McKaigue: Champions Slaughtneil owe a lot to late Thomas Cassidy
After Slaughtneil became the first Derry club to win the Ulster Hurling Club Championship by beating Loughgiel on Sunday, their manager Michael McShane revealed to reporters that he had asked his captain Chrissy McKaigue to deliver the game of his life.
And so he did, scoring three fine individual points in the process. As he stood in the tunnel afterwards, the dual star paid tribute to the first man to teach him how to hold a hurl.
Thomas Cassidy passed away after a long illness last Wednesday. On Friday, his family laid him to rest. That evening, his two sons Sean and Eanna attended a Slaughtneil training session and made themselves available for selection on Sunday.
"I owe a lot to Thomas Cassidy," reflected McKaigue. "He made me captain of the Under-12 team that won the Championship for the first time in 2000.
"People tend to forget those things. It snowballed from there."
Cassidy was one of those figures in a club that does everything, but could be taken for granted too easily. He also had three daughters on the Slaughtneil camogie team that drew with Loughgiel in the evening's curtain-raiser; Aoife, Brona and Eilis.
He was also a huge force in delivering the Community project, 'An Carn', that gives the area such a strong sense of identity.
McKaigue said: "He was the man that was coaching, he was the man that was driving us around. He was the man who was fighting the lone battle when hurling wasn't that fashionable. Football was the main kid in town, so Thomas drove hurling. And it's just so sad that he is not here to see this."
Talk turned to his own performance, his reserves of energy that have kept him going and performing at the highest level throughout this heavy schedule. Last Sunday, he and the other dual players were winning their third consecutive Derry Football Championship.
This Sunday they will be in Owenbeg for the Ulster Football quarter-final against Fermanagh-based team Derrygonnelly Harps.
McKaigue insisted that a mention of Cassidy's name was not necessary in the dressing room.
"We tried to keep emotion out of it as best we could. He had a son playing and his son had to play his own game too," he said.
"But it was at the back of people's heads. We didn't need to talk about it as such. We will talk about it now and honour his memory in the club, and all the stories that go along with him.
"We were energised by his spirit and his legacy. This is part of his legacy, end of."
McKaigue then reflected on how the club camogie players lined the tunnel as they made their way out for the second half, and the emotion of it all.
"We came in at half-time and the Slaughtneil supporters were on their feet, it was emotional too," he added. "These kind of games are emotional. You have got to keep the emotion out of it as best you can, but we have a very resilient group. I am one of the older members of the team but how those young boys conduct themselves is a credit.
"The average age of the team is 22, and it is scary what they can achieve as long as we keep following the model we have created, based on very high standards on and off the pitch."
Just as the week before, he admitted that he and the other dual players would be paying a visit to the cryotherapy facilities in nearby Toomebridge.
In any event, the club had made the decision that win, lose or draw, there would be no bar or disco at the clubrooms on Sunday night, out of respect to the Cassidy family.
McKaigue, the Gaelic development officer at St Mary's Limavady, said: "People say you can't get enjoying these kinds of days but I am a wee bit weird.
"I have the rest of the boys sickened with 'Uncle Chrissy' complaining and crying at them.
"But we have to realise how lucky we are playing a game week in, week out. We work so, so hard for it and we have Derrygonnelly next week.
"You just get energised from days like this. We will go next week and prepare. This is a night the hurlers can enjoy. But for the footballers, we will enjoy it for a while, but no partying as such.
"The players are driven. People ask, 'What's the secret?' The secret is that the players drive it. Not the management, committee or the chairman, the players drive it and the players will be driving it this week for the football next week. That's the secret."
A year ago, Slaughtneil were in a similar position and had victory snatched away from them in the closing stages of the 2015 Ulster final when Cushendall's Conor Carson made a couple of crucial catches and the Antrim side forced the game into extra-time, where they edged it.
As Loughgiel drew to within four points in the final quarter on Sunday, McKaigue admitted to nerves entering the equation.
"You had kind of been there and done it before, but still, to create history, when we were three points up you were thinking, 'oh no, here we go again,'" he said.
"But we dug in and we stuck at it and it's just a relief to get over the line. The first Derry team to become Ulster hurling champions, that just sounds so, so good."
As to how far they can go?
He said: "I am starting to think of the football already, because that's just the nature of it."