GAA Football

"Hopefully this puts to bed all those stories of ‘soccer city'"

Steelstown captain Neil Forester and Brian McKeever share an emotional moment after beating Moortown in the Ulster Club Intermediate Football Championship final at Owenbeg. Brian's son Brian Og McKeever was a teenage player with Steelstown when he passed away from illness and the club made the decision to rename the club Brian Ogs in his memory Picture: Margaret McLaughlin 

STEELSTOWN captain Neil Forester hailed his clubmates as “true Gaels” and hopes the constant barbs aimed at GAA teams in Derry city have finally been laid to rest.

The 32-year-old also revealed he knew they were in a good place to win an Ulster intermediate title when players were boxing at training on the eve of the final.

Forester has dealt all his footballing life with the internal struggle within Derry to bring relevance and respect to the city.

Steelstown became the third Derry club to claim the provincial title at the grade, after two-time winners Craigbane and Coleraine.

Their narrow win over Tyrone champions Moortown on Sunday was the most significant success to emerge from the north’s second city since the now-defunct Éire Óg won a senior championship in 1952.

“There’s been plenty of articles over the years that have riled me up, and riled plenty in the city up,” said Forester.

“I think we don’t promote ourselves enough, what we are doing. Maybe it’s the old clichés stick around too.

“But if you really looked at what was going on at ground level, maybe the standard doesn’t appear as good because the standard in Derry is so good.

“Two of our toughest games this year were Castledawson and Greenlough. It’s easy to forget how high that standard is.

“The work that’s been done in Derry city is phenomenal, now this has hopefully put to bed all those stories of ‘soccer city’ and all the rest.

“There’s nobody in that changing room that plays soccer or ever did. We’re all true Gaels, as are the people working as coaches and volunteers.

“I’m just so happy for the community that we get this day, our day in the sun. It’s class for the city but it’s especially class for Steelstown Brian Ógs.”

They now stand just 60 minutes from Croke Park and an All-Ireland final, although to get there they’ll have to overcome favourites Na Gaeil from Kerry.

Their midfield pairing of Jack Barry and Stefan Okunbor, the latter recently returned from the AFL and thrown straight in with Kerry, indicates their level of strength.

But Forester, a former Derry senior and member of the county minor team that reached the 2007 All-Ireland final, is content with what’s inside his own dressing room.

“A lot of boys in that changing room have played on big occasions for the county, that can’t be forgotten.

“Ben McCarron, Donncha Gilmore, both All-Ireland finalists, myself and Mickey McKinney (2007), Marty Dunne won an All-Ireland back in ’02.

“A lot of boys have Ulster U21 titles, Eoghan Bradley, Eoghan Concannon have played on big days.

“We’ve a serious wealth of county experience in there and we’re proud to add boys to the county.

“We’ve two boys in there, Donnacha and Ben, who are named on the provisional Derry team for the year.

“Hopefully they’ll be with us for another wee while and we get a wee run in the All-Ireland!”

Forester, responsible for so much of the growth of GAA in the city and Steelstown as a full-time coach, revealed that there were tetchy exchanges at training even in the week of the final.

“All year, our training has been… tasty, we’ll just call it.

“Even on Tuesday night, an Ulster final around the corner, there were boys fighting, one boy went off with a big bloody nose.

“We’re keeping ourselves to high standards, we’re pushing ourselves. We’re not accepting a poor level.

“When we think we’re going good, we think ‘how do we make it better?’ That’s the attitude some of these young boys have.

“It’s up to us older boys to keep the standards high and not let off. That’s why we’ve finally got the success today.”

He had begun to fear none of this would ever happen. A 21-year-old whippet when the club reached their first Derry final, they’d lost three of them before finally getting over Greenlough this season.

Being on the pitch to experience it was heightened by the absence of a few towering presences on the team over the last decade and more.

Goalkeeper Marty Dunne missed out on the Ulster run after suffering an injury at the end of the county final, while Mickey McKinney didn’t get any game time in the decider, although both played their part over the year.

Stalwarts like Paul O’Hea and Eamon Gibson, who have both managed the team in the recent past too, retired without winning that elusive championship.

“I remember after the 2016 final we lost to Castledawson, I was really worried that I thought it was never gonna happen. That was a county title,” said Forester.

“You just stick at it. We played Lissan in the first match, I was coming back from an injury and I wasn’t getting on.

“Captain or not, it didn’t matter, I wasn’t getting on. That’s class, I’ll accept that.

“The only reason I started against Lissan was poor Rory Maguire pulled his hamstring the week before. That’s the competition we have.

“Emmett Deane’s hardly kicked a ball for us in Derry or Ulster, comes on there and scores that point at a huge moment. Those are boys that just stuck at it.”

Amid the changing face of Derry club football, where championship success earns promotion for the first time ever, Steelstown will play intermediate league but senior championship in 2022.

They had a three-year spell in the senior grade just shy of a decade ago, but haven’t been back since. Beyond the All-Ireland conquest, that’s the next challenge.

“We’ve been there, with a very different squad. There’s a lot of new young boys in there now and they’re ready for this challenge.

“People like Oran McMenamin, Donncha Gilmore, Cahir McMonagle, this will be their chance now. They’re fantastic footballers, great talents.

“Our job is to try and stay in senior football for as long as possible and then start to build on that and be competitive.

“The work our underage coaches do on both the male and female side of things is fantastic.

“A few more good teams are coming through, and it’s just about trying to become an established senior team now.

“That’s where the prestige really is, as much as we love today.”

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GAA Football