GAA Football

Karl McKaigue returns to where it all began

Derry's hopes of repeating last year's run to the final 12 of the All-Ireland series will tested by Mayo on Saturday. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

CASTLEBAR will always hold a place in Karl McKaigue’s heart. It was in MacHale Park that he made his Derry debut three years ago.

How different those times were. With a place in a Division One semi-final already assured, Brian McIver was able to ring the changes for the trip west.

14 in total from the win over Kildare, with only Emmett McGuckin starting from the previous week to add a bit of experience around midfield. He would score one of the goals of the season after moving to full-forward, throwing off three men to roof the net.

And for a brief moment after that, it looked like Derry’s second string would beat Mayo on their own patch, until Alan Freeman tucked away a late penalty that eased Mayo nerves and earned them a place in the semi-final.

“It was a lot of new faces and it was a tough enough task because Mayo had to nail down their semi-final spot. A fully packed Castlebar, Mayo fans as passionate as ever,” recalls McKaigue.

“We maybe never threatened that much to win it but we certainly didn’t disgrace ourselves. It was probably a good enough experience to start off on.”

McKaigue marked Mikie Sweeney that afternoon. The weight of his challenge this weekend could increase exponentially, with either Cillian O’Connor or Kevin McLoughlin likely to be on his radar.

At club level, he has shared the big man-marking tasks with Brendan Rogers and his brother Chrissy, and that has translated to the inter-county scene in the last two seasons.

Putting himself in against the big names is something McKaigue has always relished.

“At county level, especially playing the Mayos or Tyrones of this world, all forwards are going to be dangerous. None of them will be that handy marked.

“It’s probably moreso at club that I’ve been handed some of the more dangerous tasks. But it’s something you have to relish.

“You know before you start it’s not going to be easy but you go in positive about it and try and get the most out of it.”

Following a second consecutive heavy Championship defeat by Tyrone, things looked bleak for the Oak Leafers. But from the same fire last year they managed to pull a run to the last 12 and had Tipperary beaten before they let it slip late on.

A more difficult fate was always coming down the tracks this time.

Even a trip to Waterford, who had won one Qualifier in 16 years, looked hazardous but after a sticky first half, Danny Heavron’s goal offered some breathing space as a 7-point win eventually ensued.

“You can say whatever about Waterford being a Division Four team but we seemed a bit more assured of ourselves, especially in the second half with a bit of a defensive system in place.

“Against Tyrone we wanted to keep the score a bit lower than we did. We kept out goals but that was at the expense of shipping 20-plus points.

“It’s something we’ve struggled with all year is keeping down the scores. Defensive systems are all well and good to talk about, but it’s difficult when you’re playing against different setups.

“The likes of Tyrone are very defensive and like to catch you on the counter. Mayo would normally push a wee bit more, you’d expect, and that makes it a wee bit more difficult to set up against them because they’re going to have more men pushed up the pitch.

“It is something we’ve been trying to work on in training, to get a good setup to minimise the scores we’ve been conceding, because it has been too much to win games.”

The pre-ordained Qualifier draw left a pot with Mayo, Donegal, Meath and Clare as Derry’s only possible round two opponents.

Away to last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists was the toughest gig Damian Barton’s men could have pulled but come Saturday evening, they will at least be in doubt of where they are at.

Down’s performance against Monaghan last Saturday night has given a lift to every underdog the country over. A display grounded in sheer work ethic and defensive solidity laid the starting point for every team like Derry that finds itself with backs to the wall.

“In the second half especially against Monaghan, I thought they were very, very good. That’s something that we’ll definitely try and bring to our game as well.

“You can have all the quality in the world but if you have a real good work ethic and determination, you can push most teams very far.”

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