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'It's been kind of fairytale stuff' - The Antrim doctor part of a major Galway football breakthrough

Former Antrim player Owen Gallagher on a year starting out as doctor and Galway football glory with Moycullen.

Owen Gallagher (left) celebrate Moycullen's Galway final win with Niall Walsh.
Owen Gallagher (left) celebrate Moycullen's Galway final win with Niall Walsh.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Oct 10th 2020, 10:00 AM

THE BONFIRES GUIDED them on the way last Sunday as they travelled back to Connemara, dotted along the road west.

They illuminated the sense of achievement accomplished by the Moycullen footballers that afternoon and shone a light on individual journeys, as unlikely as some had seemed.

Owen Gallagher had never set foot in Galway until five years ago when he discovered that was where he had been accepted to study medicine in university. His sporting ties to home in Glenavy, a village next to Lough Neagh and a half hour drive west of Belfast, were not formally cut until last July.

And yet there he was at the heart of the celebrations in Pearse Stadium on a momentous day for the Moycullen club as they were crowned Galway senior football champions for the first time in what was their first final appearance in 43 years.

He kicked two points and set up the crucial second goal, the culmination in a series of attacking displays that had marked him out this season. The crowd restrictions in place prevented many from being present, younger brother Anthony who is now studying in Galway was the sole Gallagher representative on the ground. But the family support was strong back home in Antrim, over in London and further afield in Beirut.

Even in as unpredictable a year as 2020, it had seemed improbable for the Antrim import to envisage this joyous conclusion to the storyline when he partnered up with the Galway club.

To all intents and purposes he had written football out of his immediate plans. Life as a final year medical student left him with enough to be getting on with, particularly with a pandemic shaking up his schedule as practical and written exams were rushed forward to March before he embarked properly on a medical career in May.

Then Don Connellan, the former Roscommon player and current Moycullen manager, intervened. He knew of Gallagher’s capabilites from work with NUIG Sigerson teams that himself and Mayo’s Maurice Sheridan had taken charge of. The prospect of throwing his lot in with Moycullen had previously been floated back in 2018.

“I considered it then,” recalls Gallagher.

“But to be fair to Don he came back to me and said, ‘Look I think you should probably just stay with your club at home. There’ll probably come a day in the future you’ll have to transfer but if you can keep playing for your club at home, just keep playing. That was his advice so I stayed then.

“So I’d almost decided I wasn’t going to play football this year. That I couldn’t fit it in. I was happy enough to just let it slide. Then actually during the summer I was in the queue with few of my friends one Friday night for Monroes, getting a few takeaway pints to take back to my house around the corner.

“Don pulled up in the Garda van and beckoned me across the road. He pretty much gave me the ultimatum to come to Moycullen training the next day or get in the back of the van!

“So that was the final deal breaker. I went out the next day, I already knew a few of the lads from playing in college and met the rest of them. Jesus, it worked out to be one of the best decisions of my life. It’s been a fairytale since.”

moycullens-players-celebrates Moycullen players celebrating their Galway final success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was a circuitous route that saw him land in Galway. After a couple of years doing engineering in Trinity, he decided it was not a career for him. His parents Owen and Catherine are both doctors, as is his brother Charles. He’d toyed with the idea of going down that path while in school and after resisting then, he revisited it as an option later.

“I was chatting to my parents a lot and I just decided to do the HPAC and give it a go. I was hoping I’d get back to Dublin, but I missed by a few points and I got the points for Galway. I was pretty sad about not going back when I’d friends in Trinity but it couldn’t have worked out better. Galway’s been an unbelievably perfect fit and I’ll probably end up settling here.”

He threw himself into life out west and Gaelic football provided a perfect outlet. They got to the Sigerson final one year where they lost to UCD, fell just short in another semi-final at the hands of UCC. Coming up against star-studded teams sharpened his skills, prolonged campaigns forged strong bonds with his team-mates.

But he kept on being drawn home as well. As a teenager he had made his debut for the Antrim seniors under Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley, starting on the day they stunned Galway in June 2012 in a Casement Park clash that proved the final chapter in Padraic Joyce’s storied county playing career.

“It’s funny enough because that year we all had to do our own analysis on one of the Galway players and present them to the team. I actually did it on Gareth Bradshaw, who’s now my team-mate in Moycullen. I don’t know if I’ve told Brads that!

“I had a bit of a stop-start career with Antrim. That was my debut in my final year of school. Then I went off to college and I only played U21 for two years, didn’t play with the seniors. Then when I’d taken the year out in 2015, I played the whole league and championship. We beat Laois down in Portlaoise, came back from nine down.

owen-gallagher-and-patrick-mcbride-celebrate-winning Owen Gallagher and Patrick McBride celebrate Antrim's 2015 qualifier win over Laois. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Then I played again in 2017, the summer of my second year in Galway I linked up after my exams. I came on against Sligo and I actually marked Kevin McDonnnell who was my Sigerson captain. I ended up living with him in college as well. He got the best of me that day, got a point from me at full-back.”

The travel involved when based in Galway and playing for Antrim was a clear barrier. But he still kept putting in the hours to line out for St Joseph’s in Glenavy.

“Didn’t have a car, so over the years I’m getting the bus from Galway to Dublin, Dublin to Belfast and getting a lift or another bus to Glenavy. Seven, eight hour trips on the bus. It’s not a fun spin.

“The first year in college we won the Antrim intermediate and got to the Ulster semi-final. That time I was up and down every week when I was in Galway. Over the years then kept going and probably spent too much time on that motorway. When I was in college I could kind of get away with it but when I started working I just realised there wasn’t a chance I could.

“I’d get out of work sometimes six or seven o’clock on a Friday. You wouldn’t be able to (travel) particularly now with all the restrictions with buses having limited capacity and everything.”

When it came then, the decision to transfer made sense.

“To be fair the people at home, my brothers and all, they were very supportive. They said it was completely fair enough, it’s not like I’m betraying them or anything. I’d have played for the club at home for ten years.”

The challenge of settling in to his new environs was aided by the other new additions. Midfielder Tom Clarke came from Knockmore, who also tasted success this year in Mayo, and full-forward Niall Walsh arrived from Leitrim.

“I’d get lifts with Niall and Tom, the two other blow-ins as such. We were all in the same boat. Tom took me up fishing with his uncle up in Louisburgh last Saturday before the semi-final to take our minds off the game. It’s been brilliant having them.”

eoghan-o-galloichuir Owen Gallagher rises in action for Moycullen against Mountbellew-Moylough. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If the Gaelic football shift required a level of adjustment, it was not the only change to embrace. Life off the pitch this year provided plenty perspective.

“I’m doing my intern year so you move around four jobs, two surgical and two medical. I’ve been working in orthapaedics for the last five months now. Next week I’ll be switching over to vascular surgery. It’s been a very strange time to begin your medical career but it’s been a brilliant learning experience.

“In some ways my year in college got a bit lucky. Instead of being locked down for months and stuck at home, we’ve been thrown into it. Got out and got involved. We’re only junior doctors but it’s been brilliant to play some small part in these times.”

Gallagher’s input on the pitch for Moycullen proved valuable, shooting 0-3 in a quarter-final against St James and 1-2 in the semi-final win over Tuam Stars. Mountbellew-Moylough provided the final opposition a week after they had landed a knockout blow with far-reaching ramifications as Corofin’s Galway reign was ended after 49 games unbeaten.

“It was a bit surreal,” recalls Gallagher.

“Even after our game we were buzzing getting into the final, then we heard that result. They’re the greatest club side of all time for a reason, what they’ve done has been unprecedented. But you felt we had a massive chance here. We just grew into the final in confidence, myself too. It was just very jittery at the start.

“All week it wasn’t too bad. When you’re in work and you’re busy, you can’t be nervous or thinking about the game. But Saturday was the longest day ever to keep your mind occupied. It took a while to get going but when we got into it, we played some lovely football. Some brilliant scores, particulary from Dessie (Conneely, captain who scored 1-9), God he was something else.”

On final day the well wishes from the Gallagher clan poured in from an array of places. With eight siblings scattered around there was no shortage of interest.

“They’re spread out over the place. I’ve a brother and sister in London. Zellie is a nurse in a Covid ward and James is a teacher. He plays rugby for Richmond, they’re in the Championship in England, they’ll get to play Saracens this year.

“My older sister Anna Sophia lives in Beirut. She was there during that blast in August, all okay thankfully, her and all her friends were safe. Bit of a crazy time for her.

“Then Patrick my brother, he’s full-back for Antrim, had a new baby there recently, called Peter. Dominic at home would be more of a rugby player, quite successful, he played for Ireland 18s, 19s and 20s, went to the World Cup in 2011. Charles is a doctor and plays football for the club at home, he was captain this year.

“Then Thomas is in UCC second year and Anthony, he’s the youngest and I managed to get him a ticket, is a Fresher in Galway. All the boys have played senior football for the club but we never got all seven of us out at one time.

“My family were all watching up at home, they sent me a few videos of them all cheering. My parents were nearly more nervous than me, my granny got to watch it as well. They were delighted and I was speaking to them straight after.”

dominic-gallagher Ireland U20 rugby player Dominic Gallagher in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

patrick-gallagher-celebrates-after-the-game Patrick Gallagher celebrates after a championship win for Antrim last year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Gallagher speaks in raptures about the abilities of the Moycullen side from promising youngsters like James McLaughlin and Daniel Cox to veteran midfielder Mark Lydon and Galway mainstay Gareth Bradshaw. That warm glow of success will sustain the community for some time.

“It meant so much to everyone. It felt like a great moment for myself, hadn’t really won much so felt like a vindication for my football career.

“And just the emotion of it, I know there was only 100 fans, but you’d old men bawling their eyes out. The scenes then on the way out to Connemara with the bonfires. I’d never really seen those scenes, it’s kind of fairytale stuff.

“I was chatting to Paul Clancy (club chairman and Galway All-Ireland winner), he was over the moon. It’s been a brilliant run in such difficult times. Given everyone a lift. Everybody in Moycullen, I couldn’t thank them enough for how welcoming they’ve been and how they’ve accepted us into the community.”

An unlikely journey with a memorable outcome.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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