Christy McNaughton explains thinking behind accepting Derry hurlers invite

Antrim's Christy McNaughton says the county haven't even got a manager for their forthcoming U21 campaign
Antrim's Christy McNaughton says the county haven't even got a manager for their forthcoming U21 campaign Christy McNaughton says the next couple of years could define his hurling career

CHRISTY McNaughton and Eoin Gillan live and work in Cushendall. McNaughton works in the Lurig Inn – his father’s pub – and Gillan works in the family chemist just around the corner.

Each night at club training the pair banter with each other about who was lecturing them earlier that day about hurling.

“There’s no getting away from it, especially living and working in Cushendall,” McNaughton says.

“’Bouncey’ [Eoin Gillan] and me would be asking each other, ‘who was slabbering to you today about hurling?’

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time people who are talking to you about it didn’t hurl, or weren’t in the positions you were in.”

McNaughton probably gave local hurling folk a bit more to talk about over the past week after he agreed to play for Derry senior hurlers this season.

“It might sound stupid,” he says, “but if I wasn’t Terence McNaughton’s son there wouldn’t be a whole lot of people paying attention to it.”

If anything, the Cushendall forward is amused by the external noise around the village and probably in some parts of Derry too.

“The outside stuff doesn’t bother me, people who aren’t involved in it. Nobody cares anyway as there are more important things going on.”

It’s not as if Antrim manager Darren Gleeson was going to come calling for the 26-year-old.

The fact that he sees the next stretch of his playing career as a critical juncture, he wants to try and fulfill the rich potential that resides in his wrists and brilliant hurling brain.

If Antrim’s level is a step too far for him, then why not Division 2B with Derry?

He was invited into the Oak Leaf panel a couple of times before and declined. But there was something different about this most recent invite.

The timing, for starters, was better.

O'Loughlin Gaels centre-back Paddy Deagan in action against Cushendall's Niall McCormack in the AIB All-Ireland semi-finals in Navan. The Antrim and Ulster champions lost by a point Picture: John McIlwaine

After playing a bit-part role in Cushendall’s All-Ireland semi-final run that ended in mid-December, McNaughton wanted to be the best version of himself when he returns to the Ruairi Ogs later in the year.

McNaughton is entering his fourth week of training with his adopted county. But before discussing his motivations for agreeing to play for Derry, you need to understand the Cushendall man’s dry wit and realise a few things.

His Cushendall club-mate Martin Burke was due to get married and a few of his team-mates organised a night out with Christmas jumpers providing a theme for the night.

“I saw a Derry GAA Christmas jumper in O’Neill’s,” he explains, “and I was going to buy it, as I hadn’t told anybody at that stage, but in the end I didn’t have it in me!”

When he reached Owenbeg for training, he couldn’t believe how cold it was.

“I thought Cushendall was cold beside the sea - but Owenbeg is in the middle of the mountains.”

He turned up for his first training session with an Antrim kitbag that duly went missing.

Derry boss Johnny McGarvey also lightened the mood for his new recruit.

“Johnny said to me: ‘If anybody asks you – tell them you grew up wanting to hurl for Derry!’”

But beyond McNaughton’s jocular nature, there was serious thought that went into accepting Derry’s offer.

He spoke at length to his club-mate and Antrim defender Paddy Burke about the possibility.

“Paddy and I would be best friends. We joked about it at the start but when the conversation came up again, we got a bit more serious about it. And Paddy says: ‘Why wouldn’t you go? It’ll do you no harm. You’re not going to go there and get worse.’

“If you come back to Cushendall fitter, it’s a win.

“It is selfish in a way,” McNaughton acknowledges.

“Cushendall hopefully get a benefit out of it but I’m not going just to f*** about with Derry. If I’m there I want to try and win a Christy Ring for Derry and get out of Division 2B. I’ll try as hard as I can.”

Once he had reconciled the move in his own head, McNaughton’s only reservation was the Derry players themselves – and how they would receive him.

“I said to Johnny that I wouldn’t want to go in if the players weren’t happy.

“I know he might be happy getting an extra hurler or whatever. If I was coming into a Derry player’s position, he mightn’t be too happy about it.

“But I spoke to some of the older Derry players. I’d be friendly enough Cormac O’Doherty and one or two others and they were keen enough if I was going to commit to it.

“The players were 100 per cent and I’m enjoying it.

“Initially, I was thinking: do I really want to play for another county?

“I was asked a couple of times before. Oisin [Quinn] is our strength and conditioning coach and is from Greysteel (Derry). It’s his third year with Cushendall. We were finished on the 17th of December, and I made my decision.

“It gives me a few months extra training and hopefully I can get back to a good level again. The way we lost the All-Ireland semi-final [to O’Loughlin Gaels], it’s a good way of just moving on with things.

“I’ll be playing at a good level with Derry and I’m still working with Oisin. The Christy Ring final is on the first weekend of June so you’re not missing a whole pile with Cushendall.”

McNaughton is first to acknowledge that his senior career hasn’t progressed in the way he envisaged. Injury has played a role, but he doesn’t heap the blame on a recurring dislocated knee he suffered a few seasons ago.

“Injuries didn’t help me but I probably used them as an excuse for a couple of years. Skill-wise, that kind of got me through minor and that, but when you get to senior it’s a different ball game altogether.

“I won my first championship when I was 17, we won two-in-a-row [2014 and 2015], then I dislocated my knee, I put on weight after that and kept re-doing it.

“Touch wood, I haven’t done it for the second season in a row now. Once we won the first championship, you’d love to have gone on and had a career like Neil [McManus] or my Da, but things don’t always work out and it’s as much my own fault than anyone else’s. I’ve been unlucky with injuries but if you don’t put in the work, you’ll never get there.

“I’m 26 now but I’m hoping this run with Derry and straight back in with Cushendall will help and I’m working with the same strength and conditioning coach. At Cushendall, Brian and Sean [Delargy] will tell you a few home truths but they’ll look after you as well.

“It’s not exactly now or never for me – but it’s getting that way, and I want to give Derry my very best and see how the season goes with them.”