An athletic wing-man, back or forward, in his minor and U21 days, McKaigue came back from his brief stint in Australian Rules football a bigger, bulkier, more athletic player.
He came home and resumed his career in the half-forward line, as expected. But when Kevin McCloy and Kevin McGuckin retired, Derry were left with a deficiency at full-back.
A few were tried and tested but it was John Brennan that saw McKaigue’s potential to fill the berth on the edge of his own square.
Against Laois, he was thrown the number three jersey and ever since, that has been his home. His development in the position was aided by the decision of Damian Barton, then Slaughtneil manager, to play him in the same position at club level.
Brian McIver has kept him there faithfully, largely because of a lack of viable options.
Mickey Moran came into the Slaughtneil hot-seat in the winter of 2013 and, with an abundance of tight-marking defenders in his squad, one of the first things he did was to release McKaigue back out to six.
From there, he reminded everyone of the attacking force he can be from deep. All through his club’s run to the All-Ireland club final, he became someone that the opposition marked rather than the other way around.
In the Ulster club final, Omagh’s Conor Meyler barely touched leather at centre-forward, but was rightly heralded as having done a great job because he kept McKaigue quiet.
Thus the clamour has grown that when he returned to inter-county football, that the 25-year-old would be taken off man-marking duty and turned back into an attacking platform for Derry.
And so it has come to pass. His clubmate Brendan Rogers has been handed a debut at three tomorrow, freeing McKaigue back out to centre-half.
“From when I started playing full-back in 2012, the game has changed massively,” he says.
“I used to be in the middle with 2 and 4 beside me, and their men beside them a lot of the time. Now, you could wear anything from 2 to 7 and play anywhere in defence. It’s match ups. The numbers come back in.
“That’s the way Donegal have done it, the way Cavan have done it, the way Monaghan are doing it.
“Look at a few weeks ago, Justin McMahon marking Michael Murphy, 6 and 14 out around the middle sector for the majority of the game. Frank McGlynn wore 7 and looked like he was everywhere. That’s the natural evolution of the game.”
It doesn’t require much time in his company to realise that McKaigue is studious about his football. There are plenty of inter-county players out there who don’t watch the game at all. His team-mate Niall Holly said last year that GAA matches were enjoyable to play, “but I don’t enjoy watching them.” He wouldn’t be the only one.
But McKaigue is one to appreciate its intricacies.
Defensive football? “The GAA has a bit of media hype about this blanket defence which has been completely over the top,” he says. “Stakes are high and teams want to give themselves the best chance of winning. What right has anyone to say that a team has to go out and play a certain way? You train from November until whatever time of year, you have the right to go out and play whatever way you think gives you the best chance of winning.
“Whether people want to watch it or not, I’m sorry to say that a lot of players don’t really care about that. What you see now is the Ulster Championship being one of the most viewed because it’s so intriguing.
“The tactical battles and how close and competitive the games are, that ultimately lifts the viewing figures.”
It’s little wonder he thinks like that, given how bare Derry left him against Longford 12 months ago. The shock qualifier defeat was largely blamed on the Oak Leaf absentee list that day. It wasn’t the quality of those missing, rather the experience, that hampered Derry. Brian McIver’s side got sucked in by Longford, who didn’t seem to mind abandoning their principles quite so much that afternoon. It left a huge space for Brian Kavanagh, and he laid everything off. McKaigue, with 60 yards of space to contend with, was rendered powerless.
“You can’t afford to play a step or two in front because one long ball in behind and it’s goal time. It was probably naivety with a lack of experience. We probably didn’t have a clear enough system in place either. But this year we’ve looked at that and we’re trying to be more pragmatic about how we’re doing things, playing a more detailed system.”
As for tomorrow, this will be Derry’s seventh consecutive home championship game. It will be the sixth at Celtic Park.
The other was a victory over Sligo — a dreadful game played at Owenbeg two summers ago.
Down, Cavan, Donegal and Longford have all had joy in Derry city in that time. Three of those teams were overtly defensive on the day that they beat Brian McIver’s side.
For years in Derry the debate has raged about Celtic Park and Owenbeg, with the latter more popular with supporters due to its location in the centre of the county.
The same debate carries on but for a slightly different reason now. Celtic Park is the second smallest inter-county pitch in Ulster, while Owenbeg has the same dimensions as Croke Park. In trying to unpick blanket defences, Derry have found the lack of space in the city venue to their detriment.
McKaigue admits it would probably help the team to move their games to Owenbeg.
“Perhaps. Perhaps. I know this year, quite a few Derry clubs played the blanket against us in the championship. Our players were saying thank God it’s in Owenbeg, because it’s so much easier to break down.
“You’ll find a hole in the hedge somewhere in Owenbeg. You always will.
“Celtic Park it’s more difficult. Again, there are going to be reasons why it’s in Celtic Park, and it’s a fantastic venue when they crowd’s behind Derry, as is Owenbeg.”
Celtic Park or not, at least he won’t be enclosed in the 25 square yards in front of his own goal tomorrow. Chrissy McKaigue is free. Watch him go.