Thursday 13 December 2018

Dick Clerkin - Winning tradition v final heartache: Slaughtneil-Nemo has all the makings for memorable clash

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Slaughtneil's Chrissy McKaigue. Photo: Sportsfile
Slaughtneil's Chrissy McKaigue. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

When Slaughtneil meet Nemo Rangers in the All-Ireland club semi-final in February, it will be a case of seasoned campaigners meeting new kids on the block. But who plays which role in this potential classic?

With a record seven All-Ireland club championship titles to their name, Nemo possess an unrivalled tradition.

Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

Absent from the post-Christmas showdown since 2010, a long gap by their standards, it will be uncharted waters for many of their players.

In contrast, the Slaughtneil players will look ahead to February with a familiar sense of anticipation having dominated the Ulster landscape in recent seasons.

Yet with no All-Ireland title to validate their provincial endeavours, a question mark remains.

For many, tradition will give Nemo the edge on their northern opponents. Putting Gooch et al to the sword in such convincing fashion last Sunday is sufficient reason for most to lean towards the Leesiders.

For me, this game is effectively the All-Ireland final. Corofin, while still a remarkable team, are not the force they were when they peaked in 2015 with their impressive dismantling of Slaughtneil.

The turf accountants have Corofin installed as All-Ireland favourites but only by a nose hair.

Getting the benefit of an easier passage to St Patrick's Day, be in no doubt that they will be the underdog against whoever comes through the north-south encounter.

Not being dismissive of the eventual Leinster winners, but St Loman's or Moorefield don't have enough credit in the bank to trouble either of the big three.

Incrementally, we are becoming familiarised with the nuances surrounding Slaughtneil's remarkable rise to power.

Before the turn of the century, they were a relatively unremarkable, small, rural, and predominantly-hurling club.

Resourced from around 300 houses on the slopes of the Sperrin Mountains, an inspiring community has been built around the GAA club, which gives itself over to the development of our games and Irish culture.

These humbling efforts of the club members off the field are as impressive as those of the players on it.

Whilst the rest of us are feeling good about organising 'Stars In Their Eyes' or 'Lip Sync Battles' as fundraisers, the Slaughtneil community are growing the country's newest Gaeltacht region in the most unlikely of places.

Setting aside the romantic subtexts surrounding them, Slaughtneil have developed into a seriously impressive team.

In their beginning, it was easy to dismiss them as a workmanlike group of players with a willingness to expend every last breath for each other.

Shorn of the marquee talents enjoyed by many of their opponents, it often seemed they had to do things the hard way. But it is a hardness that has started to glisten.

A few weeks back, when most of the country despondently watched Ireland's inability to string a succession of passes together in Copenhagen, Slaughtneil produced a near-flawless performance when defeating Kilcar in their Ulster semi-final.

Even a Paddy McBrearty exhibition couldn't prevent his side's submission to a team who clinically displayed their All-Ireland calibre.

With a transition from defence to attack like something from the Ajax era of total football, they cut a swathe through the Donegal rearguard to kick 2-17.

Their attacking efficiency yielded only two wides, which was another indicator of their progression under the tutelage of GAA sage Mickey Moran.

Their assured touch and lean frames are testament to the time they dedicate to playing training games at a pace and intensity to match anything they might encounter beyond the mountain pass.

Steel sharpens steel. Flawlessly intricate passing movements of a telepathic nature and at break-neck pace have become a hallmark of their play.

In Chrissy McKaigue they have a spiritual leader who embodies everything they stand for. Selfless, efficient, and indefatigable, he never has a bad game.

His dismantling of Diarmuid Connolly in last year's All-Ireland semi-final victory over St Vincent's ranks among the best individual club performances.

When Corofin comfortably cast them aside in the 2015 decider, they looked a team whose ambitions beyond Ulster were misplaced.

Spurred on by their remarkable support base since then, they have improved year on year to the point that they now look like a team destined to add that missing chapter to what is an already remarkable story.

Recently Chrissy has spoken with refreshing honesty about his burning desire to turn the tables on their crushing defeat last year, a game he felt was there for the taking.

Only so often can a stretched panel of players make the demanding journey through Derry and Ulster to Croke Park.

If 'Gooch' was the inspiration behind Dr Crokes' drive to success last year, McKaigue is the heir to his throne.

Deep down, he will know that they may never get a better chance to claim that elusive Andy Merrigan Cup.

Backed by tradition, Nemo have plenty of their own sentiment to send them into the Christmas break full of confidence. It has the makings of a memorable encounter.

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