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The GAA has to be about more than just winning: McKaigue

All-Ireland club SFC semi-final: Slaughtneil v St Vincent's, Pairc Esler, Saturday, 2pm

By Declan Bogue

As of this weekend, Slaughtneil ace Chrissy McKaigue has been on the go non-stop for almost four years.

Between reaching the last two Ulster Hurling Club finals, getting to the All-Ireland Football Club final in 2015, Derry pre-season and everything else in between, there has always been a next training session or game.

Even in December, he showed up in black and amber and featured as a second-half sub for Ulster in the Inter-provincial win over Connacht.

In his working life, he has transformed the fortunes of St Mary's Limavady on the pitch and raised expectations as to what they can achieve.

When he has a free night from preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final in both codes, he has been heavy on the presentation awards night circuit, delivering speeches and blowing away everyone in the room.

Little wonder, then, that he admits now that it has taken a mental toll.

"Of course there are times when the schedule has certainly had a negative effect on my mental health, in terms of the sheer number of games and how thick and fast they were coming," he said.

"In terms of being a real hangover year after 2014, 2015 was tough. Pure grit won the Championships in Derry that year (but) the number of games caught up with us.

"I find when you feel tired or jaded you have to take a step back and genuinely show gratitude for what we have and all we have achieved as a group. When I do that, I feel energised and focused again.

"I probably don't have much of a life away from the GAA. Any free time I have is genuinely used to study different courses to keep myself busy.

"The thing is, GAA is what I want to do. I don't find it a burden or a hindrance. I love it because I enjoy it."

Even to the extent of testing lifelong friendships. Speak to people who have spent time around the Derry football panel and they will admit that McKaigue can sometimes be hard work, but ultimately agree that everything he demands or expects is on the money.

If anything, Derry manager Damian Barton could do worse to follow the example of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who works closely with his quarterback Tom Brady. A little bit of that kind of trust and McKaigue could transform the strategy of the Oak Leaf defence when he eventually comes back to the inter-county game.

It's not the sort of admission you expect to hear from a GAA player, but McKaigue stated: "It's in my nature to always be competitive. If there is such a thing as being too competitive, well, that's probably me.

"It makes me difficult work for my team-mates on the field and definitely around training. I know any of them reading this will be able to relate. But that's who I am, I always want to win and improve and improve those around me."

After the Ulster Hurling Club final, when Slaughtneil took out the famous name of Loughgiel Shamrocks, he made a nod in that direction, admitting that he is sometimes jokingly referred to as 'Uncle Chrissy' because of his habit.

But it's worth it. Especially with a serious outfit such as St Vincent's - with McKaigue set for an afternoon in close proximity of Diarmuid Connolly - now part of the Slaughtneil story when they meet later today in Newry.

Because of their time with football manager Mickey Moran being effectively halved with 20 dual players also having to spread their time with Michael McShane and the hurling fraternity,every moment is precious.

"I don't think it would have been possible to achieve what we've achieved if it wasn't for the level of respect and analysis we do of the opposition," the former Sydney Swans player insisted.

"There is no perfect preparation in a dual club but that's where our management teams come into their own. We are lucky to have them."

While the GAA plods through a never-ending existential crisis, McKaigue has strong views on the purpose of the Association. Surprisingly, for someone as successful as he is, he insists the culture should be more than just about winning and the seemingly irreversible drift towards semi-professionalism.

"I'm concerned at the way the GAA is going in terms of the bigger getting bigger and the weaker diminishing. This is having a negative impact on club and county and a lot of it is to do with a draconian approach by the powers that be at the top," he stated.

"Winning in sport is the aim, no one can deny that, but in GAA we have a unique Association that has links to our culture and heritage. I feel somewhere along the line it has become unfashionable to acknowledge this because of the commercial side of things."

He has a point. Just look at the perennial winners, Dublin; players featuring in tweets accepting the keys of brand new Subaru cars, creating resentment among players and toeing a foothold for the world of bling culture in the GAA.

Working with children in his job as a teacher, McKaigue is rooted in the values of what sport and the GAA in particular should be about.

"We should embrace how lucky we are to have the GAA and the opportunities it gives us and our communities," he added.

As McKaigue's former International Rules manager Paul Earley said about him: "He is a very authentic individual."

And authentic people are worth listening to.

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