Stewartstown are ready to take flight

By Niall Gartland

THEIR dramatic Ulster Junior Championship victory over Drumlane will never be forgotten, but Stewartstown captain Mark Rooney says they’ve knuckled down for their big away trip to Glasgow Gaels.

It’s the All-Ireland Junior Championship quarter-final – also known as the Twinning Cup final – and Stewartstown, yet to suffer a single defeat all season, won’t want to stop now.

There’s a novelty factor to the game given it’s taking place in Scotland, but Rooney says that the players and managers have their full attentions on the task ahead of them on Sunday.

“There’s been a lot of people in the background who have taken the pressure off us, players and management alike. Keystone sorted out the flights and McAleer and Rushe organised the accommodation. We’ve been lucky as players that we haven’t had to deal with those things.”

“Some of the lads on the team (Gareth Devlin, Anton Coyle, Greg Kelly and Johnny Campbell) played a team in London when the club reached the All-Ireland final in 2004, there’s still some good stories knocking around from that trip and hopefully this one will be as good.”

Their provincial final win over Cavan side Drumlane was laden with drama. Stewartstown trailed at half time and were hit by a few setbacks early in the second half. Lesser teams would have wilted, but they dug deep and eventually prevailed on penalties.

“It was a crazy game to be fair. In the first half it wasn’t looking too good for us, but we didn’t let them get out of sight either. Then in the second half Gareth Devlin had to go off injured and there was a sending off as well. I don’t know how we pulled it out of the bag but we just about managed to hang on,” said Rooney.

“We’d a couple of days celebrating but we got back to training and refocused again, the celebrations are well out of the road at this stage.”

During the penalty shoot-out that decided the Ulster final, Rooney couldn’t even bare to watch on. At that stage, it was almost in the lap of the Gods, but it was Stewartstown that prevailed against a devastated Drumlane team.

“I watched Anton’s first penalty and the ‘keeper just about got a hand to it, and after that I thought ‘nah’, I couldn’t face it. I wanted to get back on the bus at that stage! We said in the huddle beforehand that it’s down to a bit of luck, that it was up to the five lads who were taking the penalties, and all us boys on the sideline could do nothing.”

There was a strong level of camaraderie in the camp already (they didn’t bag a league and championship double by chance), but the nature of their win has brought the camp even closer together ahead of the start of their All-Ireland campaign.

“It definitely does – if we’d won that game handily, by 15 points, we wouldn’t have celebrated the way we did. Coming through a game like that makes the victory a bit more special, and we’re that bit more grateful that we did manage to get across the line.”

Stewartstown have done their homework on All-British Champions Glasgow Gaels. There’s no guarantee that the Harps will claim the win – it won’t have escaped their attention that London-based hurlers Kilburn Gaels overcame the Ulster Junior Hurling champions Setanta last Saturday – but the Tyrone men are still favourites to progress to the All-Ireland semis.

“We have a bit of information on them, they’ve a couple of ex-county players in their ranks. They definitely look like a decent team. It’d be easy to get caught up in the fact we’re travelling over but at the end of the day you have a football game to win first.”

Stewartstown will hope that their experienced forward Gareth Devlin will play some part this weekend after being forced off with a hamstring injury against Drumlane. They have some long-term injuries in their ranks, however, including their talented midfield player Shea Burke who picked up a serious stomach injury in the Tyrone final win over Aghaloo.

“It’s a very uncommon injury and was just the way the man landed on him. I’m not sure of the right terminology but there was a rupture in his small intestine and he had to get it removed, he’s lucky as it could have been worse. It was a bit mad to hear about as we didn’t realise it was so bad when he went off. He should be back playing, he wasn’t allowed to do anything initially and he’s had an operation. All being well he should be back for the pre-season.”

Looking beyond their current campaign, Rooney also says the Harps want to establish themselves at Tyrone Intermediate level.

“It’s rare that teams who achieve promotion compete at the top straight away, but I feel we are a Division Two team really. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going and hold our own next year.”

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