By Shaun Casey
CHRISSY McKaigue was just a youngster coming onto the scene when Armagh last won the Ulster Championship, getting their hands on the Anglo Celt for the seventh time in ten years during a golden period of Orchard County dominance.
McKaigue came off the bench and scored a point as Derry crashed out of the championship, losing to Monaghan in the first round of the qualifiers, while Armagh were charging towards some more provincial silverware.
That was 15 years ago, and the tables have turned dramatically since then. When McKaigue lines up against his opponent on Sunday, he’s the one with the medals in the back pocket, he’s the one with the winning experience.
Derry have already won the McKenna Cup and gained promotion to the top flight, albeit losing the Division Two final to Dublin, but that’s the only blot on their record.
“We are certainly on a fairly upward trajectory,” said the Sleacht Néill star who captained Rory Gallagher’s side to provincial glory last season.
“But the cold, hard facts were that Derry, until last year, weren’t Ulster champions since 1998. The bottom line is that, in the majority of those years, Derry were still in Division One and we got to a few All-Ireland semi-finals.
“Sleacht Néill, Loup, Ballinderry and now Glen were doing well (at club level) and there are other examples. I think we’ve become so fixated, and we’re all guilty, on pointing to a team and asking have they won X, Y and Z?
“At the end of the day only one team in any given year can ever be Ulster champions. Only one team in any given year can ever be All-Ireland champions. Does that mean every other team in every other year has been a failure?
“We champion the best team and then everybody else isn’t worth looking at. That’s just not the reality and it isn’t the message that any of us should be putting out there.
“The last number of months has been great for Derry and that has made us hungrier for more. I would safely say that if any team at the minute that is as equally hungry as Derry, it is certainly Armagh, and we are very aware of that.
“For us, as a team, and Rory’s Gallagher’s track record in Ulster would show this, we just have a huge amount of time for the Ulster Championship. We feel it is a very exciting place, you get tested all the time, you get to play the best teams a lot of the time.
“It is a great place to be. Rory has spoken about it numerous times over his tenure, it is very special to be part of Ulster Final day. Yeah, it has been our sole focus since the start of the Ulster Championship.
“I’ll be honest, nothing else has been mentioned. In fairness, when the season started, nothing was mentioned only the McKenna Cup. As soon as the McKenna Cup ended, nothing was mentioned only the league. Last year, the way the league finished didn’t sit well with us. We want to be a Division One team and we didn’t achieve that last year, but we have achieved it now.
“That was a massive part of this year too. The next objective now is to try and be really competitive with Armagh and see where that takes us – that’s where it starts and ends.”
In that league final date with the Dubs, in Croke Park, four goals for Dessie Farrell’s side were ultimately Derry’s undoing. For a team that’s built on their mean defensive structure, they’ve been leaking quite a few goals of late.
Dublin claimed four while both Fermanagh and Monaghan, while outclassed by Gallagher’s side, still hit the net twice each. That’s eight goals in the last three outings, surely a stat that Armagh have picked up on.
The Orchard have raised five green flags in their last two outings and with the option of Andrew Murnin on the edge of the square, despite being an injury concern, Derry are well aware of Armagh’s aerial threat.
But they’re not a one-hit wonder. McKaigue warns that while Derry have noted Armagh’s ability to score goals from launching balls into the square, it’s not their only tactic and Derry would be foolish to concentrate that too much.
“We’ve many things we want to work on offensively and defensively,” added the 33-year-old. “We wouldn’t be happy with the manner in which we conceded some of those goals.
“Relatively speaking this year, we’ve also been fairly solid defensively, there’s a bit of balance to be struck there. We’d be very foolish to go into the final thinking Armagh’s only strength is to put high balls in against us to get scores.
“They’ve many threats and we’re very aware of them. To be one of the best teams, you have to be a team for all seasons, all conditions and all circumstances. We’ll be prepared for Armagh just like they’ll be prepared for us.”