Slaughtneil are a club who have become synonymous with the AIB GAA Club Championships.
Despite surrendering their Derry football title, the club had dominated the provincial football scene up until this year winning three Ulster titles en route to two All-Ireland finals in the last six years.
In the same period, the hurling side have also managed to win three of the last four Ulster senior hurling titles, however, they have yet to qualify for an All-Ireland final having lost out to Cuala and Na Piarsaigh along the way.
It doesn’t get any easier for them this time around as defending champions Ballyhale Shamrocks stand in their way of a maiden All-Ireland club hurling final appearance this weekend. While the task remains as tough as ever, Slaughtneil have been somewhat buoyed by their lack of involvement in the football championship as they prepare for Sunday’s clash in Newry.
Influential dual star, Chrissy McKaigue, admits having their sole focus on one code helps but stresses that Ulster hurling teams face their own set of issues seldom seen in more traditional hurling strongholds.
“It’s certainly helped. I suppose you can focus on your craft a bit better. For a hurling club from Derry and Ulster, you’re not privy to the same intensity or same number of high-quality games as you would be if you were from different parts of Ireland,” McKaigue said at the AIB GAA Semi-Finals Media Day.
“We’d go away and focus on the deficiencies in our game and tried to close the gap that is present between ourselves and the likes of Ballyhale, the so-called stronger, traditional areas of hurling. That’s the most refreshing thing, and not having any distractions.
“We’re aware that we have a huge amount of work to do to close the gap with Ballyhale. At least we’ve been given the chance this time to do it. If you’re being really selfish, you’d like to be contending in the football too but it’s difficult to fight on both fronts. We’re just happy that we have hurling at the moment.”
The Derry star continued by expressing his joy in creating history with Slaughtneil hurling both at home and within Ulster. However, he stressed that the goal has now become about closing the gap at a national level.
“To retain our Derry title, make history and become the first team to win seven in a row, to win our third Ulster hurling title in four years, and to still be the only Derry team to win the Ulster club hurling title – we’re getting a lot of things right.
“Our biggest challenge is to close the gap at national level. That’s the biggest challenge of them all.”
In order to close the gap at the top, Slaughtneil need as many games of a high-intense quality that they can get. Something that can be hard with a hurling fraternity as small as Ulster’s. With many of the strongest teams from around the province regularly meeting at a championship level, the opportunity for challenge games close to home has become quite rare.
To combat this, the club have taken on county sides stemming from Tipperary to Antrim over the last few seasons in order to prepare for the nation’s most potent club sides. But McKaigue admits it can be a hard slog for the club, especially given their dual status.
He admits it is challenging but without it, there may not be hurling in Ulster at all.
“Yeah, you have to go travelling, number one. And then, trying to plan that travel with being a dual club, trying to do that while having a large number of players who play hurling and football for Derry [is hard]. You can get an indication of how difficult that would be.
“Where we’re situated geographically, there are really strong clubs in north Antrim but we tend not to play them too much because they, us and other strong clubs in Derry have an eye on meeting down the line. You don’t want to be showing your hand.
“The closest you’re going to get for a really top game is a Dublin club, that kind of distance, on a bus or whatever is three hours.
“It has its challenges. In many ways, if it wasn’t for Ulster club hurling at the minute, Ulster hurling would be extinct. You see that with the turnouts in the Ulster club hurling final – it’s the biggest crowd by far. You know, with the second and third-tier competitions at inter-county level – everyone has their opinions on it but one fact, there aren’t too many going to watch it. Maybe that’s an indication of the interest and prestige associated with those competitions. There certainly is more of a pull with Ulster club hurling. As a hurler in Ulster, we’re acutely aware that we protect that.”
The South Derry side carry the mantle of Ulster hurling’s representatives this weekend when they welcome Henry Shefflin’s cohorts to the province.
McKaigue is looking forward to Ulster hosting an All-Ireland hurling semi-final featuring some of the top names in the game. He’s also looking forward to another opportunity to prove that Slaughtneil can compete with the best the game has to offer.
Something they have done time and time again across each GAA code over the past number of years.
“Aye, it is exciting. It’s great that the game’s in Newry because there will be a bigger crowd going to it to see the likes of Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid, Adrian Mullen, the Fennelly’s.
“It’s a great idea to have it in Newry from an Ulster hurling perspective. The Slaughtneil is very much up there too. Maybe, some people would argue that Slaughtneil is traditionally a football area but in the last number of years, we’ve proven that we sincerely are a promoter of all three codes. The girls have had unprecedented success, the football team has been to All-Ireland finals, the hurlers are in a third All-Ireland semi-final in four years.
“We’re doing a lot of things right as a GAA club. We’re doing a lot of things right to do our best at all three codes; how long that can last with the number of dual players, we’re acutely aware of that. You’re aware that you need to take these opportunities when they come along. Again, there’s more challenges for our hurlers than our footballers.
“It’s an unbelievably difficult draw again, every bit as difficult as the last couple campaigns against Cuala and Na Piarsaigh. We don’t get an easy one.”