Shaun Casey investigates the art of man-marking by talking to two of its finest exponents
“WHEN Derry ended a 24-year wait for an Ulster title last season, Chrissy McKaigue was the man fortunate enough to climb the steps in Clones and raise the Anglo Celt above his head.
It was a long and at times turbulent road for the Sleacht Néill clubman, regarded nation-wide as one of the best defenders in the business. Last season alone, he went toe-to-toe with Darren McCurry, Jack McCarron, Patrick McBrearty, Keelan Sexton and Rob Finnerty. And came out on top each time.
Very few ever get the better of McKaigue and this year has been no different. As Derry collected their second Ulster crown on the trot, he once again excelled in his man-marking duties.
Sure, the scorers always catch the headlines, but without the quality stoppers at the other end of the field, no team will ever be successful. It’s not a new thing for McKaigue either, he’s been doing it for years and remains one of the best man-markers around.
“I think off the back of Sleacht Néill doing fairly well for a number of years, people think it is a relatively new thing,” said McKaigue.
“This is my 14th year for Derry, I was two years in Australia, so could have potentially been 16 years in a row. I’d say every single year, bar one or two, was played at full-back marking a player anyway. It isn’t a new thing to me.
“When you talk about marking players of that calibre, the word ‘enjoyment’ doesn’t come into it! That certainly isn’t an adjective I’d be using anyway. When you are trusted to do that role, you try and do it to the best of your ability.
“We’re very good, mostly, at defending as a team and in a system, which helps massively. We haven’t achieved what we’ve achieved so far without being a decent team, but the beauty of it is that every day you go out, you have to prove it.”
Every team needs one. A player with that warrior attitude to be a stopper. For Conor Laverty, he found his go-to man in captain Pierce Laverty, who has been handed all the big jobs this season.
In the McKenna Cup, he picked up Patrick McBrearty and Shane McGuigan while he held Conor Turbitt, who hit 0-15 in the previous two games, scoreless in the Ulster semi-final defeat to Armagh.
“Conor (Laverty) likes to call it total man-to-man marking so you’re not just man-to-man, you’re going with him absolutely everywhere,” said the Down captain on his role.
“The thing about being man-markers is you have to be tuned in and mentally switched on for 80 minutes of the game. I found maybe in the past, I’ve played games were I’m doing man-marking jobs and it’s the moments where I’ve switched off, taken a breath, and that’s when the good forwards score.
“You have the likes of Paddy McBrearty and Shane McGuigan, they’re the top forwards in the game, certainly in Ulster anyway. I find that anytime you switch off for a split second, that’s when a forward is going to capitalise on it.
“So, I’ve tried to work on being tuned in for the entire 80 minutes I think and that’s massive for doing a job on someone.
“I’m at that stage now where I really want those forwards. I get a bit of a buzz holding a forward like that scoreless and it’s getting to the stage now where it just annoys me if they get a score off me.
“It’s a complete delete of the other man, a complete shut out. My first job, before I even think about getting on the ball, is doing my job and that’s going completely man-to-man on my man and shutting out that scoring threat.
“I suppose if I can do my job for the team and that’s my role, then I can let the likes of Ryan Johnston or Liam Kerr or Odhrán Murdock to go forward and they can finish the game for us. It’s just the importance of knowing your job in the squad.”
McKaigue also highlights the mental concentration it takes to completely commit to blotting out a key player on the opposition’s team. But it takes more than that. Physically, you have to be strong, sharp, fast and agile enough to deal with all threats.
“There’s a huge element of concentration, but you don’t beat those boys with your mind. You have to be physically able to do it,” added McKaigue.
“I don’t have any reservations in saying it, I’m certainly nearer the end of my career than I am to the start of it. The day I feel I can’t physically do it will be the day I won’t have any reservations in saying goodbye boys.
“As of now, I feel grand, I feel alright. It’s a game at a time for me, it’s certainly a year at a time for me. Whatever stage I say, that’s it for me, I can feel very privileged and feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to say I’ve played against some of the best.”
“You get your analysis; you get your clips on the opposition’s forward,” added Laverty in reference to the preparation a man-marker undergoes before a big game.
“In terms of Conor Turbitt, I looked at how he likes to cut off the sideline, he comes down the left side and he likes to cut in on his right. When he’s coming down that side, I’m already thinking that I’ve watched him do this.
“I know he’s going to cut so if I take that step before he takes it then I’ve shut him out. It’s something that comes with a wee bit of experience of trying to be tuned in and I think when I was a bit younger it was harder to tune it for a full game.”
Derry are Ulster champions again and Down are eying up silverware in the form of the Tailteann Cup. If those teams are to have any more success this season, then they’ll need McKaigue and Laverty playing at the peak of their powers.”