In a BBC interview after Slaughtneil’s Ulster club football success on Sunday, Chrissy McKaigue spoke about how an amazing group had defied all the odds with their approach as a dual club to win a historic provincial double.
“We have done it by creating a model that puts players first, which adopts common sense, and with a high set of standards for us as players,” said McKaigue.
“We drive each other on. We expect the best of each other because, as a club, that’s what our people deserve.”
That model is the only way Slaughtneil could have achieved what they have.
Dual clubs all over the country are rife with domestic tension but the common good of the club, and welfare of the players, overrides everything, never allowing a smouldering flame to ignite into a bushfire.
The Nire have adopted a similar singular approach with their sister-hurling club in Waterford.
Fourmilewater haven’t had any real hurling success at senior level but they are highly competitive in the Waterford championship. Yet The Nire’s hammering in Sunday’s Munster final by Dr Crokes was another example of the difficulty in trying to combine the two. It also underlines just how seismic Slaughtneil’s achievement really is.
Prior to last Sunday, St Finbarr’s were the only team to achieve that provincial double, back in 1980. Cratloe from Clare came close in 2015 when losing the Munster hurling decider to Kilmallock after extra-time, a week after losing the football semi-final to The Nire after extra-time.
The Ulster hurling championship may not be as competitive as Munster but Slaughtneil still had to play two matches (the same as Ballyea had to win Munster). They defeated Loughgiel Shamrocks (All-Ireland club champions in 2012) in the Ulster final, which further reflects how this has been the greatest club odyssey of modern times.
This generation know nothing else now only winning. Slaughtneil also won the reserve hurling and football championships in Derry this year. They are also Ulster senior camogie champions. And their crusade is all the more remarkable considering their starting point; they had only won one Derry SFC title in their history before going on to win the last three; they have won the last four Derry SHC titles, which is double what they had won in the previous 40 years.
An empire has been built in the middle of nowhere. Situated between Dungiven and Maghera, in the shadow of the Glenshane Mountain, the Emmet’s were only founded in 1953. Yet in the middle of that nowhere is the highly impressive Slaughtneil grounds and facilities, effectively built from funds generated from a local disco which the club began running in the early 1980s.
Slaughtneil people have always had a progressive outlook towards bettering themselves and their community. Over 20 years ago, Slaughtneil founded the first rural Bunscoil outside the Gaeltacht areas. Slaughtneil remains a hub for traditional music and dancing. They even have their own theatre. A few years ago, the community purchased the ancient Carn woodland, which is now used as an amenity, with beautiful woodland trails.
That unique community spirit they developed off the pitch has now borne fruit on the field. With such a gruelling schedule, mental fortitude has been as important as anything to this team’s amazing odyssey.
When Kilcoo kept Slaughtneil scoreless for 20 mintues after the break last Sunday, that Kilcoo momentum increased the pressure on Slaughtneil but that’s when they really stepped up.
In the closing stages, Slaughtneil gave an exhibition of game-management, an exemplary lesson in how to slowly suffocate an opponent and kill a tight game.
In the last nine minutes (including four minutes of injury-time), Kilcoo had possession for just one minute. At one stage, Slaughtneil retained possession for one minute and 43 seconds, embroidering 26 passes all over the pitch until a clear-cut goal chance was engineered.
Winning builds confidence but serial and consistent achievement over the last two months has built Slaughtneil into an impregnable force that no team in either code has been able to crack. Apart from their unique bond and spirit, the way they closed out Sunday’s game suggested a telepathy and innate bond and understanding that only comes from living in each other’s pockets, which Slaughtneil have done, and which they needed to do, to have achieved what they have this winter.
The question now is how far can they really go? The footballers don’t have the scoring power or threat of a St Vincent’s (who play Rhode on Sunday week), Corofin or Dr Crokes. The hurlers are a serious outfit, who will be ideally suited to hurling in February. They have the potential to take down O’Loughlin Gaels or Cuala but successive All-Ireland semi-finals in both codes within the space of seven days is a challenge unlike anything Slaughtneil will have faced before.
Thirty-six years ago, the ‘Barrs won both All-Ireland semi-finals. However, the competition was different back then, with both games played a month apart. The All-Ireland club hurling final, which the ‘Barrs lost to Ballyhale by four points, took place a week before the football semi-final. A week after defeating Scotstown, St Finbarr’s beat Walterstown to win the All-Ireland football title on May 31st.
The irresistible momentum Slaughtneil had built up will be difficult to maintain but timing will be the biggest obstacle for a team with 12 dual players, nine starters on both teams. The Ulster hurling final came a week after they hammered The Loup in the Derry football final, which then freed up everything for the provincial football campaign.
At this stage, reaching both All-Ireland club finals must be considered unlikely but Slaughtneil won’t consider both of those peaks insurmountable.
Because they have shown what can be achieved with a remarkable community spirit and bond. And just as importantly, a realistic approach to playing both codes.