Derry’s Steelstown eye All-Ireland success in Croke Park showdown

Contenders play Trim of Meath and will be youngest club to feature on All-Ireland final day

Steelstown Brian Óg’s manager Hugh McGrath: ‘Whether we get hammered on Sunday or not, the gates will be open here on Monday.’ Photograph: Stephen Hamilton

The first time he can remember the notion – the very concept of Gaelic football – Paul O’Hea was in Primary Class Five.

Sean Mellon – the one-man propaganda wing of GAA in the somewhat barren lands of Derry city – had gathered up a few schools and put on a few training sessions in Celtic Park.

After that, they were on the road.

"They took us away down to Armagh to play a game and we got hammered out the gate!" recalls the Steelstown chairman.


After that, he barely spotted an O’Neill’s football for years. His father had played, up to MacRory Cup football level for St Columb’s, but never with a club.

He moved away to England and by the time he came back there still wasn't a club there for him.

By the time a number of blow-ins and curious parties got Steelstown up and running, including two-time All-Star Anthony McGurk, it was 1987. O’Hea was among the first batch of children to try out this new sport in a soccer hotbed.

When Steelstown run out on to the Croke Park pitch this Sunday for the All-Ireland Intermediate final to play Trim of Meath, they will be the youngest club to feature on All-Ireland final day.

Everything about them has evolved. It’s a word you could use for a lot of things around Derry.

For a start, GAA was pitched as the enemy to progress by the then bishop of Derry, Dr Neil Farren, from the 1930s. Instead, he encouraged his pupils at St Columb's to play soccer. In sermons he advised mothers to keep children away from the GAA.

Now it’s flourishing in the city, with clubs everywhere and facilities constantly improving and updating.

Even though they haven’t been around a long time, there is an incredible sense of identity. The club is actually called Steelstown Brian Ógs, after their former senior player Brian Óg McKeever who died in 2008 from cancer at the age of 17.

In his senior outings, he wore the number 5 jersey. When you arrive at their grounds, the jersey and the number is the first thing you notice, held up on a sign on their wall.

It’s never worn for matches. They haven’t lined a team out with number 5 since.

There is a memorial bench for Charlene Griffiths, the Mother Steelstown captain of the ladies' team who died in 2012, also of cancer.

In Derry they don't forget. Last weekend ushered in the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and while the Saville inquiry and apology of then British prime minister David Cameron was notable, the inability to prosecute Soldier F (murder charges were dropped last summer), plus the dog whistle of a possible amnesty in the North means the families often despair of any meaningful justice being delivered.

It will not deter them, however.

Last Sunday Steelstown U-17 coach Emmett Wray took his place in the annual Bloody Sunday march, just as he has his entire life.

His father, Raymond, was a mere 11-year-old in 1972. His elder brother Jim was 22 and engaged to an English girl. He decided to join the march for civil rights after attending Mass. He never came home.

“He would always have brought us to marches as far back as I can remember. Every single year. He would never let us forget Jim,” recalls Emmett. “Murder is murder. When Jim was killed, he was running away. He was shot in the back. And a soldier came in a minute later and shot him again through the belt from point blank range. That’s murder.

“David Cameron . . . I don’t remember the exact quote, but he said about one man lying mortally wounded on the ground and he was shot again. That was Jim, that’s murder.”

One Sunday blends into another and from the darkest day in the city’s history comes one of the brightest as they take their place in Croke Park. It would be trite to say it’s some relief.

“When you say sport takes you away from the reality of things, I can’t help but think back to the likes of my uncle Jim and others in Derry. They never had anything like that,” says Emmett.

“They had nothing and all they were fighting for was civil rights. And they are the reason why we can do all of this now. Their efforts made it possible for us now to enjoy life. Our lives are much better for what they did. It was poverty back then. Men were trying to do any work they could, but there wasn’t much about.”

Hugh McGrath is in his second spell as manager, the first being a four-year spell at senior level from 2011 to 2014. He played for the club and he lives it every day of his life. He just gets it.

Asked what it would mean to lift a trophy in Croke Park, he responds: “We were founded to give an outlet for Gaelic games. Nothing more. We took some wild hammerings in the first 10, maybe 20 years, which is going to happen to anybody.

“Whether we get hammered on Sunday or not, the gates will be open here on Monday. We still have the same mantra. The kids training will have three or four sessions, the ladies will be in the gym getting ready for their season. The wheel keeps turning.”