Slaughtneil's Chrissy McKaigue inspired by underage mentor after Ulster success
THE superlatives fluttered around like confetti in the moments after Chrissy McKaigue hoisted aloft the Four Seasons Cup. What a performance. What a day. What a club.
Slaughtneil, kings of Ulster hurling - the first Derry club to wear the crown. Thomas Cassidy was at the forefront of everybody’s thoughts. There would have been no prouder man as the scenes of jubilation unfolded at the Athletic Grounds last Sunday.
The club stalwart passed away in the week leading up to the showdown with Loughgiel, but his spirit was inside every man wearing maroon-and-white hoops - and none moreso than captain McKaigue.
Breaking tackles, hooking, blocking and taking the fight to their illustrious opponents, the 27-year-old was a force of nature in an opening 20 minutes that sucked the soul from the Shamrocks.
“Chrissy was immense, absolutely immense,” said Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane afterwards.
“When he’s playing at that level he takes the whole team with him. That’s the kind of leader he is, that’s why I made him captain. He’s a born leader, he’s a winner - he’s probably the most hardcore winner I’ve ever dealt with as a manager.”
And a key figure in McKaigue’s journey to the top of the steps on Sunday was his underage mentor: “I owe a lot to Thomas Cassidy,” said the Slaughtneil skipper.
“He made me captain of the U12 team when we won the championship in 2000 - that was the first time the club ever won an U12 championship. People tend to forget those things, but it just kind of snowballed from there.
“He was the main driver. People tend to say these things now, but he was the man. He was the man that was coaching, he was the man who was driving us around, he was the man who was fighting the lone battle when hurling wasn’t that fashionable - and it wasn’t fashionable.
“Football was the main kid in town, and he drove it and drove it. It’s just so sad he’s not here today but, undoubtedly, we were energised by his spirit.”
Hurling may not have been fashionable 16-years-ago, but it is a central part of the holy trinity alongside football and camogie at a club that continues to break new ground year on year.
Already, McKaigue’s mind had switched to this Sunday’s Ulster Club SFC meeting with Derrygonnelly Harps. The fixture list continues to pile up, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
He added: “People maybe say you can’t really get enjoying these days, but I’m a wee bit weird.
“I’ve the rest of the boys sickened with uncle Chrissy complaining at them, crying at them, but they have to realise how lucky we are to be playing big games week in, week out.
“We work so, so hard for it. We’ve Derrygonnelly next week, and you just get energised by days like today. The players are driven from within. People always ask ‘what’s the secret?’ The secret is the players drive it. Not the management, the committee, chairman, the players drive it and those players will be driving it for the football this week.
“We have a group there that’s very, very resilient. I’m one of the older members of the team, but how those younger guys conduct themselves is a credit.
“The average age of the team is 22 or something like that, so it’s scary to think what they can achieve as long as they keep following the model that we’ve created and that is one of very high standards, on and off the pitch.”