Chrisy McKaigue of Derry poses for a portrait during the launch of the GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Series in Dublin.
Chrisy McKaigue of Derry poses for a portrait during the launch of the GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Series in Dublin. 

Gallagher-McKaigue dynamic driving Derry footballers forward


By John Harrington

Those who call Chrissy McKaigue by the name on his birth-cert, Christopher, belong to a fairly exclusive club.

Its members are limited to his parents and Derry football team manager, Rory Gallagher.

That’s a nice little insight into the relationship between the Derry captain and his manager.

Much like your average parent-child dynamic, theirs is a close bond. Occasionally they rub one another up the wrong way, especially as Gallagher can expect a lot of his captain, but the mutual respect is very apparent.

“Me and Rory have a very, very close relationship but the boys laugh too that our relationship is more open and honest than most of the players,” says McKaigue.

“We’d have a go at each other at times but we’re very, very close and probably in many ways we share similar personality traits.”

McKaigue is quick to give Gallagher a lot of the credit for moulding this Derry side into one capable of winning an Ulster championship.

In fairness, the evidence is fairly black and white. Before Gallagher arrived they were in pretty bad shape. Now they’re a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts, which is always the greatest compliment you can give any manager.

“Look, I suppose, when he got the job, you'd always here snippets of how well received he was in Donegal,” says McKaigue.

“Jim McGuinness was a very special man - still is - but a lot of the Donegal players made no secret of the fact of how big an impact Rory Gallagher made on them and I know he's very friendly with the McHughs and Eoghan Bán and Hugh McFadden and they would have spoken very highly of him.

“When he came in - and I think he'd laugh about it now - but I don't think he realised how bad a place Derry were in. He was probably caught unawares in the first year - we were in a really bad place - tactically we had no idea, culturally we were in a bad place in terms of the environment needed to compete with the top teams.

“Covid came at a good time for us because we were in disarray to a fair extent, because we had a bit of time to fix where we were at, what we needed to change. Last year was when we started to see performances, albeit in Division Three, and that there was something to work with.

“It's a great pity there were no qualifiers last year because even though Donegal beat us, we felt we were in a really great place, so we were desperate to get back this year again. It's a testament to Rory that we've came back and proven that that wasn't just a one-off game."

Derry manager, Rory Gallagher, celebrates a late point in the Ulster SFC Final against Doengal. 
Derry manager, Rory Gallagher, celebrates a late point in the Ulster SFC Final against Doengal. 

The respect between McKaigue and Gallagher is clearly a two-way street because the Derry manager always trusts his captain to mark the opposition’s most dangerous inside-forward.

That would be a thankless task for most footballers, but even though McKaigue is a fine footballer with the ball in hand he has no problem sacrificing that aspect of his game for the greater good of the team.

"I just found myself in that role. Even when I was playing out the pitch for Slaughtneil, I played the vast amount of my inter-county career in the full-back line and it's a very different role.

“The kids at school that I teach would say it's not a very glamorous task but every team needs stoppers. It's hugely fulfilling. I would say it's satisfying to know that you are given the trust to go out and mark the marquee players so it's more that.

“But you are always aware that every day you go out there is always a potential problem there so you stay grounded and you stay humble. As long as I can play that role or one of those roles it's something that I get satisfaction from.

“Sometimes even against the marquee players, breaking even is as good as you can manage.”

Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. 
Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue lifts the trophy after his side's victory in the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. 

It’ll be interesting to see how this Derry team reacts to winning a first Ulster title since 1998. Will that be enough for them, or will they now be emboldened to believe there’s no reason they can’t go all the way this year?

With Gallagher and McKaigue setting the tone, the latter attitude seems likelier. And the team captain is hopeful there’s now an ideal blend of attitude and age to enable Derry be the best they can be in the All-Ireland series.

“What has been a real breath of fresh air, the likes of Shane McGuigan and Conor Glass, Paudie McGrogan, Conor Doherty, those lads are young and they haven't a huge amount of mileage so it just brings a freshness to the panel. Different voices who aren't scared to speak up and I think that's important for any successful team.

"I always talk about the three different age profiles. You have the young guys, early twenties, the the mid-20s group, and then the older guys like myself. It sort of takes three groups like that to gel a team together because there comes a day when each of those groups are needed and there's a really nice balance, a couple of really handy underage players coming through who will come through the system soon so...they are all needed.”