The day it all changed for Derry

Christopher McKaigue remembers March 20, 2022 as the day Rory Gallagher changed the trajectory of Derry’s Ulster Championship winning season.

Derry captain Christopher McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final over Donegal. Picture by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Derry captain Christopher McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final over Donegal. Picture by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The 33-year old Slaughtneil defender had seen plenty of false dawns for his beloved Oak Leaf county over recent years and been part of a few himself. He openly admits the dark days have left their mark and, perhaps, it was that “mental scarring”, as McKaigue puts it, that was uppermost in his mind after a chastening day at the office that saw Derry’s Division One promotion hopes brutally ripped apart by a Galway team who left Owenbeg with an emphatic 11-point victory.

Derry went into that game on a run of four wins and one draw from fives games and knowing victory would ensure their place in the top flight for next season. They came out of it with questions being asked of them and their direction of travel. Promotion had been Derry’s primary aim for 2022 and it was gone.

The Oak Leaf captain has worn the armband for almost every team he’s appeared in and, even if his own county experiences meant doubts were creeping in, he was still able to recognise real leadership when Derry needed it most.

“Absolutely (there were doubts) but I suppose, when you take the emotion out of it, as much as Galway deserved to win that game, and as good a side as they are and were on that day, the vast majority of their scores were given to them by us and our poor play,” says McKaigue.

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“That’s fair. I’m not saying we deserved to win the game - we didn’t and we weren’t going well enough to win the game at that particular time - but, yes, there were doubts that night. We are all human at the end of the day

“But, the one thing I will say now is, Rory Gallagher had no doubts. I can still vividly remember what he said to us in the changing rooms after Galway and I can still remember what he said to us on the Tuesday night after. He had no doubt.

“Rory told us he didn’t believe we had anything to be worried about. We had our bad day. He mentioned that our league preparation hadn’t been great but also that it was outside of our control. We were victims of our own success in having very strong clubs. He was unerring.

“I have been in plenty of changing rooms when managers have come in and said the token gesture piece but you could hear in Rory’s voice, you could see in his eyes - he had no doubts.

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“I’m not saying I totally believed him. I have a bit more mental scarring than some, having been around Derry set-ups before and I was thinking, ‘Here we go again’, but he didn’t.

"That is just who he is and, when someone of his intellect is saying things like that, even the most sceptical like me start to think, ‘Well, maybe he knows more than me on this one’ and, in fairness, he has been proved correct. It was one bad day.”

McKaigue, who is on record as fully endorsing Gallagher’s appointment in September 2019, admits he’s found a kindred spirit in his football obsessed manager who set about changing the culture in Derry almost from his first session.

“I am very happy that I have it in print that I was very supportive of the appointment when it happened. I just thought it was THE appointment because Derry hadn’t had anyone in a long time that was privy to being around the level of success that Rory had.

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“He had proven himself as a tactician. All these different narratives out there about defensive football, I’d long since turned a blind eye to that.

“I didn’t think he would be as intense,” admits McKaigue. “I don’t think anyone could claim that until you know him. There is never a meeting with Rory, even over dinner, that’s not intense.

“Remember, the first league campaign was shaky. We drew against Leitrim and Down beat us and that was promotion hopes over. We needed a couple of results to solidify ourselves in Division Three but, then, Covid came and I suppose after that you saw the real change. New players came into the panel, Ethan Doherty and Paul Cassidy for example. No one had ever heard tell of them and, then, suddenly, come November, they were starting against Armagh in an empty Celtic Park.

“After that, Rory set his stall out that we are going to back Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty, Conor Doherty, Paudie McGrogan - they are going to be the players I believe in for the next number of years .

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“They have fast tracked themselves now into being Ulster Championship winners and I wouldn’t back against them in the years to come to be household names.”