'I did my cruciate on 99 games. There was a massive thing in the paper the next day about the 100th'

Donegal star Emer Gallagher misses today’s Division 1 league semi-final against Dublin as she works towards her return from a serious knee injury.

DONEGAL STAR EMER Gallagher’s 100th senior appearance for her county was within touching distance.

Until it all came crashing down.

“I did my cruciate on 99 games,” she tells The42.

“Then there was a massive thing in the paper the next day: Emer Gallagher’s next game is her 100th, she’ll be hoping that she’s back for it. I was like, ‘I didn’t even know that it was my 99th game, but now, wow.’”

2022-lidl-ladies-national-football-leagues-launch In attendance at the launch of the 2022 Lidl Ladies National Football Leagues is Emer Gallagher of Donegal. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

27 now, Gallagher first came into the set-up at the tender age of 16 and has been a mainstay ever since. Minus the summer of 2016, when she went to Chicago on a J1 visa.

And she had been fortunate when it came to injury.

Until last July’s All-Ireland senior championship group stages clash with Kerry.

“I think there was like a minute left on the clock,” Gallagher recalls. “I knew straight away. It was like a very obvious crack, but I don’t know if anyone else could hear it. 

“And it was so simple, I was hitting the ball away, but I just kind of overstretched. I just remember as I was falling, I was holding my knee.

“It was intense pain for 10 minutes, and then just gone. Completely gone. And I was like, ‘I was just so dramatic!’ It’s just a strange, strange injury, but mine was clean. It was just a cruciate, nothing else, so just straightforward surgery and it’s been fine so far.”

The early days were tough, understandably.

The Termon defender took some time to wallow, before accepting her fate and seeing it as a challenge. Her team’s focus, meanwhile, turned to an All-Ireland quarter-final showdown with then-champions Dublin after the win over the Kingdom.

“Whenever I found out [the diagnosis] on the phone, I was upset and straightaway after that, I kind of had to go into thinking in team mode,” Gallagher remembers. “That really helped me actually because like I was able to focus on the match and put all my energy into that.

“The previous year, we had started against Dublin in the championship. And we had put so much time into that and obviously with that crazy goal that went in, that was the difference in the two [group] games. It felt like it had been like a full year for us to get back to that same stage.

“We had already had conversations about who I’d be man-marking, and I was so ready for it. I felt like I was having a good year and everything had gone well. I felt like I was probably in the best shape that I’d been in a long time. And then obviously, you can’t think about that stuff.

“I had been told I’m not going to be able to make it back, so it wouldn’t have done the girls on my team any good for me to be like ‘Oh, poor me, my cruciate, I’m not playing.’ I think that really forced me to kind of be okay with it.”

Donegal were without another starting defender in Niamh Carr due to Covid, so these setbacks were parked with the Sky Blues showdown the focal point.

The Carrick-on-Shannon meeting finished in a 2-12 to 2-7 defeat and the Tír Chonaill side’s championship involvement ended for another year.

“Obviously the girls didn’t win in the end, but because I had that distraction. it made it a wee bit easier for me to deal with. In a strange way whenever the girls were out, it kind of took that hurt away because I didn’t feel like I was missing out on so much.

“That’s a terrible way to look at it. I was devastated for them for them to lose, but it also kind of took that weight off my shoulders that I was missing out on the games to come. Everything was really straightforward then.”

A month to the day she sustained the injury, Gallagher went under the knife of Ray Moran at Santry Sports Clinic and the care and support offered from there back to The Hills has been second-to-none.

The Donegal LGFA county board ensured she “didn’t have to worry about money,” which “took a huge weight off my shoulders,” while she’s working with Paul Fisher, the former Donegal men’s strength and conditioning coach, and physiotherapists Tommy Kerr and Niamh McLaughlin.

The latter is a team-mate, captain and friend; a former Ireland international, also, who has played a big role in the recoveries of some of the country’s top stars including Aimee Mackin.

lyndsey-davey-with-emer-gallagher Facing Lyndsey Davey of Dublin in 2019. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“Niamh has actually done her cruciate three times before,” Gallagher points out. “I feel like she has the best first-hand experience from what it’s like.

“She did those when she was very young and has obviously made an amazing recovery. She’s a prime example of how someone has maintained their gym after doing their cruciate, she’s so dedicated. She’s been amazing for me, in terms of advice and physio things as well.”

It’s a case of so far, so good and as of last month’s Lidl Ladies National Football League launch, Gallagher had been “doing very well” and loosely targeting a championship return.

“I think it’s really important for me to have that goal in my head,” she nods. “When you’re working towards the goal and you have a deadline to meet, you’ll push yourself harder.

“Whereas if I had ruled out championship this year, I think I’d be a bit more lax in my recovery and my rehab. That’s definitely what’s just gonna keep me going and keep me on target at the minute.

“Everyone has been telling me just to keep focusing on building the muscle and stuff and I’m not in a mad rush to start running. I definitely want to be strong enough whenever it comes to returning to run.

“I’m kind of at a stage now where I’m probably about three months off returning to play. In the meantime, I’ll be starting to do some running as well, but I’m just trying to take it safely and make sure that my body’s ready for it.

“Obviously, there’s a huge chance of re-injuring and I’m trying to avoid that at all costs. I’m just trying to be sensible, but also trying to build as much muscle as I can in the meantime. It’s a slow process, but it’s okay.”

Gallagher has plenty of other facets of life to keep her ticking over, as an Irish teacher at Loreto Secondary School Letterkenny. She can’t say enough good things about the support from work, and the “wee dotes” of students who are constantly checking in on her recovery and progress.

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She’s also a regular pundit on TG4, having chipped in on ladies football coverage in the past but now operating across a host of GAA fixtures as a regular on our screens every weekend.

“It’s been amazing,” Gallagher beams. “And it couldn’t have come around at a better time.

“It was actually one of our managers, James McGinley, he’s involved with our set-up, he put my name forward for it because he thought it would be good for me at the time. It was such a great distraction for me just to have that to focus on and obviously still stay involved with the football. Obviously, it’s very challenging, but I really, really enjoy it.

“It’s the two things I love; the Irish language and Gaelic football. It’s been a fantastic opportunity for me.

“I was delighted to get the opportunity to do the [Donegal] men’s game last weekend as well. I definitely put myself under a lot of pressure for it because obviously, it’s a great opportunity for a woman and I didn’t want to mess it up – and to make sure that someone else wouldn’t get the opportunity again. It’s been a great learning experience.

“I think it’s brilliant to showcase the Irish language and ladies football and football in general on TG4. It’s been something that I always hoped to do in the future and it’s just happened to come around a bit earlier than what I had hoped. But it’s been amazing. I’ve been really, really enjoying it.”

emer-gallagher-on-duty-for-tg4-at-the-game On punditryy duty for TG4. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Likewise, she’s taken great pleasure from her “different role” with Donegal as they navigate their way through the league.

Maxi Curran’s side have two wins – over Galway and Westmeath – and one defeat – to Mayo – under their belt ahead of today’s semi-final meeting with Dublin.

Donegal have been in the chasing pack over the past few years and certainly aren’t far off — and can undoubtedly take huge motivation from Meath’s historic All-Ireland win last September.

“In so many ways, Meath winning the All-Ireland was a huge inspiration to every other county in Ireland,” Gallagher concludes.

“Dublin are this huge powerhouse – they still are like, it’s important to stress that as well, it’s not by any means that they’re out of the picture. And they’re revitalised, having lost.

“Looking at Meath and the way that they approached the All-Ireland and how everything was so calm, how they just stuck to their system, I think it was really, really inspirational to every other team across the country.

“So definitely, I think one of the things that we’ve learned in the past is everyone has aims of winning All-Irelands but that shouldn’t be the team aim at the start of the year. We really have learned to take things one game at a time and just to focus on the present, not to be thinking about titles and trophies that are coming down the line. I think you can get lost in that.

“So yeah, we can take a lot of motivation from Meath and what they did, and take a lot of learning from that as well about trusting the management, trusting the system, trusting your own players around you – that’s one thing I have to say about Meath, they had full belief in every single player that was on that pitch.

“It’s a very exciting 2022, I think what Meath did last year will put a huge push on every other county. I think it’s going to be an open field this year and I hope that Donegal will be at the top of it at the end.”

- Donegal v Dublin, Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 semi-final, 1pm, St Tiernach’s Park, Clones, live on TG4.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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