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Slaughtneil on the hard road to glory

Derry kingpins' title bid inspired by tough work ethic

By Declan Bogue

How hard is your average Slaughtneil man?

Well, just as a 'by-the-way' before we get settled into the interview with joint-manager John Joe Kearney, he mentions that since he saw you the last time, he nearly lost his finger.

He worked in a timber yard for decades and was well used to physical work. But a piece jammed in a logging trestle, the chainsaw slipped and, well… it became a bit of a mess.

Kearney holds up a reddened and swollen digit that he had sewn back on. There is no feeling in the tendon but he doesn't complain. Not when there is an All-Ireland final at stake.

Should anyone doubt the deep, mad love that a grown adult can have for the sheer act of playing football, they could extract it from Kearney.

He lined out in maroon for the last time at the age of 46. He only made the step down from senior football at 38 and, because there was a thirds team, he saw no reason to stop.

His final day was an epic tussle in a low-grade championship against Ballinderry. They drew the first day. The replay was level at the end of normal time. They were cruising home by two points in extra-time when Ballinderry broke all the way upfield and scored a goal.

While he was centre-half forward that day, he names the midfielders as Thomas Cassidy - the inspiration of the club to this day who was buried the week of the Ulster hurling and camogie finals his children played in - and club Chairman Sean 'Play on Sean' McGuigan.

"I enjoyed it," he smiles now. "Simple."

And when he was done as a player, he managed Derry minors to the 1989 All-Ireland title. While he kept an eye on football thereafter, he was two decades out of all management when Mickey Moran came to him asking if he would be on his management ticket for the club senior team.

"I had a few rest years," he reflects.

"I went to matches but I wasn't involved in the underage. I wasn't involved in maybe 20-odd years until Mickey came along."

Moran wanted the Slaughtneil job. The difficulty was so too did Cathal Corey of Kildress, and he got it.

Kearney recalls being at home one Saturday that year. He was clipping a hedge and fell off the ladder, suddenly checking himself that he sounds terribly unhandy and accident-prone.

He knew he was in bother, but the following day Slaughtneil were playing Bellaghy in the championship at Swatragh and he never told his wife about the fall in case she would confine him to barracks.

The following day his brother Henry brought him over to the match in his van.

On Monday morning he went to hospital and was told he had a fractured hip socket. He eschewed an operation and just rested up for eight weeks.

"During that eight weeks, Mickey Moran came out - now this is the year he didn't get the job - and he said he wanted me to help him out (the following year). I said between work and farming, I might have been saying 'no' to you because I don't know if I could commit to it," he says. "Next year, Mickey got it."

Kearney soon found the modern game suited him. He wears his intellect lightly and wraps it up in his relaxed, country way. But he studied the classics as a boarder in St Columb's College in Derry, where John Hume taught him French.

He finishes: "Those young boys in that squad are exceptional. There's no messers. They're treated with respect. There's no bad language ever used along the line, we don't believe in that. Nobody makes a mistake deliberately."

How nice it would be to see that attitude scale the highest peaks.

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