club comes first

'Here's three girls that buried their father and they arrive to training that evening' - the rise of Slaughtneil

The Derry club’s camogie side are eyeing their fourth All-Ireland title in-a-row tomorrow.

LET’S TAKE YOU back to last November, Newry, and the Ulster club hurling and camogie finals.

aoife-ni-chaiside-lifts-bill-agnes-carroll-cup Aoife Ní Chaiside lifting the All-Ireland club camogie title in 2017 in memory of her late father. Tommy Grealy / INPHO Tommy Grealy / INPHO / INPHO

In the curtain-raiser, Loughgiel Shamrocks got a six-point headstart on Slaughtneil, but goals from Shannon Graham and Olivia Rafferty wrestled control back. From having no Ulster titles back in 2016, Slaughtneil now had four-in-a-row.

A couple of hours later and the club’s hurlers produce a performance rooted in pure begrudgery at being portrayed, in their own words, as ‘thugs with hurls’ by giving Dunloy a real going over.

In the post-match speech, captain Chrissy McKaigue is his typically passionate self but it rises an octave when he begins to acknowledge the camogs achievement from a couple of hours earlier.

“Youse are the standard-bearers in our club!” he roars into his microphone.

The uninitiated would take that as a flippant remark, a pat on the head given out of generosity. But it is the absolute truth.

Years ago, before they won an All-Ireland title, the Slaughtneil camogs had invested in a phone application to monitor their training sessions. In order to encourage the rest to get into the gym, they would post selfies from the gym into the team WhatsApp group.

They had the renowned strength and conditioning coach Ollie Cummings setting out their programmes.

“They make sure they tighten themselves up so that when you take a hit, you recover quicker than the person you are hitting,” was how their assistant manager, no other than former Antrim hurling manager Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley put it at the time after they beat Sarsfields in the 2017 final.

“We do serious, serious running,” he continued.

“I said before the game that if this match goes on one hour, two hours or two days, we are going to win it. Because we had the work done and so much fuel in the tank.

“You build an inner belief in them and now we all believe that we can go and go and go.

“Camogie in general, there is not a wild lot of scoring, but that last wee bit, doing the right things and having that strength in the legs is very, very important.”

No matter how many times Slaughtneil meet Loughgiel in tight games, it never becomes easy for McKinley, who won an All-Ireland club hurling title with Loughgiel in 1983. Why he came to be with Slaughtneil was through a request from Thomas Cassidy.

The week before they landed their first Ulster title in 2016, on a beautifully sunny autumnal day in Armagh’s Athletic Grounds, Cassidy passed away. He was father of three of the camogie team; captain Aoife, Eilís and Bróna.

In years previous, he had sold a car of his to help pay for a club minibus and was the driving force of hurling and camogie in the club. The week that he was laid to rest, they won their first camogie and hurling Ulster titles. Anyone in the ground that day was enveloped in a bitter-sweet emotion.

damien-mceldowney-and-selector-dominic-mckinley-celebrate-at-the-full-time-whistle Slaughtneil manager Damian McEldowney and selector Dominic McKinley after last year's All-Ireland final win. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

That year as Cassidy’s health fell away, he got McKinley to do the heavy lifting, assisted by current manager Damian McEldowney.

After the All-Ireland win, ‘Woody’ recalled how they spent a weekend away and played Thomastown of Kilkenny and Wexford’s Rathnure earlier that campaign.

“Their managers came over at the end of the matches and said that we could win an All-Ireland. Like any politician, you say, ‘Ack, I don’t know about that…’ and you play it down,” he said.

But Cassidy shared his belief with McKinley that if they could only break the glass ceiling of Ulster, then things would open up for them.

“He wanted them out of Ulster because they had never been out of Ulster, and if they could get out of Ulster, then surely they could win an All-Ireland,” recalls McKinley.

Cassidy was buried on a Friday, two days before the Ulster finals. That evening, the team were already out on the field getting ready to train when the Ní Caiside sisters came through the gate to take part in the session.

“From that day everything just gelled and got even more closer,” McKinley said.

“What a wonderful thing to do. People call off matches because you see boys going to stag dos and all these silly things. Here’s three girls that buried their father and they arrive to training that evening. That’s the type of people that they are.”

Back then, Sean McGuigan was Chairman of the club. He since stepped away for a bit, but is back in the role now. His nickname is ‘Play On Sean’ for the style he referees fiercely-fought Derry club games.

The day after that first All-Ireland final win, he couldn’t help but bring it back to his old comrade.

“I keep harping on about Thomas, and maybe now that they have won an All-Ireland I mightn’t talk about it as much from now on,” he said.

“But for Aoife to lift that cup in Croke Park yesterday and to do a speech in Irish the whole way through, that her dad took her to all the Ghaeltacht to teach her Irish…

“For him to start that team three years ago and for her to hold up that cup yesterday, honest to God, I would say it is the happiest day of my life. Because of that alone.”

After meeting in the 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland finals, it’s Galway’s Sarsfields who once again stand in their way.

And yet, depending on team selection of course, Slaughtneil have nine players who will have started all four All-Ireland finals.

In women’s sport, this kind of player retention is unheard of. The trio of Ní Casaide sisters has lost two with Bróna and Eilís now travelling, while Mary Kelly – goal-scoring hero of their first final win – is living away.

the-slaughtneil-team The 2019/20 panel ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

But they have goalkeeper Jolene Bradley. In defence they can call on Josine McMullan, Grainne Ní Cathain, Aoife Ní Caiside and Sinead Mellon. Further up the field, Louise Dougan (though she often plays as an extra body in defence), Shannon Graham, Siobhan Bradley and Therese Mellon all remain.

Slaughtneil are looking to equal Wexford’s Buffer’s Alley and their four All-Irelands from 1981 to 1984, but much like the hurlers in their club, they are constantly raising the profile and expectations of what these games could be, in Ulster.

“I went round the Ring of Kerry at 19 years of age and some boy might say to you, ‘where are you from?’ And you say ‘Slaughtneil’ and they shrugged their shoulders,” recalls Sean McGuigan.

“And I went down to the Féile last year and the fella that was selling the hurley sticks jumped clean over the counter to come to meet us,” he adds.

They have become a nationwide story. A couple of summers back, Christine Lampard and Adrian Chiles appeared at a training session in Slaughtneil, Chiles trying his hand at hurling.

Aoife Ní Caiside has appeared alongside Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan for BBC documentaries about the positive role sport can play in the lives of young girls.

They’ve moved into the mainstream. And now they are targeting being the best ever.

They will take some stopping.

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