Rory Gallagher ready to put cards on table as Tyrone come to town

Donegal manger’s influence will be easier to recognise than during league campaign

"I remember my first year in with the Fermanagh seniors and Tyrone had just annihilated us the previous year in Omagh," says Rory Gallagher. "They were always the benchmark."

The Belleek man doesn't exactly shudder but like most former county players, he can call upon plenty of championship Sundays when Tyrone teams simply blotted out the sun. The Red Hand County retains a powerful hold on the Ulster imagination.

On Sunday in Ballybofey, Gallagher will attempt to usher Donegal football into a new and distinct era. The match will mark a fizzing opening to the All-Ireland football season. A fourth successive win over Tyrone would maintain the sense of an unbroken thread of success for Donegal, and Gallagher's previous involvement with the squad for three seasons under Jim McGuinness enhances that perception.

Still, for the first time since the lopsided defeat to Armagh in Crossmaglen in July of 2010, the Glenties man will be watching Donegal play in the senior championship from the stands rather than on the sideline. Throughout a fiercely independent football career, Gallagher acquired the reputation for possessing a smart and analytical approach to the game, as well as being an original coach.


Sunday brings with it the pressure of coaching on the sideline against one of the great strategists of the game, Mickey Harte. But Gallagher's previous involvement means none of the preparation or build-up seems like new ground to him and he doesn't fully accept the old theory that the best year for any manager to make an impression is their first.

“Well, I don’t feel as if it is my first year in,” he points out. “It might be my first year as manager as such. But no matter what, I feel that the here and now is the year to make the impact. And no doubt, some of our players won’t be there in two or three years’ time. They have a lot less left in the tank.

Business end

“But unfortunately, it is not like other provinces where teams can say that they are going to be in the business end. We might not even be in the first round proper in Ulster and that is the reality.”

Gallagher has become so associated with the contemporary Donegal regime that his previous incarnation as an out-and-out stylist on Fermanagh teams that flickered sporadically is too easily forgotten. He has laughed away the individual Ulster championship scoring record of 3-9 (chalked up against Monaghan in 2000) as “a bit of crack . . . something for your friends to slag you about”, noting his cousin Raymie, also from Belleek, was a more natural finisher than he ever was.

He was in exile when his county went on a fabled qualifier run in 2004, falling at the All-Ireland semi-final stage against Mayo. Gallagher was perceived as being problematic but was more accurately frustrated by what he felt was the limited belief within his county. He enjoyed All-Ireland success with St Galls in 2010 and by then had begun to establish his reputation as a coach in Kilcar, near where he lives and work, which led to Jim McGuinness inviting him to join the backroom squad.

Even after their abrupt parting of ways in the autumn of 2013, Gallagher was always likely to be in the frame to succeed McGuinness. Significantly, he was offered the job after this year’s championship draw was made, placing Donegal in a notoriously difficult section including Tyrone, Armagh, Derry and Monaghan.

“It presented a greater challenge, yeah. I had worked with the boys for three years, which was very rewarding for myself and for the players. I looked at the potential of our team and made up my mind that regardless of the draw it was something I wanted to do. The reality is that there would be very few other teams in Ireland as attractive as Donegal.”

He inherited a team still smarting from the failure to realise their full potential in a three-point All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry. Gallagher smiles when asked if Donegal would have been as enticing had they actually won that final.

“That is a question that never came up. We can’t wonder about that. The evidence would say that the reality is probably not.”

Donegal's league form has not suggested any radical departure from the tactical blueprint which has served them so well for the past four years. The challenges have lain in replacing the substantial voids left by the retirement of Rory Kavanagh and by Leo McLoone's decision to step away from the squad, as well as harnessing the collective energy of the senior players for another gruelling campaign.

Power surge

There have been plenty of encouraging signs: a superb opening 20 minutes in Croke Park against Dublin, that blitz of Tyrone in Ballybofey and a convincing second-half power surge against Derry on the opening night. The low point was the 0-4 total registered against Monaghan, the latest indication that Donegal stutter when faced with a defensively clogged team. But if there was one sure thing about this league, it is that Gallagher will not have revealed his plans in any significant way.

Any ideas he may have to reshape the Donegal team in his vision will only become apparent during the championship. There were intimations of a more central attacking role for Paddy McBrearty and the prospect of two if not all three McHugh boys incorporated into team. Michael Murphy has been retained in a central position, operating in the middle third of the field and occasionally dropping into his nominal position of full forward.

An ongoing concern for Gallagher in the league was the frequency with which Murphy attracted disciplinary cards from officials, missing the closing match against Mayo after earning three early dismissals. Gallagher had no problem with some of the decisions but does feel his captain suffers because of his physical strength.

“There is no doubt he got a number of cards and we would agree that there was a number he deserved. There was maybe one or two which were slightly questionable and if you look at another player who dished out the same sort of treatment and didn’t get it . . .

“But I think Michael has worked really hard and really tidied up after the first three games being ordered off the field twice. He worked on it and improved on it. I think the size that he is and as powerful as he is, sometimes his challenges look worse than they are.

“He has a huge workrate and that will inevitably lead to a few fouls. But I think his frame . . . you stand next to him when he is togged and you see how big he is. And the reality is that he is targeted by other teams as he is a top player and some teams may make a little more out of it. That is gamesmanship and it is up to the referee to see.”

But overall, there has been nothing radically different about Donegal and this is unlikely to change in Ballybofey, when the season is reduced to a must-win match for both counties. Fifteen out of 16 championship wins has left the locals almost inured to the concept – and pain – of defeat. It makes every game fraught with danger.

“Honestly, I think there is too much made of their relegation. Obviously they will be disappointed to go down but if you take away our game and the Monaghan game, where they changed their tactics after that, they will be very pleased with their performances. Look at three of last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists: Mayo they beat convincingly, Dublin got a last-minute goal to get a draw and they drew with Kerry. That is four points out of six.

“Against the same three teams, we got one point. That is the way we would judge them. On the day we played them we had the breeze in the first half and our goal came off the post. Some of these games take on a life of their own. We are expecting a formidable challenge from Tyrone and from a team that will be confident.”

Gallagher brought his team into his native county last weekend, organising a three-night training camp at the Lough Erne Resort. It wasn’t exactly warm-weather (nor is Sunday in Ballybofey expected to be) but it had its advantages.

“Costa-del-Enniskillen,” he laughed “It just felt a number of things: we were out in the championship early; we have a number of fellas who may have to nip home; Frank McGlynn had a Communion class and he had to nip home for that. So that was one bearing on not going too far. But it also cuts down on the travel. We are very happy with the Lough Erne chalets there. We are always well looked after. I think the chairman is fairly pleased too. He did the deal a long time ago when the euro wasn’t as weak against sterling. So every day that goes by, he feels better about it.”

He is absolutely adamant there “is no plan B”. All physical and emotional energy has been funnelled into winning this game. He has heard the arguments that it would be cleverer now for this Donegal team to approach the All-Ireland series through the qualifying route. “I can fully understand their reasons for saying that. But try telling that to my boys at training.”

And that is the crucial factor. Despite expectations to the contrary, there has been no sign the senior generation of Donegal players are content with what they have. It was anticipated when McGuinness stepped down last autumn, a roll call of heavyweight names would follow.

Age profile

“I think it was wrong to assume that in the first place. What age do you retire at? There is none of the lads 33. I am not sure if any of them are even 32 at this stage. Rory [Kavanagh] was the oldest of that group and look, 30, 32, if you look after your body. The age profile is not that old. People probably think they are older because they have been playing since such a young age. The McGees have been in since they were 19, Michael Murphy since 17,

Neil Gallagher

since 20,

Karl Lacey

since 19. So that gives the perception that they are older than they are.”

So miles to go before they sleep and all that. But Rory Gallagher knows it is all cyclical. When he was playing his last year as a minor for Fermanagh in 1996, Mickey Harte was manager of a marauding Tyrone team. Four summers ago, Donegal were not really mapped when they simply destroyed all known coordinates in Ulster. Now, they are the team to be felled. They are the eclipse. And Gallagher knows that the toughest task in football is to keep on beating the same team.

“It is. No doubt about it. But at the same time, from the Tyrone team in 2011, this is practically a new team. They are probably in the same position as we were going into 2011. Their younger players have a lot of experience now and they will be looking to knock the Ulster champions out, which is where we were at in 2011.

“But you have to feel that our record gives our players confidence. The players individually have done a lot right in big games and how they have prepared themselves. It is a matter of tapping into that and doing better and better every day we go out.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times