 24mins; Shane O’Connor for T Ling, 35mins; Stephen McCauley for M Moore, 46mins; James Jackson for Doherty 56mins.
Banagher: Daryl McDermot; Brian Murphy, Ruairi McCloskey, John Lynch; Ryan Lynch, Paul Cartin, Stefan McCloskey; Brian Og McGilligan, Peter O’Kane; Eunan Murphy (0-1), Padraig Murphy (0-1), Aaron Hasson; Mark Lynch (0-4, 4f), Rory Colgan (0-1), Gavin O’Neill
Subs: Oisin McCloskey for A Hasson, 32mins; Eugene O’Kane (0-1) for P O’Kane, 44mins; Conor Lynch for R Lynch, 55mins.
Referee: Barry Cassidy (Bellaghy)