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McKaigue is keen to shut door on foes and inspire Slaughtneil

 

By Declan Bogue

Gaelic football may be a team game, but there are certain variables that players can judge themselves on.

For man-marking defenders, it is the impact their direct opponent has on the scoreboard. In that respect, Slaughtneil ace Karl McKaigue's record since the start of the Derry Championship - in both codes - has been nothing short of astonishing.

Conleith Gilligan. Danny Tallon. Seanie Johnston. Ronan O'Neill. Jerome Johnston. Ryan McHugh. All county footballers, all the main men in their respective club's attack. And yet McKaigue has held every single one scoreless from play.

More than that, McKaigue - along with his brother Chrissy and Brendan Rogers - is possibly the most-used player on the island at the minute, between club and county football and hurling. Barring injuries, the last time any of them would have had a prolonged rest period was at the end of 2015 when they were knocked out of the Ulster Club campaign.

"I remember back in 2015 I took a bit of a break to keep the body right more than anything," recalled the 25-year-old physio. "I was going up to the club and watching league games. I was actually wanting to get back out to play and I couldn't live with myself standing watching it."

That jars slightly with the modern-day fascination of digging out disaffected player narratives, but then success is addictive.

It's one thing being ultra committed, quite another thing when fixture scheduling comes with little sympathy.

When Slaughtneil beat Omagh in the Ulster football final, they were playing just six days after the Ulster hurling final. The initial belief in the club was that it was being staged on a Saturday night to cater for television demands, but that wasn't the case. It was a chronic lack of empathy for a club that really could have done with the extra 24 hours rest or even to have a pitch-based run-through on the Saturday if the game had been fixed for the Sunday.

After that game, McKaigue admitted that the club had managed to keep it in-house, but the dressing room was like a war scene with bodies patched up week on week before being sent over the top again at the weekend.

"It wasn't really switching between the codes. We are sort of used to it at this stage. It was the fact that we played something like nine Championship games in the space of 12 weeks, that's always going to take its toll on you, physically and mentally," he reflected.

"At that stage, we were just trying to get through games, keep men reasonably fit and we were just lucky enough to get over the line.

"Once you are 10 or 11 weeks into a Championship campaign, you can't perform at your optimum level. It's not physically possible and it's about grinding it out. I think that did show a wee bit in our Ulster Club performances. A lot of them were sort of nitty-gritty, nothing too flamboyant or special about them."

Something had to give and although Slaughtneil prepared diligently for the All-Ireland semi-final against Na Piarsaigh, they found themselves level on the scoreboard with 25 minutes to play, their Limerick opponents down two men from red cards. Slaughtneil lost by seven points.

"There was no real excuse from our point of view, to go into the meltdown we did," McKaigue admitted.

"You know, it's probably something you never prepare for, playing against 13 men. I don't think I have ever played against 14 men in a hurling game never mind 13. We played it maybe a bit silly and naive, but we have only ourselves to blame. You have to congratulate Na Piarsaigh, they rose to the challenge."

Still, they have a pathway to greatness established. The Na Piarsaigh performance was measurably better than how they performed against Cuala the year before and the panel, along with manager Mickey McShane, are in it for the long haul.

Their average age of 23 is also a source of hope.

Our old friend geography, though, is the permanent enemy when it comes to Ulster hurling teams with All-Ireland ambitions.

"We spent many weekends travelling to Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin for challenge games and getting good quality matches under our belt. It's difficult, logistically as much as anything," stated McKaigue.

But that's in the past. When you are looking forward to an All-Ireland football semi, the wounds soon close up. And McKaigue agrees.

"It's probably the best medicine for it. If we were just focusing on one All-Ireland semi-final and you were knocked out of it, you are down in the dumps, you have nothing to look forward to," he said.

"But when you have the football to fall back on, it makes it easier. Your mind is pre-occupied straight away, you don't have too much time to think and dwell on the hurling match and how it might have been won.

"Your mind is immediately set back on the challenge Nemo are going to pose us. It is probably the best thing for us."

It will be a fascinating clash of styles. Nemo have scored an average of 2-15 since the start of their nine Championship games, while Slaughtneil's average concession across eight games is 0-10.

While Slaughtneil lost last year's All-Ireland football final to Dr Crokes, Nemo's conquerors in Munster, they have a chance to avenge the 2015 defeat to Corofin, already waiting for them in the final on St Patrick's Day.

Nobody needs that to be spelled out for them, McKaigue admits.

"That's always going to be at the back of your mind. Not only St Paddy's Day last year, but from 2015 as well when Corofin beat us," he said.

"It probably doesn't need to be said by the management or the players, they all know in the back of their own minds. It's just a huge disappointment and you would always love to give yourself that chance to get back into a final on St Patrick's Day and get on the right side of it this time.

"We can't even start to think about an All-Ireland final until we are there. We are coming up against Nemo, a team that are of proven quality, seven club All-Ireland titles to their name and such a strong tradition in their club."

Slaughtneil vs Nemo Rangers

All-Ireland Senior Club Football semi-final:

Portlaoise, Saturday, 4.30pm

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