Gallagher determined to drive Fermanagh to new heights
Ex-Donegal manager has already proved a success in his first season at the helm
Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher and selector Ryan McMenamin on the sideline during the Ulster Championship win over Armagh. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Veterans of Monaghan’s more impoverished summers may shudder a little when they see the lean frame of Rory Gallagher on the sideline with Fermanagh on Sunday afternoon.
There have been several low points in the football history of the Farney County but a genuine sense of hopelessness must have accompanied the sight of Gallagher shooting a scarcely believable 3-9 against their team in the 2002 Ulster championship.
Like too many exceptional GAA feats, the world was looking the other way that afternoon; it was never properly archived. Two of the goals were from the penalty spot but the talk in the pubs afterwards was that they had never seen the like of it. They hadn’t either; that tally, out of 4-13 was an Ulster record.
Nearly ten years later, in his first season working with Donegal, Gallagher laughed away that afternoon in an interview with this newspaper.
“Just a bit of craic. Something for your friends to slag you about. My cousin Raymie was always a better finisher than me.”
Still, the match captured the immense potential locked into Gallagher’s turbulent senior career with Fermanagh. From 2000 to 2008, the county produced a senior squad that would, unquestionably, have won Fermanagh’s first Ulster title but for the fact that Tyrone and Armagh changed the face of the game in that period. Gallagher was the creator-in-chief of those teams but he was absent from the squad for the biggest days in their history.
And he was irreplaceable. As a teenager, he featured on Fermanagh minor teams from the age of 14 and presaged that Monaghan blow-out with an unstoppable performance against Mickey Harte’s 1996 minor side.
Gallaher regularly points out that he wasn’t the quickest but then he never had to be; he was wizardly at buying himself space and in possession, he seemed to have all the time in the world, even against the mass defences that were gathering force – and critics – during that period.
He was a baller; sufficiently talented at soccer to catch the eye of Billy Bingham for Northern Ireland youths and, later, to earn trials at Manchester United and Blackburn before he returned home.
He had already scored an outrageous goal to secure Fermanagh’s first win in Donegal in 70 years in 2001 before that supernova game against Monaghan. But by 2004, when Fermanagh went on a startling qualifying run under Charlie Mulgrew, knocking out mighty Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter final and pushing Mayo to a replay in the semi-finals, Gallagher, to the frustration of the locals, had left the squad.
The following summer, he returned but was confined to a bench role as Fermanagh again faced Armagh. He came on in the 34th minute and quickly scored a goal that revived the team’s challenge but the Orchard County won convincingly. Afterwards, he let rip at the management team.
“I didn’t hold back. I told them that our preparation was a joke; in terms of training, discipline, analysing the opposition,” Gallagher told Kieran Shannon in 2011.
It was a niggle that characterised his playing career, a burning conviction that the county used its size has an excuse and that, for too many summers, it wasn’t sufficiently prepared or resourced or ambitious to fully capitalise on the players in the county.
In 2008, Fermanagh, then coached by Malachy O’Rourke, made it to the Ulster final and took Armagh to a replay. But Gallagher wasn’t involved that season either and was doing broadcast work in the stands. He finished up playing with the county in 2010, the same year he won a club All-Ireland with St Gall’s and would deny having any regrets about the stop-start nature of his days wearing green.
“Not in the slightest. Look. I played for Fermanagh for many years and it meant a lot to me. Sometimes you are just better off biting your lip and now that I’m in management I can see that. And I suppose some people felt that it was as well I wasn’t there after opting out, that Fermanagh was better off without me. “And there were times I did things that weren’t the right things to do. But that was because I felt Fermanagh was a county that didn’t put its best foot forward for success. I don’t buy into a small county or having small numbers as an excuse for lack of success or a limited performance.
“Greece won the European Championship. Ajax won the European Cup. You need 24 players. That’s it. There were U-21 teams I was involved with that just got together the night before. We beat Donegal, ran Armagh to a point. But I don’t think we did everything we could.”
This summer, Gallagher is undoubtedly convinced that can’t be said of Fermanagh because now, he is in charge. Fermanagh have been the one of the outliers of this season, shrewdly winning promotion to Division Two, losing only to already-relegated Wexford on the last day of the final. They played a dead-rubber final against Armagh, their first-round opponents in Ulster.
The league showpiece was a 1-16 to 0-17 thriller which Armagh won; seven weeks later, the result was reversed with Armagh managing just 0-7 against Fermanagh’s austere defence. So in his first season, Gallagher has guided his county to promotion and knocked one of last year’s All-Ireland quarter finalists.
When Gallagher stepped down from the Donegal job last summer, Martin McHugh described him as “the best football brain that I have met”.
Over seven years with his neighbouring county – three as a selector with Jim McGuinness, one as U-21 manager and three as senior manager – he established himself as a high-energy manager; forensic in detail of the opposition, innovative as a technical coach, demanding and highly vocal and spiky on the side line.
A crushing defeat to Galway on a hot evening in Markievicz Park led to the inevitable outburst of pathetic online abuse. After he stepped down, he told Hugh Cahill that the fallout hadn’t influenced his decision: it was just time.
“I might lead a very blinkered life but I am not on social media. I have no interest in it whatsoever. I don’t see the attraction of it and have never been on Facebook in my life. I don’t have a twitter account. You do hear stuff. Would you like it not to happen? Absolutely. But it doesn’t impinge on the way I think about sport whatsoever. What I would say overall is that the Donegal supporters I encountered have been absolutely brilliant.”
For perhaps the first time in his football life, Gallagher’s native county were prompt to recognise just how vital he is to its cause. Just six weeks after leaving Donegal, the Belleek man was appointed Fermanagh manager.
One of his first tasks was to phone Ryan McMenamin, Tyrone’s cult-hero defender and three-time All-Ireland winner, and ask him to work as selector. It was an intriguing pairing and after a few months in his role, McMenamin said he was taken aback by the level of work Gallagher poured into the role, both on the training field and in his analysis.
The Armagh-Fermanagh game won’t win any beauty contests as a spectacle but the belief and rigorous organisation of the home team was notable as well as Gallagher’s visibly engaged demeanour on the sideline in the closing quarter.
All of this makes Sunday’s game in Omagh the biggest game Fermanagh have faced in years. Monaghan are a heavyweight side and favourites to win Ulster but Malachy O’Rourke will be alive to the dangers of facing his native county as reimagined by his former player.
If he knows what he will be facing against Fermanagh, he also knows that Monaghan’s performance against Tyrone will have been picked apart by Gallagher in the weeks since.
A win here would return Fermanagh to a first Ulster final since 2008 – and perhaps bring Rory Gallagher back into a stadium with Donegal more quickly than anyone imagined last summer.