ALL IRELAND CLUB IFC SEMI-FINAL
Na Gaeil v Steelstown Brian Ógs
Saturday, January 29
Connacht Centre of Excellence, Bekan 2pm
Bekan beckons Na Gaeil this weekend for what should be an absolutely cracking All Ireland semi-final with Derry outfit Steelstown.
The surface of the dome-side pitch upon which the game will be played is top notch and, with the stand right against the pitch, the atmosphere should be nothing short of electric.
It’s a somewhat unusual venue for an All Ireland semi-final in some respects, but other than the stand not being quite big enough, it’s an absolutely top notch facility.
Na Gaeil will relish the chance to show what they can do on such a fine playing surface and that’s the thing about this All Ireland semi-final: it could well come down to whichever team expresses themselves better.
All Ireland semi-finals – as Sunday’s intermediate hurling clash involving Kilmoyley at the Connacht Centre of Excellence proved – can be nervy affairs. It can be as much about getting that under control as anything else.
In the hurling Kilmoyely were the better side. That didn’t stop their rivals from Derry putting them under all sorts of bother, until Kilmoyley regained their composure and pushed for the line from the third quarter onwards.
It could be a similar sort of story this weekend. It’s a game Na Gaeil will go into as favourites, and rightfully so, but it’s not to say that Steelstown don't represent a serious challenge to their Croke Park aspirations.
The Brian Ógs are a proper side – you don't win Ulster without being deadly serious let’s be honest here – and are a side who have been picking up steam all campaign long.
Across the Ulster championship they played four games – starting away to Donegal champions Cloich Cheann Fhaola, with a game at home to Monaghan’s Dunamoyne (the pre-tournament favourites), a big win on the road in Fermanagh against Cavan’s Butlersbridge and finally an Ulster final victory over Tyrone’s Moortown St Malachys – meaning they're more than battle hardened.
The Steelstown club are quite similar in a lot of ways to Na Gaeil. They're one of the youngest clubs in their county and have quite a number of good young players in their ranks, even with a lot of more established performers in situ.
Brian Ógs also play an exciting brand of football, even if the 0-6 to 0-4 scoreline from their Ulster final seems to suggest otherwise. The 5-13 they shot in the Ulster semi-final is probably a more accurate representation of what they're capable of.
Steelstown are, like Na Gaeil, decidedly upwardly mobile. In fact they’re something of a trailblazing outfit for Gaelic games in the Derry City – much more so traditionally an association football outpost.
They’ve thrice missed out on the intermediate title in Derry before getting over the line last year against Greenlough. It was their first ever county championship success at any grade at adult level.
Managed by Down native Hugh McGrath – the Derry coaching officer and a member of Rory Gallahger's Derry backroom team – they've broken that hoodoo and, while initially Ulster seemed like bonus territory to the club, now that they’ve got the bit between their teeth they’ll be hard stopped.
Certainly they’re not going to let Na Gaeil play the game on their terms with quality all over the park.
Even in goal, despite losing number 1 keeper Martin Dunne to injury in the Derry final, they’ve still got a really good replacement in Eoghan Heraghty.
Defensively they’re pretty strong with full-back Kevin Lindsay a proper man-marker and probably the man likely to be detailed on Na Gaeil star forward Darragh Carmody.
Eoghan Concannon – a former Derry minor and Under 21 player – is another man-marker for the club, while guys like Oran Fox are given a bit more latitude to roam.
One guy in the Steelstown defence Mark Bourke and the Na Gaeil management team will be keen to keep a close eye on is young Donncha Gilmore.
He was the star of Derry’s All Ireland minor victory of 2020 over the Kingdom and has already been fast-tracked into Gallagher's Derry senior squad. A real star of the future, he could do damage from wing back this weekend.
The Brian Ógs midfield is pretty strong too with Ryan Devine and Shane O’Connor – who has broken into the side since the beginning of the Ulster campaign – likely to line out against Jack Barry and Stefan Okunbor in Mayo this weekend.
You'd have to imagine that’s advantage Na Gaeil – particularly with Diarmuid O’Connor playing as a de facto third midfielder – but it’s likely to be a bit like Grand Central Station in the centre of the park in Bekan.
Up front former Derry senior Ben McCarron will take watching, as will Cahir McMonagle, who’s probably the Derry outfit’s best attacking player.
Overall Steelstown are said to have a strong panel of players – no less so than Na Gaeil we suppose. Still it's clear that Na Gaeil's defence will have their work cut out for them. It’ll be a big day for guys like Eoin Doody, Fergal Barry and Damien Bourke.
One area where Na Gaeil might have something of an advantage is in the experience stakes. The club having contested and won an All Ireland semi-final just a handful of years ago at junior level.
Then again this Na Gaeil side are very much their own thing, with less holdovers from that All Ireland winning side than you might imagine.
Still to have guys like Jack Barry, Diarmuid O’Connor, Eoin Doody and Andrew Barry bring invaluable institutional memory.
The bookmarkers have Na Gaeil installed as very warm 4/11 favourites – which a carries an implied probability of around 73% – but something tells us this is going to be a bit tighter than that.
Na Gaeil’s advantage at midfield is quite pronounced, but we can’t imagine for a moment Brian Ógs will play into the Munster champions strengths there.
This could be quite tactical initially as both teams try to figure each other out. Once they do, however, it could really open up into something special.
There’s more than enough quality footballers on both sides to make this a cracker potentially. Just as long as nerves and the fear of losing doesn’t get in the way.
Verdict: Na Gaeil