Ulster success has made Derry hungry for more insists captain McKaigue
FOR a county starved of success for so long, the tag of being Ulster champions with eyes on an All-Ireland spot has shot the hype in the county through the roof.
A sea of red and white swarmed the Clones sod as captain Chrissy McKaigue raised the Anglo Celt aloft.
As he bellowed in his acceptance speech: it was their time.
The best compliment McKaigue can pay the Derry squad was the ambition shown when the partying was swapped for a return to training by the middle of the week.
”There was no giddiness,” McKaigue recalls, giving the squad’s age profile.
“There was that sort of thing, the “we've achieved that so what's next?”
Back home, after training, McKaigue began to reflect. It was never going to be any different.
“Conor Glass, Shane McGuigan and all these lads who have never been used to anything other than winning,” he said.
MacRory Cup, Derry minor, Derry U20 and club success has hugged their careers tightly. Baggage and inferiority complexes didn’t have a place in the puzzle.
“There's also enough intelligence within the dressing room to understand the next game is always the most important game,” McKaigue adds.
“We've already been humbled by Galway once this year so we know if we are not on it, it could happen a second time. With that wee bit of fear comes the 'just keep your head down and keep your eye on the prize.’”
Did the Galway defeat bring doubts?
“Absolutely,” McKaigue returned, before pointing to the influence of Rory Gallagher pointing a way back.
He remembers his manager’s words offered both in the dressing room and the following Tuesday night.
“He had no doubts,” McKaigue said.
“He didn't believe we had anything to be worried about. We had had our bad day.”
The League preparation was sub-standard. Broken up by club activity, it fed into a early victories with more rust than polish. But after the Galway game, Gallagher offered their shortcomings and laid down a new gauntlet.
"I have been in plenty of changing rooms when managers have come in and said the token gesture piece but you could hear in his voice, you could see in his eyes, he had no doubts,” McKaigue said.
The mental scars of his dark days on the relegation circuit left him harder to convince than most, but a manager of Gallagher’s “intellect” was there to be believed.
The fact McKaigue looks back on a League campaign that saw them only lose one game as a failure speaks volumes for the Derry standards.
When he joined the panel, it was the level Paddy Bradley trained at that struck a chord. There was the dedication Mark Lynch and Fergal Doherty brought to the jersey.
“Just because they didn't have an unbelievable amount of success in comparison to the Tyrones or Donegals, it doesn't make them, in my opinion, any less phenomenal leaders and players within their county,” McKaigue states.
Now, there is a combination of player and manager leadership. A shared approach, but the management hold the cards for the Derry captain.
“If you don't have the leadership from the management team and that ambition and ruthlessness with Rory and his backroom team have, it is very difficult to establish it within the playing group,” he said.
"It is not dissimilar to Slaughtneil. We were very player driven but it was Mickey Moran who unlocked it to the magnitude that it had the potential of.
“You need a leader and a very, very special one to unlock special things and I would hold Rory at this stage in the same sort of charisma and specialness as I would Mickey.
"When you analyse the two of them you see success is never too far away from either of them.
It was time to push the reset button and get their “house in order” for Tyrone, the start of a winning run that leaves them 70 minutes away from the county’s third ever All-Ireland senior final appearance.
"When we beat Tyrone, we knew we were capable of beating anybody,” McKaigue felt. “Monaghan came next, Donegal after that and Clare came after that. It's just been like the flick of a finger. We have a flavour of it now and we don't want to let it go.”