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It may have been Division Four football but Derry are in a better place: Chrissy McKaigue

Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue celebrates the first goal against Wicklow during the NFL match at Glen Maghera earlier this season. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Neil Loughran

DESPITE spending the spring months playing in Gaelic football’s bottom tier ahead of next month’s Ulster opener against All-Ireland finalist Tyrone, Chrissy McKaigue insists Derry are heading into the Championship “in a much better place”.

For the first time since 2015, the contingent of players from McKaigue’s club Slaughtneil have not been in the thick of an All-Ireland football or hurling campaign heading into the National League.

That has allowed them to be involved with Damian McErlain’s men from the very outset, as the Oak Leafers bounced straight back up from Division Four, picking up seven straight wins in the League before defeating Leitrim in the divisional decider.

Consecutive relegations have sent Derry into the Ulster Championship on a low note in recent years but, despite operating at a lower level, McKaigue believes player availability and developing a winning mentality could prove key by the time summer comes around.

“It’s a better place to be playing a full National League with your county,” said McKaigue.

“If the fixtures were sorted out, every club player – no matter how well they do in their club campaign – would want to be playing as many times with their county as possible. Especially in the League too because it gives you a better platform for Championship, there’s no doubt about it.

“Okay it was Division Four, and okay in many ways we were expected to come out of it, but nothing beats winning, nothing beats the mentality of winning. I feel personally and collectively we’re in a much better place now because of just having a run of games together, what you learn and just winning, irrespective of opposition.

“Last year we just couldn’t buy a win and this year we are accepting of the level but at the same time we had to go out and do what we did, and there’s a bit of satisfaction in that.”

Prior to their Division Four final win a fortnight ago, McKaigue warned that a tiered Championship was not the answer to football’s ills, saying their equivalent in hurling has “crippled Ulster”.

Considering their relative League positions, with Tyrone flying high at the top of Division One and finishing the campaign with some sterling performances, some might consider that the outcome will put McKaigue’s theory to the test.

However, he feels the issue goes even deeper still.

“If Tyrone go out and beat us comprehensively, people will say ‘there, you need a tiered Championship’. If we go out and compete well , people will say maybe he has a point, but I don’t think those two points are relevant at this particular time.

“Look at it this way, have Derry been given the best chance of preparing for Tyrone by playing in Division Four? Many would argue no, but at the same time the Ulster Championship takes on a very different look and the history would suggest if you have your house in order, the Leagues don’t always reflect the quality of the team you are.

“Look at Carlow last year, they didn’t even win Division Four but had a really good run in the Championship. Teams fluctuate up and down the Leagues constantly - look at Westmeath, they’re back in Division Two again. So are Laois.

“For us going in against Tyrone, we’re complete outsiders, we can accept that. We just want to give the younger players coming through a platform to actually play better football and if we get a run in the Championship – whatever way that looks like – I think we’ll be happy with that.”

The last time Derry came up against Tyrone in the Ulster Championship, at Celtic Park two years ago, McKaigue was detailed to cancel out the threat of the outstanding Mattie Donnelly.

Donnelly finished the game scoreless, but many felt it was counter-productive to essentially sacrifice such an athletically gifted player in a bid to curtail an opposition threat.

It remains to be seen how McErlain uses McKaigue in Omagh next month, but the Slaughtneil ace says players like Donnelly have to be given the respect they deserve.

“I’m not saying it’s the reason, but in Damian Barton’s first year [2016] I didn’t mark Mattie Donnelly and he got man-of-the-match.

“Any manager nowadays is looking at opposition teams and every team now, it doesn’t matter who they are – Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo, Kerry – they have four or five kingpins.

“You try and nullify the kingpins and hopefully the rest will be easier to nullify after that. I have no idea what my role will be against Tyrone, all I know is Mattie Donnelly still remains one of Tyrone’s best players so we’ll have to detail one of our best players on him.

“If that means sacrificing their game to nullify him, I think that would probably advantage Derry more than anything else. That’s just my philosophy on how I play football, and that comes down to a respect thing for a quality player like that because Tyrone don’t have 15 Mattie Donnellys, but he is a damn quality player so you have to give him the respect he deserves.”

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