One of the only benefits of the empty stadiums at the beginning of last year's All-Ireland championship was that the few people who were admitted could hear what was being said on the sidelines. This was never more true than during the riveting Derry-Donegal Ulster first round game.
Rory Gallagher, on the Derry sideline, gave a 70-minute clinic in which he micro-coached his side to within a couple of scores of shocking their neighbours. The intensity was relentless, the voice urgent and it mixed praise with specific instruction, telling defenders when to stay; when to drop back a few steps, when to push a player left or right and, frequently, when to go and break at pace.
The experience gave the audience a rare insight into what the training regime must have been like for the Derry men– and it must have brought back memories for the many Donegal players who had been coached by Gallagher during his three years as manager.
It was a brilliant game but afterwards, Derry were out. As he gathered to speak with media on the field, Gallagher’s eye was drawn to the Donegal substitutes going through their paces on the now deserted field. In particular, he noticed Paddy McGrath, the veteran defender who had broken through when Gallagher was involved with the Donegal team that won the 2012 All-Ireland under Jim McGuinness. Immediately, Gallagher broke away from whatever the question had been to pay impromptu tribute to McGrath.
It was a fleeting moment but you could tell that Gallagher had access to a comprehensive databank of knowledge and memories of McGrath. It’s one of the things that any player who encounters Gallagher notices. “I’d say he knows nearly every player in Ireland,” marveled Leo McLoone, another Donegal All-Ireland winner, in an interview last year.
Last October, as Tyrone celebrated, Derry announced that they had secured Gallagher’s services until 2025. It was a smart move and seemed to mark the end note to a turbulent decade for the Oak Leaf during which they fell dramatically from grace. Under Gallagher, they surprised many with a high-scoring league campaign as they gained promotion from division three as champions. They hit 5-34 in their first two league games, conceded 0-14 and never looked back.
And other parts fell into place. Derry won the Ulster Under-21 title in 2018 and became All-Ireland minor winners in 2018. The revival of the seniors is the latest rehabilitation.
The fascination will lie in seeing how Derry fare in Division Two. Returning to that level was the key priority for Gallagher last year. It remains to be seen whether they can carry the high-flying attacking game through this league season. Whether that materialises or not, Derry will be no soft touch at the other end of the field.
In conversation with Paddy Andrews and Tommy Rooney last year, Gallagher was asked about his favorite day playing for Fermanagh. The assumption was that it would be his 3-9 individual tally against Monaghan. “No,” he shot back. “It was the first time we played defensive,” returning to a qualifying game against Westmeath when they held the home team to just 0-7. Gallagher excelled at soccer as a teenager and in the same interview he acknowledged that it had influenced his thinking on Gaelic football.
“Definitely in the way I defend. Soccer was unbelievable. See the coaching I got with Northern Ireland schoolboys? It was all about defending areas: knowing when to defend, when to mark tight, how to defend as a collective. You’d see the faults in teams in how they defend. For a while it was probably a bit too easy just to defend areas.”
When Donegal and Derry met again on a damp Tuesday night a couple of weeks ago, Donegal emerged as winners with four points to spare.
Afterwards, Gallagher emphasised that his squad are not yet at the level of his former team. And he means that: the mission for self-improvement over the coming months will be arduous and unrelenting.
But notice has been served. Division Two is, as ever, a nest of vipers and nobody will fancy visiting Gallagher’s side. Securing Division Two status would be fine for Derry but they have the stuff to keep moving up.
It all builds towards what is an intriguing Ulster championship opening game for Derry. They will meet either Gallagher’s native Fermanagh or the All-Ireland champions Tyrone. In either event, they’ll be prepared to the nth degree and come with a plan.