emmet’s on brink of club history

2016/17 AIB GAA Senior Football Club Championship Final

Slaughtneil’s Chrissy McKaigue has been instrumental in the Emmet’s fairytale journey to the 2016/17 AIB GAA Senior Football Club Championship Final.

“You can trust the man left, right, in front or behind of you. Maybe that comes in small clubs anyway, but a team always reflects their manager’s best traits and the way we play reflects Mickey Moran.

Slaughtneil’s Chrissy McKaigue

The dual player will line out with his clubmates against Kerry’s Dr. Croke’s in Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day as the club’s footballers seek to emulate the feat of the camogs who have already brought All Irleand senior glory back to Derry.

Slaughtneil’s season has been unprecedented. A remarkable run to the semi-final in the hurling as well as the camogie success means McKaigue and the players from all three panels can already be tremendously proud of their season.

Slaughtneil showed their character in the semi-final against St. Vincent’s of Dublin when they won by two points against the 2014 champions. McKaigue marked Dublin star Diarmuid Connolly for the game and finished with four points, including three huge scores in the second half. However Slaughtneil will need to be in inspired form again in order to overcome a strong Dr. Crokes outfit that boast several footballers on the Kerry senior panel including talismanic players such as Colm Cooper and Daithi Casey.

And yet, just one game away from All-Ireland glory, McKaigue insists it’s their hurling they have to thank for it.

People have marvelled at the Derry club’s historic provincial double and brave run to match it at All-Ireland level and felt that all their dual efforts caught up with them when Cuala knocked them out in the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals. Yet the teak-tough centre-back says winning the Ulster hurling title actually provided the platform for Slaughtneil’s amazing double bid.

“People are trying to find reasons why they (both hurling and football) can’t work but, for us, playing the two really worked!” says McKaigue

“For me, the one turning point for the football was actually getting over the line in the Ulster hurling final,” McKaigue explains.

“No Derry club had ever done it. Lavey and Dungiven had been very close before and we’d been excruciatingly close ourselves. We were beaten by Loughiel, who’d won the All-Ireland the previous year, in 2013, by just a couple of points. Cushendall beat us the year after in the semi-final by a point in a replay and the next year we were beaten by a point after extra-time. So this year we were going into our third Ulster hurling final thinking ‘can we get over the line?’

“When we finally did it, it just boosted everybody, especially the dual players,” he explains. “I really think that’s why the football started to get better and better. Everyone was on such a high. The hurling this year had a massive effect on the football.”

Now all those dual efforts are distilled to one final push: a duel for club football’s blue riband with the Kerry aristocrats.

The Ulster champions go in buoyed up by their women’s historic success in the camogie final.

“The club’s back on a bit of high now after the girls’ win,” McKaigue grins. “Watching the way they played in Croke Park, you couldn’t but be inspired by how hard they work and how committed and together they were. It just did the heart good.”

So has their women’s victory lifted some of the burden off their men?

“I don’t know if it took pressure off but certainly the morale of the club is really good,” he observes.

“There’s so much work gone on in our club for years. People have latched on to it now because of the three teams doing so well but these things don’t happen by chance. The right people have to be in the right places and the culture has to be right and that’s one thing Slaughtneil always had, whether it had success or not.

“The club always tried to help people and always embraced the role of volunteerism. That’s why our facilities are so good. It’s all based on volunteerism and there’s a real community spirit. When all those things are added up and you go onto the field - things click! It’s a big reason why we’ve been so successful. But if you want to achieve greatness and aspire to winning an AIB All-Ireland club hurling title, these things don’t happen overnight,” he stresses.

“There’s a process and a path to follow. We haven’t got that experience yet at hurling and it’s taken our footballers three years to build up to this point.”

The former Aussie Rules recruit teaches PE at St Mary’s Limavady which, coincidentally, is where Slaughtneil manager Mickey Moran first established his own vaunted coaching reputation.

“Mickey has developed a way of playing and a culture that’s going to leave a lasting legacy in the club,” McKaigue says.

“It’s a way of playing, but it’s also how you conduct yourself, the standards around training and how we care for one another on and off the pitch. I think when you’ve that kind of care factor amongst the group it galvanises you on the pitch, especially in tight games.

“You can trust the man left, right, in front or behind of you. Maybe that comes in small clubs anyway, but a team always reflects their manager’s best traits and the way we play reflects Mickey Moran. We’re honest, we’re hard-working and we’re respectful. He’s been a colossus.”

So can Slaughtneil cap their fairytale season by going one better than 2015 and matching a feat that only three Derry clubs – Bellaghy (1972), Lavey (1991) and Ballinderry (2002) – have ever achieved?

Their incredible treble odyssey may have turned them into household names this season but, football-wise, they have been here before.

This is their second football final in three years and McKaigue believes their heavy loss to Corofin (0-7 to 1-14) is an asset this time.

“We just weren’t up to that level in 2015, we weren’t ready but having that final experience is massive. We’re much better versed this time. But so are Dr Crokes,” he warns of the famous Killarney club who lost three semi-finals in a row from 2012-14 and are chomping at the bit themselves to replicate the title that they won all of 25 years ago.

He sees a lot of similarities between ‘Crokes and St. Vincents, not least “that they’ve got four to five match winners in their forward line, which is not always the case at club level.

“But on the big days, against the best teams, you’ve just got to back yourself,” he adds.“We’ve a lot of trust and belief in each other and that’s carried us well over the last few years. They’ve come so close in recent years and this final is going to be two teams who are hugely up for it,” McKaigue concludes.

“We’re definitely a lot more mature now than 2015. We have a few new boys since that have freshened the team up and we’re definitely in a much better place. Whether that’s going to be enough we just don’t know yet.”