Neil Loughran: Casemiro, Chrissy McKaigue and the scrutiny that comes from their own high standards

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Derry's Chrissy McKaigue admits the obsession with winning can become 'all-consuming'
Chrissy McKaigue holds aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup after leading Derry to the 2022 Ulster title

“I CALL him the cement in the midfield,” purred Erik ten Hag, days before his Manchester United side was due to face Real Sociedad. This was the end of October 2022 and, coming off the back of yet another dismal season, cautious optimism was beginning to sweep around Old Trafford.

Central to that were the performances of Casemiro. At 30 years old, and with an alarming chubbiness of cheek (hey, no judgment here), the £60m paid to Real Madrid raised more than a few eyebrows. After all, the decision to bring Raphaël Varane from the Bernabeu hadn’t exactly been a roaring success.

Yet it wasn’t long before Casemiro showed why he already had five Champions League medals in his back pocket. Not since Roy Keane had the Red Devils boasted a midfield enforcer with such presence and the sixth sense to nip trouble in the bud before it had even materialised.

Not only was he always in the right place, the Brazilian could pass, score and inspire through his actions on and off the field. He was United’s missing link, exactly what they had been crying out for after years of having the softest of centres exposed. He was their cement.

But what happens when the cement begins to crumble?

Sixteen months and a couple of injury lay-offs later, and Casemiro is no longer being lauded from the rooftops. Rather than the glue that holds it all together, he is perceived as a weak link.

Back in October, Jamie Carragher declared that his “legs had gone”. Just a year after taking the Premier League by storm, Casemiro was suddenly a spent force. Real had sold the Red Devils a pup.

Sunday’s win over Luton did little to dissuade the doubters, as he arrived a split second too late into tackles, picking up a yellow card and running the gauntlet of a red. Ten Hag couldn’t risk sending him out again for the second half.

Casemiro heaped serious praise on Manchester United team-mate Rasmus Hojlund
Brazilian midfielder Casemiro has found himself the subject of heightened scrutiny after some below-par performances. Picture by PA (Richard Sellers/PA)

There is no doubt that, over time, the trend towards athletes being written off as soon as they cross the 30 threshold has ramped up. Darren Hughes and Conor McManus have had countless years of answering December phone calls from journalists (guilty, your honour) to politely let them know that, yes, they do intend to play on with Monaghan.

Initial offence has since been replaced with weariness as the same old speculation flies about. Yet, for those able to compete at the very top level of their sport, such intense scrutiny now comes with the territory.

Take Chrissy McKaigue for example. Barring a brief spell in Australia and last year’s dead rubber against Clare, the Slaughtneil stalwart has featured in every one of Derry’s Championship games since the 2008 All-Ireland qualifier defeat to the Farneymen.

For most of that time, he has been Derry’s leader. Their cement.

If the opposition’s star player needed nullified, look no further. Wiry, athletic and stubbornly strong, Chrissy McKaigue has broken the spirit, and the hearts, of many top class forwards during those 16 years.

Even when Paddy McBrearty managed to escape his clutches for a millisecond, just enough time to slam over a last-gasp Ulster Championship winner at an empty MacCumhaill Park in 2021, no doubts were cast about McKaigue’s credentials having barely given the Kilcar ace a kick throughout.

The following year, when Derry’s wait for the Anglo-Celt finally came to an end, he was again at his brilliant best, McKaigue rightly awarded the Allstar his efforts deserved.

Inevitably though, like everything else, the court of public opinion is always subject to change. Difficult days last summer on Donegal’s Oisin Gallen and, for a spell at least, Fermanagh’s Ultan Kelm have eaten away at some of the air of invincibility carried for so long.

Before the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, there were anxious conversations around the county about who would pick up David Clifford. That would never even have been up for discussion before.

With Derry’s early season performances adding further weight to claims this could be their year, so scrutiny of every aspect of their play, of their system, and of their personnel will increase. Not just among pundits and punters but, most important of all, among opposition management teams sniffing out signs of weakness.

How Derry use McKaigue this year could be central to their ambitions. One of the brightest, most articulate voices in the GAA, nobody will be more aware of what he still has to offer, and any limitations the years may have brought, than the man himself.

With Eoin McEvoy looking every inch his long-term successor, and the emergence of Diarmuid Baker in the corner, Mickey Harte is not short on defensive options for when the biggest days arrive.

Yet, as with Casemiro, it would be foolhardy to write off a player of such standing who still holds such influence within the group.

McKaigue has spoken before about how retirement regularly crosses his mind, and how he almost called time at the end of the 2022 campaign. He wouldn’t be there, and Harte wouldn’t have him, if it wasn’t felt there was still a significant part to play.

Perhaps Monaghan, and the way they have managed to coax the best from their thirtysomething brigade, provide an antidote to the rush to retire.

As in recent years, Conor McManus has yet to kick a ball in this League campaign, and probably won’t for a few weeks yet. Darren Hughes was among the group being put through his paces as Celtic Park fell silent in the wake of Saturday night’s defeat to Derry, and may be brought out of cold storage in Roscommon this weekend.

There was no sign of Karl O’Connell – at 35, a year older than McKaigue. This time last year, his inter-county career was assumed by many to be in the final throes. He barely appeared in the League until helping save Monaghan from the drop in Mayo on the last day.

From then on, he was better than ever before as the Farney fought their way through to the All-Ireland semi-final, with many considering the Tyholland man unlucky to miss out on an Allstar.

“I’m glad I’ve maybe banked something: ‘Karl can step up here – he mightn’t be on a good run but he’ll step up. He’s still there’,” said the Tyholland man last year.

“The greatest compliment you can give someone is that you feel you can depend on them.”

In a sporting sense, life may not begin at 30 – but the likes of Karl O’Connell show it certainly doesn’t have to end there.