By Michael McMullan
JUST before a quarter past six on Monday evening, Steelstown’s team bus swung around Ballyarnett roundabout. Their trophy-laden adventure was complete. Home was in sight.
It’s a party zone inside. Bouncing. An extension of the magical Sunday night in Dublin’s Liffey Valley Hotel.
No more were they the nearly men. Not by some distance.
But, some 93 days earlier, they needed points from Neil Forester and Cahir McMonagle to stop Greenlough inflicting a fourth painful county final horror show.
The three glistening cups – Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland – at the front of the bus were a testament to the team they exploded into.
“It will be months or a couple of years before we look back and understand fully what these lads have achieved,” said coach Paul McMenamin.
They so nearly succumbed to a defeat they wouldn’t have deserved against Cloughaneely in the Ulster opener. Goalkeeper Eoghan Heraghty places the Donegal side as one of the best, ‘if not the best’, side they faced.
Diarmuid Baker ran himself into the ground against Moortown, driving himself forward at every opportunity to help McMonagle shoot the Ógs to an Ulster title.
That was as close as anyone else got. From the moment Steelstown unleashed a performance in the second half against Donaghmoyne, they were on a mission. One game at a time, until the final step.
After walking through a sea of blue and gold, the Steelstown team were elevated on a lorry that rocked back and forth as they sang with gusto.
Their energy lit up the city like their football did the previous day.
Chairman Paul O’Hea told fans it was the ‘most stylish and competent’ performance from a Derry team in Croke Park in ‘a long time’. Manager Hugh McGrath vowed it wasn’t the end of his team, but rather the beginning. They’ve more left to give.
“We are the lucky ones, playing on Croke Park,” said midfielder Ryan Devine, as the players dispersed among the crowd to meet family and friends.
“It is for those people, the backbone of the club…that’s who it’s for.”
Not for a second did he think they’d come home from Dublin without the final piece of the puzzle.
It was a night to remember. Camera flashes, ticker tape and sheer emotion the people of Steelstown will lock inside for years to come.
Neil Forester recalls the final few yards of their return journey.
“We were singing songs on the bus and everybody took a breath whenever we came around the corner and saw all the flags and the people of the community,” he said.
“Driving in the gates, there are no more words left for it. It is beyond everything you could ever dream of.”
The Derry Championship was always their Everest and once they tossed that monkey off their back, they kept finding another challenge, with senior football the next target. But not just yet.
“We’ll soak this up and milk this for quite a while,” he laughed
A double decker party bus within sight, was ready to ferry the squad to the nightspots of Derry city a week of bright lights.
It was hard not to smile at the sight of Jason McAleer, with a toy sword in hand and a pair of star sunglasses on. He represents their free spirited young guns. Their white-booted centre-back’s jovial nature lifts a lid on the inner workings of the group. Every successful group needs the perfect cocktail of personalities.
The quiet man Kevin Lindsay, even the euphoria of an All-Ireland title can’t coax him from his media silence. But, from the old to the young, they are united.
Mickey McKinney puts “togetherness” as one the factors to the team’s success.
“(Ryan) Devine got a bit of abuse about saying he could go for a coffee with the younger boys, 10 years younger, and it wouldn’t be strange,” McKinney said of a his former underage teammate’s pre-final interview.
“It’s true. I would call them – (Diarmuid) Baker, Jason (McAleer), Brads (Eoghan Bradley), Ben (McCarron)…I would call them boys my younger brothers. The togetherness in this panel is something different; I have never experienced it before.”
From the days of being ferried by Tony Jackson to underage games, when the club had no base to call home, McKinney has had his shoulder to the Steelstown wheel.
He had his own Croke Park tale of woe. He was a defence rock as Derry minors reached the 2007 All-Ireland final. For 59 minutes, he shackled Damien Reddington until the Galway poacher bagged the winning goal in McKinney’s self-named ‘minute and a half of hell’.
Sunday was redemption. Coming on for those final moments against Trim banished every demon.
On Sunday, he had made a pact with Forester, another 2007 minor. They were leaving Dublin as winners.
McKinney hasn’t managed to break into the team, but his selfless mentality was another sign of why Steelstown prevailed.
With Na Gaeil’s Andrew Barry as their playmaker, McKinney was given the detail of playing like Barry in training, giving Forester enough insight that would see the Kerry man replaced after 46 minutes.,
In the final, Oran McMenamin was given the task of hammering the hammer on Trim’s fulcrum James Toher until the firmer Royals’ dual star was called ashore with 15 minutes to go. Another inch notched.
Eoghan Heraghty came into the team for the final moments of the county final win over Greenlough for injured ‘keeper Marty Dunne.
After conceding an early goal on Sunday, he looked on as Steelstown chipped away four points to settle in the game.
“After we got the fifth and sixth points, I was like ‘we’re not losing this,’” Heraghty recalled.
The management’s research flagged up the space behind Trim’s half back line. Without a sweeper, they were there to be got at. Ryan Devine couldn’t believe the room. And he made hay.
“When you get the ball and look up to see acres of space in front of Cahir, Ben, Brads, (Mark) Foley…them boys, it makes your job a lot easier,” he said.
“You are dinking wee balls…you look at Ben, getting the ball and two or three men hanging off him.”
And there was more. The Steelstown bow has many feathers. All through the Derry Championship, Morgan Murray bagged 5-9 until a hamstring injury saw him have to settle for a place on the bench. Threw into the action on Sunday, he recalls the moment Cahir McMonagle stood over the second-half penalty.
“He says to me, go on step up as if you are hitting the penalty,” laughs Murray, who remembers others shouting at him. What was he doing?
He stood with the ball in hand, during the stoppage as a Trim player received treatment.
“So it’s kinda funny. That’s the way he composed himself,” Murray adds. “Cahir walks up and sticks it straight into the top corner, no better man for the job.”
The years of Steelstown hurt had mixed with an influx of young boys who knew no baggage and were now champions, three times over.
But they didn’t forget their roots. On Tuesday afternoon, 92 days after the 13th Anniversary of his death, Brian Óg McKeever’s grave had three pieces of championship silverware rested below a blue and gold flag. The perfect tribute to the man Neil Forester said was the true captain of the club.