Feature: Men of Steel

Steelstown have four players on the Derry senior football panel. Neil Forester lines out alongside them on the senior team. Brendan Hughes was involved in their underage development. Michael McMullan writes

PLENTY of clubs have had four players on the pitch, in the same game, at county senior level.

There will be others in the future. Steelstown don’t have the monopoly on it. But they are not the average club, only on the go since 1987.

They are based in Derry city, an area with a small core of Gaels are trying to spread the GAA gospel that isn’t fashionable on every street corner.

Steelstown provided Marty Dunne and Paul O’Hea, the current Chairman, to the winning Derry All-Ireland minor winning team of 2002.

Neil Forester, one of three players to pay in the All-Ireland minor final five years later, has worn the Derry senior jersey.

When Derry won the All-Ireland minor title in 2015, the start of the current upsurge in the county, another Steelstown player, Eoghan Concannon, played in their defence and went on to make a dozen senior appearances.

Ben McCarron has played over 30 times for Derry at senior level. Debuts for Diarmuid Baker, Donncha Gilmore and Cahir McMonagle last Wednesday night in Cavan took Steelstown’s number of county seniors to eight.

On the night, all four scored from play as the Mickey Harte era in Derry got off to a winning start.

The McKenna Cup is a means to an end. There will be greater challenges and more significant milestones ahead, but for the people of Steelstown it was a chance to stand tall.

When founding member Anthony McGurk took the club’s first senior team to play Swatragh Thirds, he could hear whispers of their selection made up of a “pile of doctors and solicitors” lasting just a year.

How far off the mark it was. Fast forward to last Wednesday and the Steelstown Brian Ógs’ imprint is even more permanent.


Having played with all four of the Steelstown players and having coached Cahir McMonagle and Donncha Gilmore, Neil Forester is well placed to lift the lid on why they’ve made it into a Derry squad with genuine Sam Maguire ambitions.

“I knew how good they were, having played with them,” he outlined. “To have all four of them to score from play, is just amazing…especially for a city club.”

He is over the moon. It’s the same feeling deep in the club’s fabric. There’s giddiness. Pride and delight also come into it. Away from football, the four lads both give and get respect.

“They are good lads around the club, turning up at underage presentations and things like that,” adds Brendan Hughes, who coached all four.

“They are prepared to give back and appreciate what they had on the way up now they are on the other side.”

Forester puts the club’s down to good people giving up their time, work by more than is possible to mention

KIDS’ CLUB…Neil Forester, centre back, pictured with Ben McCarron (back right) and Donncha Gilmore (back left, with ball) at a Steelstown underage camp

.“The coaching at Steelstown was so well organised from,” adds Brendan Hughes of the Go Games model that saw a group of players go 15 months unbeaten as they glided over the playing field of Derry.

“Cahir’s (McMonagle) mother Bernie was very much responsible for this. A Saturday morning was like a military operation.

“I came and took a session, she had them signed in with a coloured bib to indicate what group they were going into…it ran like clockwork.”

Forester is in agreement. The support structures include the players’ families and trekking to the four winds, to blitzes or games.

“You overlook those bits and pieces,” Forester said of the overall buy-in. Without it, nothing is possible. It just wouldn’t have happened

He also references a famous line from the film Moneyball: “The first guy through the wall always gets bloody.”

It makes Forester think of days looking up to Paul O’Hea and Marty Dunne, his inspiration to play for Derry. Others have followed and the cycle in is motion.

Anyone can now tap into the belief that county football is for whoever really wants it. The name or location of their club is irrelevant.


Forester can remember the first time he saw Cahir McMonagle. It left an imprint.

It was St Stephen’s Day and Steelstown were hosting their annual charity game. Teams were a mixture of ages, having fun and blowing out the dirty Christmas diesel in the process

He can still see the big, wet, size five ball being belted out of defence.

“It was flying towards this wee, two foot nothing, seven year-old,” Forester said of McMonagle standing there, just itching to get on the ball.

“It was a dirty, wet day. He took it on the chest, caught it and sprinted off with it.

“Everybody stopped and stood in shock and thought, who or what just happened there. You’re thinking, right, that’s Cahir McMonagle, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

By Primary Five, he was midfield as Holybush won the Tower Cup, the Holy Grail for local schools in the city.

At u-12 level, the fly ‘keeper role excited him. A chance for expression and, sure, it was something different.

“He was a joy to coach,” Forester said. “The hard part was to make it challenging and interesting because he was a step ahead of everyone.”

McMonagle had all the attributes to give soccer a go but when it didn’t fully materialise, he was always welcome back among the crew he grew up with. The Steelstown door was always open.

It was his free that won the Derry intermediate title and Forester still laughs at McMonagle’s penalty in the All-Ireland final.

After scoring one in the semi-final win, he wanted to keep the Trim goalkeeper guessing. On the eve of the final, while killing time with some FIFA on the PlayStation, a handful of the Steelstown players concocted a plan.

If they were to get a penalty in Croke Park, Morgan Murray would take the ball and place the ball before McMonagle would come up and take the actual kick. It sounds bonkers, but that’s how it happened.

Forester remembers roaring up the pitch, enquiring what the hell was actually going on, before McMonagle planted the ball to the top corner. Pressure, as they say, is for tyres.

It’s the kind of carefree mentality the game is crying out for, something different. Sure, if a forward doesn’t know what his next move is, a marker has zero chance.

GET IN…Cahir McMonagle slots his penalty in Steelstown’s All-Ireland Intermediate final win back 2022

Donncha Gilmore backed up kicking a point on his debut with forging a midfield partnership with Brendan Rogers on Saturday night. They broke and picked up enough ball to help Derry turn the tide against a Down team previously in control.

It’s not new for Gilmore to have both feet outside his comfort zone. With a “good birthday” there was always the desire to play with his slightly older friends on the team above.

“He played midfield at u-16 in his last year of u-14…that was the quality of player that he was,” said Forester who did likewise growing up.

“He was blessed with good athletic ability. He plays a lot of golf and tries his hand at anything, always looking to be busy.

“You can see that in his play and to be adding scoring to his game shows the all-round quality and adaptability.”

Forester also points to the resilience needed to make it. While McMonagle had to get over the knockback from not making the cut in soccer, Gilmore had trouble with injury.

There was a cruciate injury. Then, when his performances on the 2020 All-Ireland minor winning team elevated him to u-20 level, a dislocated shoulder saw him miss out on the senior success after Rory Gallagher saw enough in him to initially bring him on board.

“That’s the difference and why they are at his level now, they are so mentally tough,” Forester said of the Steelstown county senior contingent.

“The All-Ireland year was Donncha’ first year (with Steelstown seniors) and you could see how comfortable he was, it was ridiculous given he was an 18-year-old.

“He was a joy to play alongside, to be able to put so much trust in somebody so young and know they are going to perform at the top level.”

Ben McCarron has played 32 times for Derry, but has yet to fully cement a place in a team crying out for another forward to shoulder Shane McGuigan in the scoring stakes. He has never quit when others have jacked it in.

“So many people would’ve left because they weren’t getting a chance and saying it wasn’t fair,” Forester said. “He goes back and back. I also love that he scored two points (against Cavan). He is such a leader for the club.”

Forester digs into the adversity cards Baker was dealt. Overlooked at minor level during Derry’s recent golden run, he didn’t feature at u-20 level.

Brendan Hughes reveals how Baker, arriving into college life in Belfast, without a profile, was placed in the third team. He didn’t sulk. Rather, he just kept his head down and within months was the first team’s player of the year.

It was a small win and twelve months ago everything changed. Andrew Gilmore had built up a reputation with Down’s u-20 Ulster winning team.

QUB Sigerson manager Conor Deegan tasked Baker with picking up Gilmore in a derby win over Ulster University. Not only did he shackle the Down starlet, Baker managed to get forward to notch two points.

Within days, Rory Gallagher had him at Owenbeg and in the Derry senior squad.

Without a single minute of game time, he just kept his head down. It was about serving his time. Like McCarron, he stuck it out when others would’ve left.

“He (Baker) was a good solid club player, a good lad who was always very receptive to what he was told,” Brendan Hughes said of his underage days.

“He really took everything on board and had a tremendous attitude.”


After scoring on his debut last week, Baker curled over again against Down while keeping another u-20 winner, Oisin Savage, scoreless before he was replaced by Gilmore who was also snuffed out by Baker.

“We were wondering why he was overlooked (for Derry) and, for us, he ticked every box. The way he plays the game, it is all action,” said Forester.

He remembers Baker, still an u-16, being called into the Steelstown squad by manager Paul O’Hea even though he was too young to play. It was about giving him a taste of what was to follow.

“You can talk about coaches all you want, but these boys have that mentality that they want to go and better themselves,” said Forester, using the word “earn” rather than “deserve” when referencing their progress.

“That’s why they are now at the level that they are, they refuse to give up, their mentality is unbelievable and Baker probably epitomises all that.

“I can’t speak highly enough of them, they are four top quality lads that have deserved and earned everything they have got.”

CHAMPIONS…Diarmuid Baker shows his joy at Croke Park after Steelstown’s All-Ireland success

For Hughes, having four of them play a part, is an “endorsement” of their development from the

“It is another step in the right direction,” he added. “It is a great honour and recognition of what is going on in the club that four of them have appeared in the one night.”

He also acknowledges Newbridge having four players on board. Two sets of brothers, Conor and Mark Doherty and Paudi and Conor McGrogan.

Hughes can see the challenge Steelstown will face with four players now unavailable for club league duty.

“It will give others a chance on the team and prove they are good enough to keep the team in Division One without four county players,” said Hughes, who has managed at club and county level.

“The likes of Sleacht Néill have been doing that for a number of years.”

Steelstown must not prove they can dine at the top table without their county players. It’s a chance for players deemed fringe players to put their hand up and prove they should be further up the ladder come championship season.

For now, Baker, McCarron, Gilmore and McMonagle must prove to Mickey Harte they are worthy of a dip into the choppy seas of Division One and help build the panel Derry’s next climb needs.

“I think Harte has the right characters in these four,” Hughes concluded.

Harte has also said the four players did the late Brian Óg McKeever, after whom the club is named, justice with their progress. Harte visited him, with the Sam Maguire Cup, in his final days.

For Neil Forester and the Steelstown senior team, it will be preseason soon. Then again, it will have already begun.

The club’s new gym is well used as they build a culture to make their senior championship progress of last season more than a one season success story.

Outside of the senior team, the club is buzzing and having four players on county duty only adds to the excitement.

“We are riding a fantastic wave at the minute and this is more hype,” Forester said, summing up.

“We are able to produce good quality players and good people as well. That comes off the back of the ladies winning Ulster and, now, with the lads at county level.

“The things we were doing…at least now we know we were doing it right.”

Derry’s current four men of Steel are the walking proof.

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