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Being talented and opinionated as a player will help Rory Gallagher as Donegal manager

The new man at the helm can continue to bring success to the county.

Can Rory Gallagher fill Jim McGuinness' shoes with Donegal?
Can Rory Gallagher fill Jim McGuinness' shoes with Donegal?
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Updated at 21.44

PERHAPS THE FIRST real sight the people of Donegal got of Rory Gallagher was when his impish chip over Tony Blake took Fermanagh to an unexpected Ulster championship quarter-final win in Ballybofey in 2000.

In the last year of the pre-qualifier era, in his 50 minutes on the field before being forced to retire through a knee injury, Gallagher’s 1-6 was enough to seal the man of the match award in Fermanagh’s first championship win over Donegal since 1936, 1-12 to 0-13. Jim McGuinness was part of the Donegal team that afternoon.

Donegal wouldn’t win another Ulster title for 11 years until the duo were on the one side.

In the interim, Gallagher was top-scorer in the roughest and tumblest of provincial championships three years in succession from 2000 to 2002; all achieved with arguably the least fashionable participant – Fermanagh – the only one of its nine counties never to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup.

It was in the last of those three years Gallagher, who scored a still-standing record of 3-9 against Monaghan in an Ulster championship encounter, won a Sigerson Cup medal under McGuinness’s former Donegal teammate, Martin McHugh, who was by then managing IT Sligo.

Fermanagh, without Gallagher, drew with Mayo in the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final and wondered what might have been. The year afterwards, Gallagher and manager Charlie Mulgrew had a difference of opinion after their side’s exit from the qualifiers.

Although he hails from Fermanagh, Gallagher’s hometown of Belleek, where a euro is as welcome as a pound sterling for your custom, is only a stone’s throw away from the border with Donegal.

Gallagher, who as a boy who wore the colours of the local Erne Gaels club, often travelled to south-west Donegal, then the hotbed of football in the county, with his father Gerry to watch championship matches involving the lynchpins Kilcar, Killybegs or Naomh Columba.

He recalls being on the Main Street in Bundoran the night Brian McEniff and Anthony Molloy carried Sam Maguire over the Drowes river from Leitrim into Donegal in 1992.

As a teenager, Gallagher was a notable soccer player, captaining Northern Ireland Schoolboys and having trials with Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, playing alongside Wes Brown and sharing digs with Damien Duff. But Gaelic football was his calling.

Rory Gallagher 21/4/2007 Gallagher during his time with Cavan. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Seen as a wanderer by some, Gallagher had played inter-county football for Cavan as well as his native Fermanagh, whilst representing and coaching St Bridgid’s in Dublin before lining out for St Gall’s in Belfast, winning the 2010 All-Ireland club championship.

By then, Gallagher was settled in Killybegs, managing the local SuperValu and had watched on as McGuinness guided Donegal to an Ulster U21 triumph and a place in the All-Ireland U21 final. McGuinness’s well-drilled side missed out on the title by a lick of Cavan paint as Michael Murphy’s late penalty rammed off the Breffni Park crossbar and Dublin went home with a two-point victory.

McGuinness’s assistant was Peter McGinley, who also at the time managed Killybegs. Gallagher had helped train the panel at Fintra and the team that was decline with the area ravaged by emigration and fishing quotas, got another day in the sun. Killybegs, four-time county champions in the 1990s, reached the 2010 Donegal SFC final but went down to Naomh Conaill of Glenties.

McGinley, due to work commitments in the insurance sector, was unable to make the step with McGuinness, who was promoted from U21 to senior manager.

“I’m living in Killybegs and had only helped Peter out once or twice,” Gallagher said in 2012 of his linking up with McGuinness. “It was very minimal and I only talked to Peter a few times and had done a few training sessions with Kilcar as well.

“Jim spoke to Peter, who had to step aside, and Martin McHugh, who I believe recommended me as well. So Jim called me and I decided to go to Letterkenny and meet him.”

Like McGuinness, Gallagher had a studious edge – building up portfolios, knowing whether a defender was less comfortable going left than right; whether a forward demanded it over his head into the chest. He is still the sort of character who watches a match on television with a notepad. The pair met one wintry night and a meeting rolled into the wee hours. Chemistry – football chemistry – filled the air.

“I went to Letterkenny to have a talk with Jim for an hour or so and Jim being Jim, it took four or five,” Gallagher said. “It was a great meeting. I could see his passion for Donegal and his passion for this team. It was an attractive proposition to get involved with something that was moving forward.”

One wintry night in Castlefin just days after meeting McGuinness in Letterkenny, there was Gallagher, placing cones on the pitch as the combined senior and U-21 panels made their way from the dressing-room for the start of a season’s training.

Rory Gallagher 24/4/2005 Rory Gallagher in his playing days with Fermanagh. Source: INPHO/Andrew Paton

The older players would’ve remembered Gallagher from his days with Fermanagh and while the youngsters didn’t, they were hugely impressed by the fact he knew each and every one of their names as firm handshakes were exchanged.

With two great tactical brains on the sideline, Donegal finally broke their Ulster championship duck in 2011. McGuinness’s deliverance is one of his greatest strengths; Gallagher is renowned for his quick judgement.

When Donegal faced Cork in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, it was later learned that their players had counter-policies for every single substitution Conor Counihan might’ve planned. Cork made those changes – in the exact order to which Donegal had been told. The 0-16 to 1-11 win was seen by many as Donegal’s greatest ever.

Gallagher was the first person McGuinness turned to and embraced when Maurice Deegan blew the final whistle following their 2-11 to 0-13 win over Mayo in the All-Ireland final.

Donegal relinquished their Ulster and All-Ireland titles in 2013; surprisingly defeated in the Ulster final 0-13 to 0-7 by Monaghan before being obliterated 4-17 to 1-10 against Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Croke Park.
Standing at a crossroads, McGuinness brokered a deal with the clubs of the county, who made the decision to postpone the 2014 club championships for the benefit of the county panel. When McGuinness was content with the arrangement, he recommitted, as did his players.

It seemed as though it was back to brass tacks for Donegal. But within days, Gallagher, video analyst Maxi Curran and kit-man Francie Friel parted company with the set-up.

Both McGuinness and Gallagher, who took up a position as joint-manager of Kilcar with John McNulty and assisted Curran with the Donegal U21s, held their court on the dissolving partnership ever since.

McGuinness proved his personal tactical acumen to guide Donegal to a third Ulster title in four seasons and masterminded arguably the greatest victory of his four years in charge, slaying Dublin 3-14 to 0-17 in this year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Donegal lost September’s All-Ireland final, 2-9 to 0-12 following a flat performance against Kerry.

“It’s been just phenomenal to work with them and I just want everyone in Donegal tonight to acknowledge them and hopefully there’s a lot more to come from them as well,” McGuinness said from the stage at the Diamond in Donegal town the night afterwards with his teary-eyed panel standing behind him.

Jim McGuinness celebrates with assistant manager Rory Gallagher Gallagher and McGuinness in better times. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

For the first time, it seemed as though McGuinness was excluding himself from the group he had established himself and put unwavering faith in. He stepped aside a fortnight later at the completion of his four-year term; something McGuinness continually referred to as “the journey” had come to an end.

Gallagher’s name immediately popped up. He understood the players having been part of that group for three years, was considered favourite for the job. On Friday, his ratification was confirmed. Like his predecessor, Gallagher, as he spoke to the clubs of the county in Ballybofey, refused to look back in anger.

“It’s a privilege to be back involved,” he said. “The attitude, commitment, honesty and ability of those players has to be admired. I would like to thank Jim for giving me the opportunity towards the end of 2010 to get involved.

“Not only was it was a wonderful experience, it was a special period in my life and I would like to thank Jim for the position he has left Donegal football in as the dominant team in the province. I look forward to working with the people of Donegal.”

Gallagher’s time as a footballer – like when he chipped Tony Blake in Ballybofey – illustrated someone who was talented, opinionated and not afraid to go against the grain.

Those same traits could serve him well as Donegal manager.

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About the author:

Alan Foley

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