Conan “Scone’ Doherty’s Derry News Column: Thurs 24th November

November 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Label it favouritism, call it one-sided, and say it is partiality. Frankly, I’m not concerned one bit because, for once, I have never been more thrilled to be so biased in all my life.

I remember just 8 years ago taking to Celtic Park to help deliver the club’s first piece of silverware under the guidance of Steelstown stalwart, Andy Barr. Back then, an under 16 ‘B’ championship was as good a place as any to get the ball rolling. A few weeks later, the under 14’s clinched the North Derry ‘A’ title in emphatic fashion and, just ever so silently, a few daring whispers began to circulate.

In the same year, the club – still in its adolescence – found a new home in Páirc Bhríd and left the Templemore Sports Complex humbled in its trail. The proceeding 8 years could not have been scripted by even the most ambitious of visionaries as the senior men dusted off perennial defeats to Ardmore and began climbing the shaky ladder from Junior to Senior football.

Throw in further underage success; increasing county representatives; the inception and growth of the Ladies setup; a new clubhouse; and a thriving off-field structure, and it is genuinely hard to believe that, just less than a decade ago, Steelstown sat in a division below their local rivals, Colmcille, and struggled to muster numbers for excursions to Magilligan.

But year by year, the Brian Óg’s machine was gathering momentum. Championship heartbreaks to Glen in the 2005 Junior final, to Dungiven in the ’06 Minor final, to Castledawson in the 2010 Intermediate decider were mistaken as choking rather than inexperience. When the city side were once peering in the window, they began listening through the door before their taps became knocks, their knocks became bangs and the divide which separated Steelstown and elite football was smashed to pieces as the sleeping giant one day decided to wake up.

Having missed out in league playoffs before, there seemed to be an ill-informed, external consensus that the status quo would be easily preserved on Saturday past. However, as the Brian Óg’s 34 man squad warmed up, as the blue and gold colours trickled into Ó Cathain Park, and as Hugh McGrath and Raymond Tracey grew increasingly hoarse, it was clear that 2011 could well and truly be the year that Steelstown took that inevitable step to senior status.

Inevitable is a fitting word. Marty Dunne, in all his modesty, is easily intercounty material. If Brian Óg McAlary and Oisín Duffy are Derry-worthy, then so too is Tony Ling; and if beaten Newbridge man, Michael Bateson, is deserving of a starting berth in John Brennan’s side, then better, more talented half forwards like Aidan Cleary can also be considered county standard.

The starting 15 versus Newbridge averaged an age of just over 23. Current county panellist, Neil Forester, and Dan Jackson – both 21 – were introduced; Stephen Cleary, hogging newspaper headlines for 5 years now is still just 22; whilst full back, Tony Ling, was missing in action – all of whom are younger than the team’s average. With so many relative household names still in their early twenties, Steelstown’s young veterans have already been around the block enough times that they will eventually pose a threat to whomever they please.

Only Gary Cunningham, the team’s most senior player – he won’t mind me saying (I hope) – hasn’t come through the unstoppable conveyor belt of Steelstown’s youth system, yet he has been there since Day 1 of the club’s first Intermediate footsteps. Gone are the days of the city stereotype acquiring players from all over the country. Steelstown are moulding their own success at grassroots level through the development of some outrageously talented individuals that only serve to remind me every time I watch an underage session that my days in the team are well and truly numbered!

I didn’t want to write a piece about a team I’m involved with but when the entire club invaded Dungiven’s pitch with jubilee, with unison, how could I ignore the season’s biggest story? When an old-school full back, stricken by injury, can’t bear to watch the post-match scenes in sheer overwhelming shock, how could I not recognise the beauty of what had happened? When a loyal supporter informs me that he was keeping three different continents updated throughout the historic game, how could I not give my take on it?

Visit the club on a Saturday morning, attend one of its events, celebrate a club mass, come down when there is maintenance to be done, or speak to any supporter on their take on all-things-GAA, and soon anyone and everyone would recognise that there is much, much more to Steelstown than the 34 who were lucky enough to kit out against Newbridge – 19 talented substitutes make it easy to understand why the club topped each the senior, reserve and minor leagues this year. In its miniature lifespan, the club has transformed into a booming hybrid of football activity and has adopted a philosophy of making history, rather than reading it.

Without the foundations of a solid club, expect a downturn of on-field fortunes to follow at a drastic rate. But, in truth, Steelstown Brian Óg’s has always been a senior club – it has just taken until now for the team to catch up.

Conan also writes blogs for derrygaa.com and  for SC1 sports. Check them out at http://sc1sports.com/ for more articles by Scone, Stephen, George and Ciaran.