Negativity around football “breaks my heart”: Chrissy McKaigue

Former Sydney Swans star believes the GAA should implement the AFL’s 50-metre penalty to help curb cynicism

27 January 2024; Chrissy McKaigue of Derry blocks a goalbound effort from Sean O'Shea of Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Kerry and Derry at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kerry v Derry - Allianz Football League Division 1 27 January 2024; Chrissy McKaigue of Derry blocks a goalbound effort from Sean O'Shea of Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Kerry and Derry at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

CHRISSY McKaigue says the constant negativity around Gaelic football “breaks my heart”, but says the GAA should adopt one rule change that would help the spectacle.

The veteran Derry defender had a serious battle with Sean O’Shea in Tralee and was responsible for twice saving his side’s skin with goal-line interceptions as Kerry turned the screw in the second half.

Derry held on for a one-point win that was later followed by Monaghan’s gripping victory in Croke Park. Allied to Donegal’s new approach under Jim McGuinness, there was plenty of attacking football on show across the opening weekend.

Across the four divisions the opening weekend produced 30 goals and 373 points, with two goals fewer but 29 points more than the corresponding figure of 32 goals and 344 points from the opening round of games in 2023.

McKaigue doesn’t see the need for the never-ending debate around the sport’s aesthetic qualities.

“I thought tonight was a nice advertisement for what football can be played like. There were structured attacks and defences but there was a lot of kicking tonight and a lot of movement, the pace of that game, I thought it was high enough and a fairly good game of football.

“I think football’s fine if we can embrace that it’s changed. I think there’s many intricacies in the game that people are still catching on to and I just don’t think there’s the need for as much talk of rule changes.

“I think we have an unbelievable product on our hands. It breaks my heart that there’s so much negativity around it,” said the Slaughtneil man.

Countered with the devil’s advocate position of Roscommon’s spell of keep-ball in their championship game with Dublin last summer, where they kept the ball for six minutes at one stage, McKaigue said: “Maybe it’s not as attractive to watch but are we going to put confinements on teams in terms of how they play?

“Soccer’s the most watched sport in the world and there are plenty of soccer games that aren’t the most attractive to watch either. Small tweaks rather than wholesale changes might be a better fit than anything else. Maybe I’m biased.”

McKaigue spent two years with Sydney Swans at the beginning of his senior career before returning home in 2011.

He believes that the AFL’s 50-metre punishment for obstructing the taking of a mark should be implemented in Gaelic football as a way to speed up attacking play and punish cynicism.

“There’s one rule change I would bring in, I know Kieran Donaghy mentioned it a few years ago at a talk I was at, it’s the Aussie Rules one where if anybody gets a free kick and you stand in front of it or stop the quick play, it’s an automatic 50-metre penalty.

“It’s there in Aussie Rules for people interfering with the mark and it would speed the game up naturally.

“You think how many times in a game of Gaelic football you have a free in the half-back line, somebody knocks the ball out of your hand or steps in front of you, imagine you have to get out of the way of that and let them play.

“It’s a rule that can be implemented without too much duress on a referee. Small tweaks.”

That Mickey Harte has avoided the temptation to rip up what was working so well for Derry has been the secret to their good start to the season, he believes.

In true Harte fashion, they were close to full-out in the McKenna Cup and lifted the trophy before holding off Kerry’s second-half resurgence in a windy Tralee to grab victory in their first Division One game for nine years.

They started with 13 of the 15 that had begun last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Jack O’Connor’s side, with Eoin McEvoy injured and Niall Toner on the bench, replaced by Diarmuid Baker and Declan Cassidy respectively.

What the former Tyrone boss and Gavin Devlin have attempted to implement, McKaigue feels, is that they use the boot more often in their attacking play.

“Mickey’s inherited a very tight-knit dressing room, as he’d admit himself.

“Whatever happens this year, Derry football’s in a really good place – schools, clubs, it’s in a really healthy state. People are coming to games, it’s vibrant, there’s a conveyor belt of talent coming through.

“What’s Mickey changed? Not a whole lot, because I think he’s very conscious of the fact that there’s a lot of work has gone on from Rory Gallagher and Ciaran Meenagh in the last few years. It’s probably small tweaks more than anything.

“Maybe tonight you saw we were trying to move the ball by foot a bit more, hopefully that was apparent.

“I think that’s the next evolution of our game, to play a wee bit more like Dublin and Kerry in terms of using the foot pass a bit more, but we have to be conscious of not giving kicking a bad name, as Gavin [Devlin] talks about. Let’s kick it when it’s on and accept when it’s not on.”

There were some really positive signs in Derry’s performance but equally plenty left for them to work on, particularly their struggle against Kerry’s aggressive press in the second half.

It was the same press that Derry couldn’t find ways out past in Croke Park last July that ultimately decided the game in the dying minutes, and it is something they will need to improve on, McKaigue admits.

“For large parts of the game we were very controlled and played very good football.

“We were fortuitous that we defended at times not the way you’d like to defend, but you look at it logically also, the chances Kerry got for goals and the goals they scored were very much down to our poor play.

“Sometimes you’re more accepting of a great pass that cuts you open or a bit of individual skill from the opposition but that wasn’t the case tonight. The goals brought Kerry completely back into the game.

“Maybe in hindsight, dealing with that bit of adversity was good because we showed a fair bit of character to deal with the goals and still dig in and come up the field again and get a couple of scores. When momentum swings that much, it’s not easy turned.

“I’d be a great believer that when a team goes with that unbelievable aggressive press, it’s very difficult for anybody to get the shorts away and sometimes the reward comes from backing yourself and going long and getting the break because a team then commits so many forward and they need to get back.

“It’s something we need to get better at.

“Gaelic football can evolve and change but the ability to win your own ball and be creative off the back of it is still very much part of Gaelic football, especially with kickouts.

“Winning our own ball from those aggressive squeezes, whether it’s break ball or clean ball, is something we need to get better at. Kerry and Dublin are the two best teams at it, when they come with that aggressive squeeze, it’s hard to get out. We need to work on it.

“Conditions played a part too, there was a serious breeze in the second half. First league game, not everything will be perfect. The scoreline says it was only a one-point game but we did a lot of things tonight that were good.”