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Chrissy McKaigue meets his kindred spirit in Derry manager Rory Gallagher


Derry defender Chrissy McKaigue. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Derry defender Chrissy McKaigue. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Derry defender Chrissy McKaigue. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Rory Gallagher calls him Christopher. Only Mr and Mrs McKaigue have ever called him that. To everyone else it's Chrissy.

But for the Derry manager, giving his captain his full title - no abbreviations, no nicknames - is an important distinction.

Respect? Admiration? Maybe even a little fear!

"Me and Rory have a very, very close relationship but the boys laugh too that our relationship is more open and honest than most of the players," recalled McKaigue.

"We’d have a go at each other at times but we’re very, very close and probably in many ways we share similar personality traits."

Kindred spirits then, driven, vocal, obsessive. But in McKaigue, Gallagher knows he has one of the best man markers in the game, a study in concentration and alertness for 70-plus minutes.

He has picked up three of the top forwards in Ulster in their three championship games to date and conceded just two points, both to Tyrone's Darren McCurry.

Donegal's Patrick McBrearty was held scoreless from play, as was Monaghan's Jack McCarron, but in defence of McCarron he won three frees that were converted and added a mark in McKaigue's company. The odds are stacked against the defender so such outcomes give him fulfilment.

"I just found myself in that role, even when I was playing out the pitch for Slaughtneil," McKaigue recalled.

"I played the vast amount of my inter-county career in the full-back line and it's a very different role. The kids at school that I teach would say it's not a very glamorous task but every team needs stoppers. It's hugely fulfilling. I would say it's satisfying to know that you are given the trust to go out and mark the marquee players so it's more that.

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"But you are always aware that every day you go out there is always a potential problem there so you stay grounded and you stay humble. As long as I can play that role or one of those roles it's something that I get satisfaction from. Sometimes even against the marquee players, breaking even is as good as you can manage."

But there's more to his game than just stopping these days. There's leading. By example and by word. And by focusing less on his own game and giving more to others, it has helped him.

"I've tried to nurture more of the players on the pitch and off the pitch and I suppose in many ways that's taken a big load of the pressure off me from my own performance. I can look past my own performance," he said.

“There was too long in my own career when I couldn't do that. So I am really enjoying this stage of my career because it is so different and I am getting a different look at it.

“Maybe when you are caught in that bubble for so much of your career you don't appreciate how special that is."

Derry's emergence has been one of the stories of the summer and McKaigue has been one of their biggest components.

On Saturday Derry meet Clare in the first of the All-Ireland quarter-finals, a place in the last four beckoning for the first time in 18 years.

He's been there for all but five of those years since, joining the squad in 2008, leaving for a couple of years to pursue an Aussie Rules career with Sydney Swans, before returning in late 2012 and being ever present for 11 years now.

In that time they had a painful dip to Division 4, as recently as 2019.

"We were never accustomed to being that far down but the reality is we had to learn from that experience and I firmly believe there is enough experience in the county board and enough people that are doing work at ground level that we never will return there again so that we can protect what we have and build on it.

"Because anybody who's well attuned with GAA history will know that Derry has always produced good players and has always had a serious footballing pedigree."

They've had much underage success and always enjoy a thriving club scene but they needed all the "curves" to come together, as he puts it, and Gallagher's arrival was a catalyst.

"When he came in - and I think he'd laugh about it now - but I don't think he realised how bad a place Derry were in. He was probably caught unawares in the first year. We were in a really bad place. Tactically we had no idea, culturally we were in a bad place in terms of the environment needed to compete with the top teams.

"Covid came at a good time for us because we were in disarray to a fair extent. We had a bit of time to fix where we were at, what we needed to change. Rory has been good for Derry but I think Derry has been good for him too," said the Slaughtneil man.

Last month's Ulster title has given McKaigue, and Derry, a sense of validation.

"You can think you are good enough, and you can think that you can compete with the big boys. But until you beat them, it’s massive. We beat the three teams that have been dominant in Ulster for the last decade, especially Tyrone and Donegal.

"So for that younger group to have announced themselves like that, I mean, you can’t replicate those sort of pressure environments or occasions. You either can play in them or you can’t.

"Whatever happens this year, we can now say that we can compete with the better teams. That’s some place to be in comparison to where we were three or four years ago.”

His time, he acknowledges, is shortening. At 32, how long more can he really chase the province's, and now country's, best inside forwards without exposing himself to one of those days that every corner-back fears?

"My body is starting to feel the toll of a long number of years, not just at inter-county but the club scene too," he acknowledged.

“Very soon I am going to have to make a decision regarding some facet of hurling and football, county football, whatever it is. But we will make them decisions when they come along. As long as I am still able to compete with the better players I am going to try and hang around.

“We have a very good backroom team in Derry that can look about modifying training and ways to look after certain players. I am sort of at the stage of my career now where I would train morning, noon and night. And that's very strange for someone like me to say. But it’s come to the stage now where I need to train smarter and if I can do that maybe I can hang around for a wee bit longer."

There's gratitude too. "It may have taken a long time but what he had before last month's Ulster title was better than many others," he acknowledged.

"I was always dead conscious of the fact that when I look back at what I have been able to achieve in terms of service to Derry. I have been able to win Railway Cups, play International Rules, I have been able to play in Division 1 finals, the odd good day in the championship, mark the best players, play against the best players. I've been so lucky at club level.

"So I have got it fairly good in comparison to a lot of other people so gratitude is a big thing that I have thought of but I am ambitious and with that you become selfish."

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