Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Donegal’s Emer Gallagher is pictured in front of her ‘County Pride’ billboard at her local Lidl store in Milford.
# welcome return
Back from injury to stun the Dubs on 100th Donegal game and Mark McHugh's impact
Emer Gallagher and her side are now gearing up for a semi-final meeting with All-Ireland champions Meath.

A SIGNIFICANT WIN, a special day.

For so many reasons, for the collective and for the individual.

Donegal star Emer Gallagher made her long-awaited return as her side stunned Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final on Saturday.

The Termon defender tore her cruciate a few days short of 12 months ago, on her 99th appearance for her county. The dreaded injury arrived in their final group game against Kerry last summer, a quarter-final date with the Dubs next up.

It all came full circle in Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday. Gallagher, wearing the number 28 jersey, started, and did a fine man-marking job on sharpshooter Hannah Tyrrell.

“This time last year we were in the exact same position heading into an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin on the same pitch,” she recalled today.

“I had to watch on as we lost that year, and it was a huge goal for myself just to get back into a position where I’d be able to play and be able to finish out the championship in some capacity, so it was just lovely on Saturday to get back on the field with the girls and a lovely game to be there when we did get the win over Dublin as well.”

A stark contrast to watching helplessly from the sidelines, she smiles.

The 100-game milestone is one she’ll never forget, Maxi Curran’s side recording their first-ever championship win over the Sky Blues and ending their run of eight straight All-Ireland final appearances, having come so close to doing so in the past.

Screen Shot 2022-07-12 at 14.43.24 Donegal LGFA. Donegal LGFA.

Belief, learning from previous defeats and the feeling that “we didn’t do ourselves justice” in the Ulster final and group losses to Armagh and Cork respectively drove Donegal on, Gallagher believes, and ultimately earned them a semi-final spot against champions Meath this weekend.

“More than anything it’s definitely belief. We came into games against the likes of Dublin and maybe felt the game was already lost before it was even played. So I think playing against them and losing by such small margins [in the past] has definitely given us the belief that we are well able to compete with the top teams in the country.

“We just wanted to be on the right side of it this time, not feeling that disappointment coming off the pitch knowing there was just a point in it, or two points. It was so nice for us to be on the other side of it for once, and to come out of a championship game knowing that it did go in our favour.

“We’ve lost big games and I think that’s really been a driving force for us coming into these other big games. There’s a great hunger there, there’s a great team spirit and I think all of those driving factors are what has been getting us these results. Hopefully all of those factors will really help us put it up against Meath.”

With the Dublin-Cork dominance well and truly broken and the ladies football landscape evolving, Gallagher says Donegal took serious inspiration from Meath’s magical maiden success last year.

“I was very lucky to be in Croke Park last year doing some commentary whenever Meath were playing Cork and very much like ourselves, everyone did have them written off coming into the last few minutes of the match but they were steadfast and they believed in their system and kept to their system and for them to beat Cork and to totally be in control against Dublin in the All-Ireland final and to come out as All-Ireland champions, it really gave every other county that inspiration that you can do it.

“It’s about being that unified group and taking that unified approach to every match. I think it definitely did give all the rest of the counties a massive push and you can see it this year, it’s a wide open championship. We’re going to have All-Ireland semi-finals with four teams that haven’t been in it in recent years. That’s really, really exciting and it’s left things in a fantastic position to be in. 

“Who knows what two teams could be there in the All-Ireland final. Everyone is going to be really excited about what’s going to happen this week and the weeks to follow. Thanks to Meath they have definitely given everyone else the kickstart that maybe they needed.”

A new addition to Maxi Curran’s management team has done that, too.

The input of 2012 Donegal All-Ireland winner and three-time Ulster champion Mark McHugh has been roundly welcomed.

mark-mchugh Tommy Dickson / INPHO This is McHugh's first season involved as a coach. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“Mark has been fantastic and I think he definitely offers something different,” Gallagher nods. “He offers a different perspective coming in from a hugely successful career himself in men’s football. He has definitely offered us a breadth of knowledge and an insight into tactics that we haven’t been familiar with before.

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“With Maxi, the two of them have just made things fantastic for us. They’ve brought a new level to our training. It’s definitely given us a huge inspiration going in to training every night. We’re getting a great knowledge and a great insight into things that maybe we weren’t as familiar with as before.

“He’s just a very easy person, very easy to talk to and he’s great at working with players on a one to one basis as well. I suppose from defence to attacking play, he’s done both so it’s been a massive opportunity for all of us to learn from him. I think he’s been a fantastic addition to our squad.”

All eyes are on Saturday’s semi-final battle with the Royals, a repeat of April’s Division 1 league final which Eamonn Murray’s side won by two points. Mayo and Kerry face off in the earlier showdown at HQ.

Donegal are intent on focusing completely on themselves and their own performance, Gallagher insists, hell-bent on not letting the golden opportunity of reaching a first-ever All-Ireland senior final pass them by.

“It’s lovely going into a match as underdogs against the All-Ireland champions because it does take a bit of pressure off,” she concludes.

“I suppose for some of us, we’re at the older age bracket of our careers and this is something that we’ve been working towards for many, many years. That’s really the most important thing for all of us, that we don’t let it pass us by.

“It’s an occasion in itself, we don’t have huge experience playing in Croke Park but there’s a great excitement about getting up to Dublin and getting to play in Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi. It’s just about focusing on ourselves. We’re trying not to let the hype of the occasion get to us too much. We’re just trying to stay as grounded as we can and keep our heads down and focus on our systems, our own play and even our own mistakes from last week as well.

“It wasn’t a perfect performance. There were definitely areas for improvement. We have to keep our heads down again at training this week because there’s such a short turnover between the matches. It’s been lovely just to focus on ourselves and progression in our own camp and what we can improve on from last week to next week as well.”


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