Chrissy McCaig is more than just a cork in her new role with Derry

Rory Gallagher calls him Christopher. Only Mr. and Mrs. McCaig called him that. For everyone else, it’s Chrissy.

But for a Derry manager, giving the captain his full title – no abbreviations or nicknames – is an important distinction.

Respect? Delight? Maybe even a little fear!

“Rory and I have a very, very close relationship, but the boys also laugh at the fact that our relationship is more open and honest than most players,” says McCaig. “We fought each other at times, but we’re very, very close and we probably share a lot of the same personality traits.”

Then kindred spirits, purposeful, noisy, obsessive. But in McCaig, Gallagher knows he has one of the best markers in the game, a paragon of concentration and alertness for 70-plus minutes.

He has picked up three of Ulster’s best strikers in three league games to date and is only two points behind, both against Tyrone’s Darren McCurry.

Donegal’s Patrick McBrarty didn’t score in the game, as did Monaghan’s Jack McCarron, but he won three free throws in McCarron’s defense, which were converted and added value to McCaig’s company. The odds are stacked against the defender, so these outcomes give him satisfaction.

“I just ended up in that role even when I played the field for Slaughtneil,” adds McCaig. “For most of my career in the intercounty, I played at fullback, and this is a completely different role.

“The kids at the school I teach would say it’s not a very glamorous task, but every team needs stoppers. It is very nice. I would say it’s nice to know that you are trusted to go out and celebrate the best players.

“But you always know that every day you go out there is always a potential problem, so stay down to earth and stay humble.”

But there’s more to his game than just stopping these days. There is a leader. By example and word. And the fact that he focused less on his game and gave more to others helped him.

“I’ve been trying to develop more players on and off the field, and I think in many ways that has taken a lot of the pressure off my own game. I can look past my own performance,” he says.

“There was too much time in my own career when I couldn’t do it. So I’m really enjoying this phase of my career because it’s very different and I look at it differently.”

The appearance of Derry was one of the stories of the summer, and McCaig was one of the most important components.

On Saturday, Derry will face Claire in the first of the All-Ireland quarter-finals, for the first time in 18 years, enticing a place in the bottom four.

He has been there for all but five years since then, joining the team in 2008, leaving for a couple of years to pursue a career in international rules with the Sydney Swans before returning in late 2012 and being a full-time presence for 11 years.

During that time, they endured a painful fall to Division 4 as recently as 2019.

They have had a lot of underage success and have always enjoyed a thriving club scene, but as he puts it, they needed all the “crooks” to come together and Gallagher’s arrival was the catalyst.

“When he came in – and I think he would laugh about it now – but I don’t think he realized what a bad position Derry was in. He was probably caught off guard in the first year.

“We were in a very bad place. Tactically we had no idea, culturally we were in a bad position in terms of the environment needed to compete against the best teams.

“Covid came at a good time for us because we were pretty much confused. We had a little time to fix what we were in, what we needed to change. Rory was good for Derry, but I think Derry was good for him too.”

He admits that McCaig’s time is running out. At 32, how much longer can he pursue the best inside forwards in the province, and now the country, without exposing himself to the days every cornerback dreads?

“My body is beginning to feel the burden of years not only on the inter-regional but also on the club scene.

“Very soon I will have to make a decision regarding certain aspects of hurling and football, local football, whatever it is. But we will accept their decisions when they appear. As long as I can still compete with the best players, I will try to keep going.”