There is a strong chance, according to the bookies at least, that Slaughtneil will leave Croke Park tomorrow as an AIB All-Ireland final runner-up for the second time in three seasons.
Christopher McKaigue, Slaughtneil’s commanding centre-back, views the game through a different prism, though, reasoning that there is effectively no pressure on the team to perform.
He says that if their camogie team, who recently won the All-Ireland title, had been beaten, similar to the club hurlers who lost at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, then things would be different.
“You know, oddly, the pressure is off,” said McKaigue. “Imagine [the camogie team] had been beaten, then all the pressure is on the football to win something. The amount of people that would have come out of the stadium that day and said: ‘Ah Chrissie, the pressure is on you now’. No, the pressure is off, to a certain extent. We still have to try and go out and win the game against Dr Crokes, but I think it’s a lot better for the camogie girls to have won.”
Slaughtneil, at the foothills of the Sperrins in south Derry, punch above their weight, with few expecting them to return to these heights after a heavy defeat to Corofin in the 2015 decider. McKaigue, a former AFL player with the Sydney Swans, looks back on that experience as character-building more than character-crushing.
“To achieve feats like Slaughtneil are aiming to achieve, you have got to follow something, and it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time,” he said.
“It has taken three years to get to the level we are at now. We are in a lot better place than we were in 2014/2015 and that comes with experience. Our hurlers have to go through that experience too and often that experience means pain. Whether you want to say ‘this is not for me, there are people criticising me here’, or whatever else, you just have to get on with it. Like the old saying goes: ‘Respect is earned.’”
McKaigue captained the Slaughtneil hurlers, who were well beaten in their All-Ireland semi-final last month by Cuala.
“We had to be logical about the hurling too. Of course, we believed we could have won, but hurling is one of those games, that you need to be at it all the time to be at that level,” he said. “We weren’t at it enough. At the same time you wouldn’t change the scenario for anything in the world and you have to think too that our hurling team’s average age is 22. For me to be the oldest player on our hurling team at the end of the Cuala game, you have to step back and think. We have to aspire to that level in hurling in the next two or three years.”
The footballers believe their time has already come and McKaigue, who gave a brilliant display of man marking on Diarmuid Connolly last time out, also weighing in with four points, offered explanations for their poor performance in the 2015 All-Ireland final.
“Patsy [Bradley] wasn’t right, Karl [McKaigue] had to receive an operation for cartilage on his knee, wee Sammy Bradley had to receive a shoulder operation, so there were two or three of our best players that weren’t firing,” he said.
“It’s very easy to whinge and cry and everything else. For us to compete against Corofin that day, to really compete, we needed everyone fully fit and, you know, if we had everyone fully fit, it still mightn’t have mattered. Corofin were an exceptional team. They really were the best team in the country and won their All-Ireland fair and square.”
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