Ulster club series gives hurling a huge lift: McKaigue
Slaughtneil captain Chrissy McKaigue believes that the Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship is the competition which throws a lifeline to the sport in the province.
McKaigue, who will lead his men against Dunloy in Sunday's final at Pairc Esler, Newry, is convinced that the quality of matches in the closing stages in particular have tended to shine a positive light on the game.
"I honestly believe that, were it not for the Ulster Club Championship and the quality that it brings to the table, the sport would be in a more dejected position than it already is," states schoolteacher McKaigue.
His Slaughtneil side landed their seventh Derry Championship title a few weeks ago, they have been in four of the last five Ulster finals and they are going for their third title in four years, but McKaigue is certainly not consumed by over-confidence as he contemplates a renewal of rivalry with a Dunloy outfit that will be skippered by Paul Shiels.
"We have had a lot of good days and some bad days tossed in there from which you can often learn more about yourself, so we will just focus on the task ahead on Sunday," points out McKaigue.
"We want to win for ourselves, our families and our club first and foremost, and if we can give hurling in Derry a bit of a lift in the process then that will be fine."
The Slaughtneil side, which has shown remarkable consistency over recent years, has undergone a few alterations yet has maintained its attacking philosophy and strong sense of ambition.
An All-Ireland Club title has proven to be frustratingly elusive, yet this remains the ultimate goal for the current line-up which, under manager Michael McShane, has continued to blossom.
"I would say that the average age of the side is about 23 or so and that gives us encouragement going forward," maintains McKaigue.
"We have young players like Morgan McEldowney, Mark McGuigan, Michael McEldowney and Jerome McGuigan who have come in and they have shown themselves to be capable of matching the standards that have been set for them.
"Sunday's final will be a fresh challenge for them and I think that ourselves and Dunloy are capable of pulling in a good crowd.
"People know that both sides play positive hurling with the emphasis on attack. I think it's a game that would have appeal for neutrals - it should be a good spectacle."
McKaigue, along with his brother Karl, Brendan Rogers, Shane McGuigan, Se McGuigan, Cormac O'Doherty and Gerald Bradley, helps to lend an experienced edge to the side.
These players have been lavishly decorated to date in both football and hurling at county and provincial level but are clearly hungry for more success.
"We want to keep challenging ourselves but, at the same time, it would be foolish to look beyond our next game. That's why our whole focus for now is on Dunloy," adds McKaigue.
Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has already admitted that he was not particularly happy with the team's performance in beating Armagh champions Middletown in the Ulster Club semi-final but is confident that they can raise their game considerably against Dunloy.
"While we played within ourselves against Middletown, we can't be happy with that," he says.
"I would like us to play with a bit more fluidity rather than the start-stop type of game we had against Middletown. That game never really got into a real flow and maybe that worked against us.
"We know we can play better and we have to go out and prove that on Sunday. We have boys in the side who were playing in their first Ulster Club Championship game in the semi-final and it was a bit of a baptism for them. Now we are going into a final and it's up to the team as whole to show what they are capable of."
His Dunloy counterpart Gregory O'Kane, meanwhile, is not reading too much into his team's handsome semi-final win over Ballycran. The Down champions lost their way after they had a player sent off and Dunloy were able to compile a healthy score.
But O'Kane prefers to keep things in context as his side continue to train their sights on the provincial accolade.
"We had a four-week fixtures break from winning the Antrim Championship until we played in the Ulster Club Championship and we wanted to start off at the pace we had finished in the Antrim competition," reveals O'Kane.
"We were delighted that we were able to do this. We wanted to get over the line against Middletown and reach another provincial final."
Slaughtneil are familiar foes to O'Kane and there will certainly be no element of surprise attached to Sunday's encounter.
"You have to concentrate on your own game, that's very important. We know that Slaughtneil are a good side, you only have to look at their record for proof of that," insists O'Kane.
"But at the same time, my team have a great hunger this year. We have 35 players and every man is as honest as the next man, and that's all you can ask for.
"All we as management can hope for is that we make the right decisions.
"We have a nice blend of youth and experience in there, they are gelling smoothly and we have to hope that they produce their best form on Sunday because it will take that in a game like this."