By Michael McMullan
AFTER knocking on the Ulster door for so long, Steelstown now step into the All-Ireland area on Saturday with an away semi-final against Leitrim champions Ballinamore.
They weren’t always at the cutting edge. It took time to become a force.
Emma Doherty didn’t take up the sport until the age of “13 or 14”. Before that, it was netball and soccer until word of Steelstown laying their ladies’ football foundations.
“It started from there and I was hooked right away,” Doherty said.
In the early days, they were on the wrong end of some chastening defeats. After moving to St Gall’s for a four-year stint during her student days in Belfast, Doherty made her return to Steelstown.
Then, the wheels were already starting to turn. Junior B success was followed by a Junior A title at the second attempt.
“We won it and it all took off from there, but the success started when I was away,” she joked, putting it down to the coaching structures and a consistent approach.
“It’s basically Thomas Cusack, he took a number of really successful minor teams. They were winning minor championships in Derry and he brought loads of girls through from that.”
Since coming on board with the seniors in 2015, Steelstown have moved up the ladder to become four-in-a-row Derry champions.
The consistency of performance comes down to the familiarity within the camp. Year on year, the management team had driven the standards.
“Without them, we’d be nowhere,” Doherty admits. It’s the planning, keeping people interested, blooding new players on an annual basis.
Another important factor is hurt. All teams are the same. It generates a focus.
Losing to Kinawley in the 2021 Ulster Intermediate final still hurts. Steelstown were in control. And then they weren’t.
“We were six or seven points up,” Doherty said of the early stages of the second half.
Instead of tagging on scores and limiting their opponents at the other end, defeat was Steelstown’s own doing. They went to pieces, capitulating.
It was win or learn, but last season also ended prematurely with a fixture debacle that saw Steelstown concede their Ulster semi-final.
A day or two licking their wounds was called for. On the day of the Ulster final, the Steelstown girls needed to get out of the house.
They went to Celtic Park to watch Na Magha hurlers. It was comfort in numbers before glancing at the final on their phones told them they’d enough to win an Ulster title.
“I remember us thinking that we could challenge the two teams who were playing,” Doherty recalled.
It was about getting back on the horse. Basketball in Carnhill hall was a change of focus in pre-season. Variation ticked an important box before the real graft kicked in.
The season was going swimmingly until Glen dealt Steelstown a reality card in the group stages. The Watties beat them to end their unbeaten season that had landed a league title. Steelstown complacency? Possibly.
“It was one of those nights when I can’t pinpoint what went wrong or what happened,” Doherty added. “I would say it was a bad first half and we did come back into it but we left ourselves too much to do.”
It wasn’t knock-out but it lit a fire that burned all the way to a rematch in the final and fourth successive title.
Ulster followed and a battle to see off Glenavy to scratch their Ulster itch. It brought relief. The favourites tag only carries so far. It’s about walking the walk.
“We had a week (after Ulster) and now we have another week to prepare,” Doherty said of the mood in the camp. “We will definitely be going for it and giving it everything we have got.”