Steelstown management duo Paul O’Hea and Eamon Gibson face two huge dates over the next four weeks.
The first is Sunday’s Derry Intermediate Final against Castledawson where Gibson is the critical support to O’Hea’s refreshing new management regime at Pairc Bhrid; a regime that has the Brian Ogs one game away fromthe club’s first senior Championship title.
Eamon been a great help and the boys know him well. They know what Steelstown means to both of us.Paul O’Hea
The duo face a marginally more important date on Friday, November 4th when the tables are turned and O’Hea becomes Best Man at Gibson’s wedding to fiancee, Wendy Coyle.
Best friends, the duo are dyed in the wool Steelstown men in an era where GAA club management has become a profession. O’Hea didn’t necessarily want the senior’s manager’s post when it became available in the summer but his club needed him and across a playing career that took him through every division in Derry football and saw him line out for his county at minor and senior level, O’Hea never let it down. He wasn’t about to this time either but if he was taking on such a demanding role, there was one man he knew he needed alongside him.
“Gibby was the first person I rang when I was thinking about the job,” explained O’Hea, “I wasn’t that sure because of the time demands but straight away, he said he would give me a hand. I knew he would do it but I didn’t even have to ask him.
“His input is vital. He has a straight answer for most things and has a great head for selection and tactics. Sometimes I’m guilty of over thinking it. He simplifies things and brings it back to the core issues and what we were first thinking about which is normally the right answer any way.
“He’s been a great help and the boys know him well. They know what Steelstown means to both of us.
“No disrespect to other managers but I think it’s great for boys who have played for a club to then take the next step and manage. There are fewer doing it now. Maybe it doesn’t make any real difference at all but it would be nice if we could be successful together. It would mean so much to me and Eamon as well the players.”
That success seemed a pipe dream earlier in the season. Steelstown were tipped as one of the main challengers to expected Division Two front runners, Glenullin but it didn’t happen. Very little did in fact.
A team packed full of talent was guilty of going through the motions and allowing their season to peter out. Gary Duffy departed and the club turned to O’Hea and Gibson.
Despite his reservations after scaling back his own playing days due to injury, O’Hea recognised the potential in a group still containing many former team mates. Now he will lead those former team-mates - the likes of Marty Dunne, Mickey McKinney and Neil Forester - into the heat of battle in a Championship final.
“It will feel strange in some ways,” concedes O’Hea, “But I don’t really feel any less part of the group. The team has been a natural part of my life for the past 15 years or so and it doesn’t feel that different from playing.
“There are definitely a few extra responsibilities but I always was close to that side of things because I was captain for a number of years. I might be on the sideline but I still feel part of the group.”
O’Hea and Gibson have brought the ‘hunger’ back to Steelstown and it appears infectious. A team drifting has been reborn with hugely impressive Championship victories of Faughanvale and Foreglen. And it wasn’t just the result but the manner of victory that resonated around the county.
For a duo more renowned for the defensive side of the game as players, O’Hea and Gibson have found an attractive style that suits the city men.
“These days people are always talking about defensive football but any team will try to find a system that best suits its players and I don’t think being defensive suits our players. It’s not how I like the game to be played.
“The players begin to enjoy their football when you give them the freedom to express themselves a bit and it has worked out well so far.
“The response at training has been excellent but I think every one at the club knew there was more to the team that what we had shown in the earlier part of the season.
“You can never target getting to a Championship final because it is so difficult to win any Championship game. We have tried to keep things pretty simple for everyone and get the boys enjoying their football.”
And it’s ironic that the club’s second Intermediate final sees Steelstown line out against the same opposition that inflicted the most cruel of defeats in the first. Not that O’Hea wants to look back. That 2010 final and Paddy Henry’s dramatic injury time winner have been consigned to history. O’Hea wants his players facing front.
“We haven’t talked about the 2010 final. It is not relevant to what’s happening this season. A few of the older boys might have it in their heads and they know the down side of a county final.
“Personally, I feel we didn’t do ourselves justice that night. We didn’t play as well as we could play or certainly as well as we had played in the semi-final.
“Even then, we nearly got it won but at the end of the day, it was our own fault we didn’t. Had we done more, played better it might have ended differently but you soon forget about it. You get on with it. We won promotion to senior football and moved on.
“No one can afford to be looking back. It won’t influence this weekend’s game at all.”
The introduction of a number of young players means that final six years ago is unlikely to be an issue. Players like Andy Moore, CJ Martin, Paul Ferris, Emmet McBride and Emmet Deane have been complemented by Derry county minor duo Eoghan Bradley and Eoghan Concannon. It has freshened a panel which has seen many departures sinces 2010.
“We needed young players to step, there was a danger of things becoming a bit stale,” adds O’Hea.
“When myself and Eamonn came in, we wanted to be able to say to players, ‘You will get your chance’ and they have responded. The younger lads have brought so much energy and you see the more established players responding to that. The experienced lads are crucial but it helps to have these younger lads pushing them on. It is a nice mixture of both.”
That leaves Castledawson. O’Hea knows Sunday’s final will be the ultimate test for his reborn team.
“We told the boys we wanted to give the Championship a good rattle and took it from there. We didn’t really think about it too early but once we got the first match or two over us, you could see what it meant to the people about the club.
“The players have shown great hunger in training and I think some are thinking ‘We have to get this done this year’ but those same players know it doesn’t just happen for you. Championship football is difficult and the final is going to be the toughest match yet.
“The teams do know each other well. They have probably a more settled team than us and are a bit more mature as a team. They have more players playing together regularly over the past number of years than we would have but I don’t expect there will be any big surprises from either side.
“Both teams will go at it and I think it has the making of a good game of football. ‘Dawson are a good footballing team. They like to play attacking football. They have put some huge scores up, especially earlier in the Championship. They will want to come to Owenbeg to play.
“If we can bring the level of performance we showed against Faughanvale and Foreglen I will be pleased but it’s a fine line. I’d be as happy to win by one as I would be to win by five so fingers crossed.”