Steele certain Derry have cutting edge to push Cats all the way
Derry Under-21 hurling captain Ciaran Steele is bracing himself for the All-Ireland semi-final in Semple Stadium today (4.00pm), with the background of a lot of shared history between opposition Kilkenny and his own village of Dungiven.
Many moons ago, a native of Kilkenny, Liam Hinphey, put down his roots in Dungiven. There had already been hurling in the parish, but he did more than most to nourish the game as well as providing the Kevin Lynch's club with two of their most famous players in Liam Óg and Kevin.
The original club even lined out in Kilkenny's black and amber stripes, something Steele is keenly aware of as they embark upon the All-Ireland series at this level for only the sixth time in their history.
"There would be a bit of communication through managers down through the years," says Steele, currently studying Mechanical Engineering in Queen's University Belfast and living "at the foot" of Benbradagh mountain, as he puts it himself.
Ryan O'Neill, a member of the club's senior team management, is familiar with a number of contemporary Kilkenny hurling legends and is in regular contact with Jackie Tyrrell, the stalwart full-back with nine All-Ireland titles who has made the seamless transfer to the Sunday Game analysis show.
The young Derry lads also have a huge novelty in hurling at Semple Stadium for the first time.
Kilkenny are managed by Eddie Brennan, the four-time All-Star who won eight Liam MacCarthy Cups in an unprecedented period of success on Noreside under Brian Cody.
Derry came through Ulster, under the management of Colm McGurk, along with trainers and selectors Mickey Glover and Kevin Kelly, for the first time since 2008.
They were not fancied to beat Antrim in the semi-final outside of their own circle. But within it, things were different the captain insists.
"We weren't really expecting it, or expected to by anybody else, to go and beat Antrim," he said.
"But we had a great belief. Because, well, personally I would know a lot of their players, we all would know a lot of their players from playing against them growing up.
"We were getting beat by them growing up, but not by a huge margin.
"We had a belief there that we could compete with them. We were proved right anyway," he said.
Hurling for Queen's under Sean McGourty and Ciaran O'Connell, Steele also became intimately familiar with the Antrim players and put his knowledge into action.
They then went on to face Down in the final and had some comfort to spare in a 3-17 to 1-9 win.
With the game fixed for Thurles, the Derry squad left yesterday to split the journey up and arrive refreshed for opposition that includes senior star Liam Blanchfield.
Having played centre-back throughout the campaign, he doubts he will be handed the role of marking Blanchfield, expecting instead that he will get a detail to mark Richie Leahy, the young Rower-Inistioge hurler whose man-of-the-match performance in the Leinster final win over Wexford led to a call-up to Cody's senior squad.
"Kevin Hinphey has some back and forward with Martin Fogarty and he says that Leahy is a good player. So you never know what can happen!" jokes Steele.