Hurling and camogie

Slaughtneil's McKaigue glad to be back to winning ways after injury nightmare

The Slaughtneil players celebrate after Sunday's Ulster final victory over Ballycran. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE beaming faces after battle told you how much Sunday’s latest Ulster title triumph meant to Slaughtneil – but, as he stood chatting to family and friends, it might just have been that little bit more special for Karl McKaigue.

This time last year the 29-year-old was still in the grip of an injury nightmare that forced him out of the club’s county hurling success, while the footballers – of which he was captain – reclaimed the John McLaughlin Cup in his absence.

An ankle injury saw McKaigue miss the early part of 2020 with club and county then, once sport returned after lockdown, a ruptured Achilles tendon kept him sidelined for the remainder of the year.

Following a complicated rehab, he eventually made his inter-county return as a late sub in Derry’s Division Three final win over Offaly, and has gradually built himself back up in the months between.

Against Ballycran on Sunday, McKaigue was imperious. The entire Slaughtneil defence was - barely gave an inch all day, conceding just two from play. And as he watched captain Cormac O’Doherty hoist aloft the Four Seasons Cup once more, McKaigue was just happy to be back in the thick of the celebrations.

“I’d a bit of a nightmare 18 months,” he said.

“It was hard, especially last year, doing the double in hurling and football in Derry, being captain of the footballers for the first time… missing out on that was very hard to take.

“In saying that, it’s part and parcel of sport. A lot of people get a big injury at some point in their career, it just happened to me as well. It’s difficult to get your body back up to a position where it used to be, but it’s great to be back.

“You probably appreciate it a bit more when you’ve missed a bit of time.”

Despite clinching another Derry crown last year, Covid-19 put paid to any Ulster ambitions as a long winter took hold. Getting back onto the provincial stage had a galvanising effect on Slaughtneil and, while many believed the semi-final clash with Dunloy held the key to their ambitions, Ballycran brought all the intensity in the opening quarter.

“We knew from the very start Ballycran were going to bring a lot of aggression, they’re a very physical team. To settle in the game, it does take five or 10 minutes anyway but the way they were playing, they were in your face, very physical and played that long game which would make it difficult for anybody.

“But between the first water break and half-time we found our rhythm a wee bit, started scoring a wee bit more, and after that we probably did keep them at arm’s length until the end.

“Winning this here feels as good as the very first one back in 2016 against Loughgiel. Obviously everyone looks at the semi-final against Dunloy and thinks we won it that day, but at the same time Ballycran have beat us before – beat us by 10 points before – so that probably gave us that extra wee bit of motivation and helped focus us before this game.”

Boss Michael McShane has no doubt Slaughtneil have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with any team in the country, and either Ballygunner or Kilmallock will provide the opposition when the All-Ireland semi-finals roll around on January 23.

McShane pointed to the narrow defeat to an all-conquering Ballyhale Shamrocks side two years ago as a transformative moment in the development of his side, and McKaigue hopes they can justify their manager’s faith next month.

“To be fair, even going in against Cuala in 2017, then Na Piarsaigh the following year, we were coming in with a lot of belief - we just didn’t perform on the day.

“The focus before Ballyhale was that we really wanted to show we deserved to be on that sort of level with them. We did compete, yes, but ultimately we failed.

“We’ll be really preparing very hard this time, similar to what we did before the Ballyhale game, and the next step is to actually win one as opposed to just competing with them.”

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Hurling and camogie