Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

Chrissy McKaigue doesn't regret returning from Oz

High riser: Chrissie  McKaigue in action for Derry against Kildare
High riser: Chrissie McKaigue in action for Derry against Kildare

It was a weekly clip, featuring roster members Chrissy McKaigue of Derry and Tadhg Kennelly of Kerry taking team mates through a series of hurling and Gaelic football challenges.

It proved popular. McKaigue was popular among the squad too, but trying to break onto one of the strongest sides in the AFL was a constant frustration.

The options were to tough it out, get a job and drop down to the Victorian Football League and play or a bit of semi-pro. But then, there was home. Hurling and football with the Robert Emmett's club of Slaughtneil alongside his friends and brother Karl. No choice, really.

He had been named reserve player of the year, but he was in for a penny, in for a pound. Biding his time held no appeal.

"That didn't interest me," he explains. "I am a competitive person by nature and it's the full thing or nothing. That's what made my mind up.

"I don't think I would have been very satisfied compared to coming home and playing football for Derry and hurling with my club.

"There's more to sport than money, it's about satisfaction at the end of the day and the satisfaction I have got playing is more than playing semi-pro football in Australia."

He doesn't pine for the environment of professional athletes, because he believes the GAA operates in that realm.

"The GAA have almost replicated everything from the AFL; the GPS trackers, the heart-rate measuring. All the different recovery things and the rest of it.

"People have no idea how much players have come on in terms of their professionalism, the quality of the coaches, the sports science."

From an early age, McKaigue  had been flagged up. He was minor vice-captain when Derry reached the 2007 All-Ireland final, losing to Galway. The following summer he played a first round qualifier for Paddy Crozier's senior team against Monaghan.

Damian Cassidy carried him in his first panel but held him back in 2009. When the offer to go to Australia came in September, he left behind his studies.

Now, he can't get enough of education. He recently finished up a Sports Science degree with Jordanstown and is waiting to hear of acceptance for a PGCE at the Coleraine campus. In the meantime, he has an Open University degree on education to keep him occupied. This time next year he says, he will be a teacher. He is seriously tuned in and self-assured for a man just turned 24.

Last summer ran into winter with club commitments, Slaughtneil bridging a 13-year-gap to win the Derry hurling title and going all the way to the Ulster final, rattling Loughgiel in an early spell of dominance.

It was straight from that into preparations for the International Rules games against an all-Aboriginal selection. McKaigue admits his surprise by how easily he and Ireland found the series.

"They were representing more than their country in ways, they were representing their culture.

"We were expecting a bigger fight, but it might have been that they had too many players who were just too similar. Too many corner-forwards. You need a few soldiers with your artists."

He hardly had time to catch breath before it was headlong into pre-season and the O'Fiaich Cup with Derry prior to Christmas. Along the way he played full-back on the Jordanstown side that were defeated in the Sigerson Cup final.

Ah yeah, there were two Inter-pros game for Ulster, too.

It's a heavy workload, but he has his own way of coping.

"If I hadn't hurling in my life, it would get very monotonous and maybe a little boring. Hurling gives me that bit of release.

"For me, it's a necessary part of my life to play both codes and I suppose the county scene has gone now almost to a professional status. It's how you manage your time and I am quite fortunate to have a family that will support you and back you up."

His Derry football career has been slow-burning, making his first Championship start in that ten-point defeat to Donegal in 2012. Looking through the team that day, only five starters could be realistically expected to start on the 25th of May against the same opposition.

Derry's league campaign, their wins away to Kerry and at home to Dublin in particular have reminded us that they have always had the footballers, they just needed the structures.

McKaigue says, "I think if you look across the players that Derry have, there's no reason why we shouldn't be competing with the very best and beating the very best. I think Brian has brought a wee bit of calmness and composure and you have boys like Mark Lynch, Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley, Gerard O'Kane - senior players who have really upped their game to another level."

Derry's rediscovered hunger for hard work suits him, he admits.

"Every county from Division Four up have gone into a new era of dedication and that's how it has to be. If you want to compete, never mind win anything, you have to train three, four nights a week. That has to be on the pitch, it has to be tactical, strength and conditioning."

Mayo await him in the league semi-final this Sunday and while McKaigue can't wait to get out in Croke Park, he makes the point that he wants to be cutting the same turf with his studs in August and September.

He also admits something you rarely hear of inter-county players; "It's very exciting to be a Gaelic player right now because of all the advances that have been made and continue to be made."

It's the perspective of a man who has been away and knows how the world works.

He's part of the new Derry alright, a future captain and a dependable cornerstone in the Brian McIver revolution.

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