By Michael McMullan
CONSISTENCY is a currency Chrissy McKaigue loves to deal in and as Sleacht Néill eye a fifth Ulster Hurling Championship on Sunday, the former skipper eyes the bigger picture.
He knows nothing else. Despite the highs and lows of a decade of knocking on championship doors of all titles, the deep-thinking McKaigue is content at how the Emmet’s stay relevant and in the latter stages of competitions.
“It is a reflection of the structures in the club,” he said, while stating the club’s decision to appoint him as their GPO as a sign of ambition.
“We have done an awful lot right in the last number of years, but there are certain areas we want to improve and there are improvements to be made.”
The mentality in the club is to win as many Derry and Ulster titles as possible, with a focus on making a breakthrough at All-Ireland level.
Sunday marks another opportunity to retain the Four Seasons Cup they took home last year after seeing off Ballycran in the decider having beaten Dunloy in the semi-final.
So Sunday is all about title number five? It is, but it comes hand-in-hand with the need for improvement.
“The one thing that has been said about Sleacht Néill is sometimes there’s a misconception that we are an aging team,” said the 33-year-old who admits to taking average age up a notch or two,
He points to teenagers Ruairí Ó Mianáin and Peter McCullagh. Just north of that, Shea and Jack Cassidy have just left their teens behind.
“They are four boys on any given day starting on our 15, so we are doing okay in bringing players through,” said McKaigue, who is optimstic that players will follow from the current u-17 grade.
“We have quite an array of talent coming through to back up what we have and that is something the club are big on, developing people and players for the future.
“There’s a lot of players who have given a lot of service to Sleacht Néill, but you can’t stagnate, just having the senior team going well and forgetting about underage.”
Fourteen of the players to play a part in their 2016 Ulster final win over Loughgiel played in the win over Portaferry in the semi-final, a performance that enthused McKaigue given the quality in the opposing corner.
The Ards side were Antrim League champions and supply players to a Down senior team with its stock rising.
It also came on the back of a gut-wrenching football final defeat at the hands of rivals Glen for the second year in succession.
“In many ways there’s no perfect template for a dual club aspiring to be at the top table like we are, but being out of the football allowed us to focus solely on hurling,” McKaigue said, explaining the importance of the greater focus on technical skills.
“Hurling is a very technical game and that’s something we need to work a wee bit harder on because of the lack of hours we get for hurling throughout the year.
“The performance against Portaferry was great especially with not having a game for so long but we are very, very aware that we will need a considerably better performance against Dunloy in the final and that’s what the aim is.
“You have so many Dunloy lads starring for Antrim playing at a really high level of county hurling. To win the Antrim Championship like they have consistently is a sign of their consistency and their hunger to always be at the top table.
“There’s reason why this game has gained so much media attention and interest from the neutrals because they know it is two very good teams going at each other and I think it is a very good advertisement for Ulster hurling because it is probably badly needed.”