GAA Football

Slaughtneil's Karl McKaigue prepared for an evening darting after Mark Bradley

When Slaughtneil won Ulster in 2014, Karl McKaigue (left) marked Ronan O'Neill (right), Conor McManus and Seanie Johnston, conceding just 0-2 from play across three games
Picture by Colm O'Reilly

WHEN the football comes to an end for 2016, be it on Sunday evening or after the Ulster final in two weeks’ time, Karl McKaigue will turn back to the arrows for entertainment.

A darts fan since his younger days, when the BDO had relative parity, during winter his Twitter account is like a running commentary of the PDC Championship.

A particular fan of Michael van Gerwen - “you have to go with whoever’s going well” - it’s merely an avenue of interest for a sporting fanatic amid the only few quiet weeks of the GAA season.

“I’d watch nearly anything going sports wise. The darts are a winter interest on the colder evenings. I would have a wee bit of a soft spot for it,” concedes the Slaughtneil and Derry defender.

The lifestyle and physique of a darts player couldn’t draw much more contrast to his own. One of a considerable contingent on the Slaughtneil side that verge on teetotal, McKaigue’s exploits in hurling and football keep him in far better trim than to be found near an oche.

Life as a full-time NHS physiotherapist is suiting him nicely at present. Based in the Outpatients department of the Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt, his commute to and from a 9-5 job takes all of ten minutes each way.

“It’s good while it lasts. I’ll probably only be here another three or four months,” he says.

“Luckily, I was placed close to home, but it’ll be somewhere else in the trust once the next rotations come in, just to get you experience in all different areas. You couldn’t beat it at the minute with football, there’s no rushing up the road for training or anything like that.”

As he talks on Tuesday afternoon, the rain hammers from the pitch-black skies while he heads for home. Training may or may not go ahead beneath the floodlit bottom field at Emmet Park.

Few clubs have better outdoor facilities. It’s as well, too, because if Mickey Moran’s side come through the next two hours’ football, Slaughtneil will find themselves in the most unique position of footballers, hurlers and camogs all training through the winter, preparing for an All-Ireland series.

That notion will have to wait. Killyclogher have serious designs on joining Errigal Ciarán as the only Tyrone club on the plinth of the Séamus McFerran Cup.

McKaigue would most likely have been a spectator at Healy Park for at least one of Killyclogher’s two games with Coalisland had they not been ill-timed.

“We actually had a hurling session that night of the replay or else I would have probably gone to it, but I couldn’t get," he adds.

“I saw the first game on TV and they looked good. You could see Dominic Corrigan’s imprint on them this year. They tend to flood men back and they have the runners to break, with the McCanns and other boys like that.

“They have the scoring power up front with Bradley. They have a good system of play going. They seem to be high on confidence this year, they’ve won the Championship they’ve been chasing the last couple of years.

“They were a wee bit unlucky to come up short last year, but they have that in the bank now and they seem to be confident that they can go further than the Tyrone Championship.”

Although Mark Bradley’s involvement in Tyrone’s Ulster Championship win over Derry at Celtic Park in May was shortened by an early injury  and the two have never really faced up in an afternoon-long personal battle before, McKaigue has seen enough close up to know the threat he poses.

One goal and 33 points in six Championship games, 1-13 of it from play, is a serious haul. Five points in a stunning early foray in the Tyrone final replay, eight in total by the end, was duly noted by the watching Mickey Moran and John Joe Kearney, who were anticipating early that they’d come into contact with the winners at this stage.

It will be either McKaigue or Brendan Rogers that is detailed to curb his influence. He was giving nothing away as to who would pick Bradley up, but he knows the size and importance of the task.

“It’ll probably be decided this week. I might be on him, I might not be on him. But whoever’s given that job has a big, big role," he says.

“Mark Bradley’s probably the reason Killyclogher won the Championship this year. He’s putting up big, big scores every game. He’s been double-marked most of the games but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. If we are fit to stop him, that will go a long way towards beating Killyclogher.”

Speaking after their win over Derrygonnelly a week later, Kearney referenced the volume of open grass that surrounded Bradley. Giving space to opposition forwards isn’t something that makes the Emmet’s defence fret unduly. An ultra-critical analysis would point at their two Championship defeats since 2014 and argue that they should have shut up shop more effectively.

In the All-Ireland final 18 months ago, Corofin made hay in the Croke Park acreage. Last winter, it was Darren Hughes and Scotstown that unpicked them in man-for-man combat.

But to criticise them in defeat is to ignore that their attacking principles have been the guarantor behind a sensational three-year run. They trust their instincts. They trust their abilities. And the rewards for their belief have been off the scale.

Take McKaigue’s own performances on the Ulster winning run of 2014. He was left man-for-man with Seanie Johnston, Conor McManus and Ronan O’Neill and conceded just 0-2 from play across 180-plus minutes.

“A lot of the time we would back our defence. Going back to the Scotstown game last year, we conceded a fair bit, especially in the first-half,” says McKaigue.

“I know there was lots of space in around our defence, but was it a defender’s problem? Not really at times. We were giving ball away when we were coming out from defence, it was a bad turnover and then you’re one-on-one.

“No matter who you are in there, you can’t do much about the ball being given away in that position. But largely, we back our defence. It has worked most of the time.

“We probably will try and get cover back as much as we possibly can, you have to respect the opposition to do that, but we’re not going to change our style too much at this stage.”

Slaughtneil’s quarter-final victory over Derrygonnelly two weeks back was extremely leggy. Emotionally sapped by the circumstances of their historic capture of the Ulster club hurling title seven days previous, the physical exertions also showed as they bobbled past the Fermanagh champions.

“Physically as well, it was one of the toughest games I’ve played,” says the dual defender of the hurlers’ win over Loughgiel," he says.

Derrygonnelly made it very difficult in Celtic Park, but Killyclogher will represent a big step up for Derry’s star turns. Sunday will go a long way towards determining whether Karl McKaigue will be in the house often enough to see the darts this winter.

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