Tonight in John Joe's Pub, Kilcar's 1989 Donegal championship-winning team, probably slower now and possibly wiser, will gather for a 25th anniversary celebration of that success.
It contains some storied names: Michael Carr, the original McHugh brothers. It is safe to guess that the club's recent league success – the first since 1987 – will come up in conversation, but the only GAA conversation in the county concerns last night's unveiling, after a prolonged drum roll, of Rory Gallagher as the new Donegal senior football manager.
All week, the expectation was that Gallagher would be made manager at last night’s county board meeting. After heavy speculation, the meeting was moved from Monday to last night so that the new manager could officially take his place at tomorrow’s county final.
Gallagher’s appointment represents a remarkable ascension of a figure whose nomadic football career was characterised by a self-assured and complete skill set and by a perpetual restlessness. In Kilcar, where Gallagher has, with John McNulty, been co-coaching the senior team since January, they had already begun to steel themselves for his absence before the appointment was made official.“Definitely, we would feel if Rory gets the job, it will be a big gain for Donegal and, yes, [it will be] to the detriment of Kilcar,” says Michael McShane, the club chairman.
“Rory first came in when James [McHugh] was managing. He was totally different to what we had seen before. He looks at every player individually and works on a one-on-one situation with everybody.
“We would love him to be involved over the next few years because what he was doing in our club with our younger coaches is so important. He brought more than just a league title to our club. Every player looks at football totally differently now. And that goes through to the management and executive as well: that you prepare on and off the field to the best of your ability.”
For years, Kilcar has punched above its weight to a miraculous level through a combination of producing exceptionally skilled ball players and old-fashioned graft. McShane believes that Gallagher has added to that an attitude of big ambition and constant self-improvement and, most of all, a willingness to try things.
For instance, Kevin Campbell grew up playing half forward for the club but inside a single season, Gallagher converted him into a goalkeeper. "He looked at what Kevin could bring the team with his kick-outs and ball handling. Nobody in the club had seen that. But he has turned out to be an excellent goalkeeper for us."
Michael Hegarty, an elegant half forward for Donegal for a full decade and still the mainstay for his club, has also assumed a transformative role under Gallagher.
“For years, he would have broken tackles, kicked points. Now, he operates between the two 45s and is the playmaker for the team. Everyone has completely bought into the roles they have been given.”
During the summer, McShane asked Gallagher to give a talk to the under-14s he was coaching prior to a county final. He knew Gallagher had attended some games and expected a general pep-talk. Instead, Gallagher came into the meeting with a dossier on previous games, taking them through their strengths and weaknesses. Then he spoke to the youngsters about what they needed to do to become the players they could become at 15, at 17.
“You know, one word from Rory Gallagher would be the same as a full speech from a manager. They were hanging off his every word.”
Just four years ago, nobody would have imagined Gallagher as a senior county manager. He was playing football for St Galls and in the twilight of a sporadically luminous career for Fermanagh while working and living in Killybegs.
Jim McGuinness, newly appointed as Donegal manager and scouting for assistants, heard about Gallagher and gave him a call. Their playing careers had overlapped – in the summer of 2000 Gallagher had scored an audacious, chipped goal in Ballybofey when Fermanagh stormed the neighbouring citadel to earn their first Ulster championship win there in 70 years. But their contact was fleeting.
Odd night out
“County games. College games. Might have bumped into each other on an odd night out. Doubt either of us remembers too much about that,” Gallagher observed drily in an interview with
The Irish Times
in 2011. “We met and clicked and decided to give it a go on a trial basis.”
Initially, McGuinness's choice of Gallagher was met with scepticism by many observers. Gallagher was from across the border and not that many people knew him. The graph of his playing career suggested turbulence. He scored a staggering 3-9 against Monaghan in the 2002 Ulster championship but departed the panel at the end of the season, dismayed with the 2-15 to 0-4 drubbing Fermanagh suffered against Kerry.
The county side was then being coached by Dom Corrigan, his old coach at St Michael's, Enniskillen, where Gallagher had been a prodigious talent at both soccer and Gaelic, good enough to earn a rooming berth with Damien Duff while on trial at Blackburn and partnering Wes Brown while at Manchester United.
But Gaelic football was his obsession and it still pains Fermanagh supporters that Gallagher was in exile and in the stands during the county’s extraordinary run under Charlie Mulgrew in 2004, when they lost in the All-Ireland semi-final to Mayo after a replay. He was back in 2005 but was frustrated with his role and with the management and had a frank exchange with Mulgrew outside the dressing room in Newry after the team exited in the qualifiers.
“I didn’t hold back,” Gallagher has said of that encounter. “I told them our preparation was a joke in terms of training, discipline and analysing the opposition. I didn’t rate his man-management either. If he didn’t like my style of play, fair enough, tell me.”
Three years later, Gallagher’s superb, icy gift for free-taking was on everyone’s mind when Malachy O’Rourke’s Fermanagh had a late free to win their first ever Ulster final in 2008. But to Armagh’s relief, Gallagher was out in the cold again, commentating for the BBC in the press box.
Two years later, he was back in county colours for a final season. But the abiding impression was of an unfulfilled decade for both player and county. And as Gallagher’s forensic approach and sharpness as a coach began to bloom under McGuinness, it was possible to revise his playing days as a period of deep frustration. Martin McHugh, for instance, spoke glowingly of Gallagher’s work ethic when he coached him a Sligo IT.
Similarly, Lenny Harbinson was immediately taken by what Gallagher brought to St Gall's when he joined the Belfast side. "Rory's managerial skill comes as no surprise to me because initially, when I managed Galls, he was probably one of the key reasons why we won the All-Ireland," Harbinson says.
Bright football brain
“I was a long-standing Galls player and clubman and everything else, but he was the catalyst. When he was playing forward, you could see he had a very bright football brain . . . not just in his positional sense but the likes of CJ McGourty and the younger players . . . he was telling them when to move, where to move. So I could see that I had someone special on the team here.”
And contrary to finding him difficult, Harbinson says Gallagher was a joy to coach. “Never one moment of trouble or doubt or query.”
That club All-Ireland victory – and scoring the late point that secured it – was for Gallagher a precious endnote to a football talent too seldom seen on the national stage. But as Donegal went supernova under McGuinness, the role of his slender and intense number two generated considerable media and public interes,t and the pair were interpreted as a serendipitous and ingenious partnership: the Morrissey and Marr of championship football.
The end of that alliance was similarly dramatic and irrevocable. Both men have kept their counsel on why McGuinness completely changed his back room staff in the autumn of 2013. Afterwards, McGuinness further enhanced his individual reputation with perfect tactical hours against Derry, Monaghan and Dublin in this summer’s championship. Still, the public had become so accustomed to seeing Gallagher right by McGuinness’s side that he was conspicuous by his absence.
The reason behind the split is likely to be one of the first questions Gallagher will field: it is equally likely that he will choose to keep his silence.
McGuinness left Donegal the right way: cleanly and honourably and offering absolutely no voice as to who should or should not succeed him. He probably knew that his former lieutenant was the man most likely to and Gallagher’s appointment will offer a form of continuity for a panel of players left bereft by McGuinness’s departure.
All in Donegal football are agreed that McGuinness will be irreplaceable. But there is some consolation in the echoes of four years ago in Rory Gallagher’s arrival as a young and intensely driven manager with the ambition to mould the kind of football team that he had always wanted to play for. He has that now.