By Barry O’Donnell
AS he approaches the twilight of his playing career, Gareth Devlin could have been forgiven for thinking that another crack at Croke Park may have passed him by.
The 35 year old enjoyed a couple of memorable appearances there as a minor back in 2004 when he starred in the forward line on the Tyrone team which accounted for Kerry 0-12 to 0-10 in the All-Ireland Final to annex the Thomas Markham Cup.
Almost two decades down the line Gareth is heading back to Jones Road on another team bus- this time with his beloved Stewartstown.
The evergreen attacker has done as much as anyone to keep the Harps title ambitions on track over the last few months, despite donning the No.29 jersey throughout their Championship campaign.
He rolled back the clock again last Saturday, registering six points as well as the all-important extra-time goal which helped Stewartstown ease out Clifden in the All-Ireland semi-final ar Dr Hyde Park.
It was a nervy and scrappy affair at times, with the Harps struggling to translate their evident superiority across the bulk of the eighty minutes into tangible reward on the scoreboard. However given the carrot dangling in front of their noses, Devlin stressed that getting over the finish line was all that really mattered.
“ We knew coming into the game the size of the prize at stake which was as big as any trophy. We were aiming for a day at Croke Park.
“ We were so sloppy and we kicked away so many opportunities. We have a strong enough mentality in the squad and even with five minutes to go and trailing we always feel we can hang in there and eventually make the chances count.
“ We could see they were tiring and we had the legs on them. Once we pushed on we were always going to get on top and then the goal finally gave us that bit of breathing space. Anton (Coyle) produced a brilliant pass and I just had to keep my cool and try and slot it in. Thankfully it hit the back of the net and gave us that two point cushion.”
Devlin was part of the Stewartstown team which reached the All-Ireland Junior Final back in 2005, but whereas that decider with Finuge was played at a provincial ground, he feels that a date at Croker would no doubt add to the prestige of the occasion this time around.
“ It was played at Portlaoise, we probably got shafted a bit because I think it was moved to there after initial talk it was to be Croke Park. So while it was good to get to an All-Ireland Final it was bitter sweet for ourselves and we also lost too.
“ It was moved to Croke Park the following year and has been played there ever since so it has been a long time waiting for another opportunity for Stewartstown.”
Media duties have become an occupational hazard for the Stewartstown camp over the last few months but are also an indication of a successful team. Gareth states that everyone is savouring the limelight and putting the club on the map.
“ It has been an unbelieveable few months. I still remember 20042005 so to get to Croke Park was our main aim after we got through the Ulster Final. Thankfully that is us there.
“ It’s just great to see the younger lads get a run-out with their club at Croke Park. I was fortunate enough to play there with the County and that was an unreal experience so I’m delighted now that the lads at the club have that chance now
“ We have a young squad and the run this year is such a boost and hopefully will drive the whole club on.”
Only Greencastle (2007) have manged to annex the All-Ireland crown at this grade among Tyrone finalists with Stewartstown (2005), Rock (twice, 2008, 2017) and Derrytresk (2012) all falling short at the last hurdle.
The Harps know they will be up against it on Sunday with Fossa’s challenge spearheaded by the two Clifford brothers- David and Paudie- but Devlin is bullish about the challenge ahead despite the Kerry stars in the opposition camp.
“ We savoured the semi-final win but had to move on quick because of the turnaround to next weekend. We will all look forward to next Sunday when there will be an even bigger prize at stake.
“ That will be unreal, to be going to Croke Park and to be up against players of that stature (Cliffords). But we won’t fear them and will be ready to go against anybody. There is David and Paudie and thirteen others who will have to be watched, so we have a whole team to worry about.
“ We will give it our all and hopefully get over the finish line.
“ Emotions are high this week which is understandable but once we knuckle down our main focus must be on playing football and not get too caught up in the occasion.”