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Rory's winning matches! How Gallagher stepped out of Jim McGuinness's shadow

The Donegal boss is moulding this young team in his image.

Rory Gallagher and Jim McGuinness Source: James Crombie/INPHO

LAST JULY, IT appeared the balance of power in Ulster had shifted back to Tyrone.

The Red Hand pipped Donegal to the Ulster title with two scores in injury-time, after Donegal had surrendered a winning position. Paddy McBrearty’s score 13 seconds after half-time left the Tir Chonaill men 0-8 to 0-4 in front, and Tyrone chasing double scores.

But Donegal retreated further and further into their shell and the younger, more dynamic Tyrone players punished Rory Gallagher’s side for failing to push on after the break.

Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary curled over fine points to deliver a first Ulster crown for Mickey Harte since 2011. Ulster looked like it was under new management.

Kieran McGeary celebrates after scoring the winning point Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Donegal, who had appeared in the last six provincial deciders, appeared to be a side on the wane. By the time this year’s league campaign came around, they were among the favourites for the drop.

They’d lost nine key squad members with 759 senior appearances between them over the winter months – with legendary figures like Colm McFadden, Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh calling it a day.

In hindsight, that spate of withdrawals may have been the best thing that happened to football in the county. It was suggested in the past that McGuinness’s heavy training methods had taken its toll on Donegal’s older guard, but maybe they were just too old to thrive under the system.

Gallagher’s hand was forced and he brought through a number of youngsters from recent successful minor and U21 squads. He also ditched the slow, measured template and gave his young guns more freedom going forward.

Their defensive approach against Tyrone last weekend was to avoid being hit on the counter by the fastest coast-to-coast attack in the country.

Martin O'Reilly fouled by David Moran Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

But the 1-17 tally  they put up in the opening round defeat to Kerry has been more in line with their form this spring. It was the highest score a Donegal team ever put up against Kerry. And it was a sign of things to come.

Only the Kingdom have scored more than Donegal so far in the top flight, and only three teams (Dublin, Tyrone and Monaghan) have a better defensive record.

Gallagher has finally out of Jim McGuinness’s sizable shadow and he’s moulding his young squad in his image.

“Rory has said it quite often that for big games he wants to hit that 17- or 18-point target,” Kavanagh told the Irish Times before they played Dublin last month.

“And he is going with the man-to-man approach at the back and he wants to know – are you good enough to hold your man without a mass of bodies in front of you?

“It’s brave. I suppose it’s a total contrast to Jim’s philosophy of limiting the space and squeeze through a zone and overwhelm with second and third phase possession.”

That defeat to Tyrone last year seemed to stir a change in the Donegal boss. It may have been the moment he realised it was time to move on from the men who brought Sam Maguire back to the hills for the first time in 20 years.

Donegal players celebrate with the Sam Maguire The Donegal players celebrate with the Sam Maguire in 2012 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, Karl Lacey, Paddy McBrearty and Mark McHugh are still around from 2012, but this is undoubtedly Gallagher’s team now.

“Maybe we didn’t have enough players who were willinig to pull the trigger, and that’s something we’ve got to be conscious of,” Gallagher told Donegal Now last week.

“You’ve got to have players that are keen and hungry to kick. We had probably gone safe over a couple of years.

“We didn’t attack enough last year, we didn’t have enough conviction. Tyrone defended very well (in the Ulster final). We can’t hide from the fact that the age profile we had, we’ve more legs in the side this year.”

Since that three point defeat to Kerry, Donegal have picked up seven from a possible eight points in Division 1 – including a rousing draw with All-Ireland champions Dublin.

Rory Gallagher and Jim McGuinness Gallagher and McGuinness Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In McGuinness days, Donegal would avoid the knock-out stages of the league like the bubonic plague in order to preserve energy levels for the championship.

With two games to go, against Monaghan and Mayo, they find themselves joint-top and within touching distance of a Division 1 final.

“Tyrone are far from out of it so it’s in everybody’s hands really,” Gallagher told Donegal Sports Talk on Saturday.

“We set no targets at the start of the year with regards to survival or getting to the league final. We just wanted to be better by the end of the league than we were at the start. That’ll continue and we’ve a great battle against Monaghan next Sunday.”

Donegal’s style still features a lot of running with the ball in hand, but it’s a much slicker attack with the younger legs involved. They’re not the physically imposing side they once were, but they’re far lighter on their feet.

“I think Donegal have replaced the players that have left with pace – that’s the most important thing,” former Armagh All-Ireland winner Oisin McConville told the RTÉ Sport GAA Podcast on Monday.

Odhran MacNiallais Odhran MacNiallais in action for Donegal in 2016 Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

“Look at Odhran Mac Niallis, who at the start of the year looked like a huge miss. I would say when he has the ball in the middle of the field he tends to slow the ball down.

“He was a vital cog for a few years, but the players that have come in now are moving the ball at some pace and they seem to be on the same wavelength as Eoin and Ryan McHugh.

“Donegal are going to have a big say in the Ulster Championship this year. From the first time I saw them this year, I got that feeling about them. They’re much pacier that they were. They haven’t replaced like-for-like and that’s important.

“When Rory Gallagher came in I thought he either needed to change the system or change the players in the system. He has changed the players in the system.”

Cian Mulligan, Hugh McFadden and the McHugh cousins are buzzing around with confidence in attack, while Martin O’Reilly and Frank McGlynn bring intelligence and hard-running from deep.

Eoin McHugh celebrates scoring a goal with Ryan McHugh Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Young Glenties midfielder Ciaran Thompson has been one of the most impressive break-out stars of the league, notching three fine scores against a packed Tyrone defence.

And Michael Murphy, Thompson’s partner in crime at centre-field, probably isn’t getting the plaudits he deserves at midfield because he’s not putting up the same sort of scores he used to as an inside forward.

But Murphy is conducting Donegal’s good play in the middle third with the sort of assuredness that belies his 27 years.

These young guys have been competing at the elite level of U21 and minor, and they expect to be challenging for honours. They were an unknown quantity outside the county, but people are starting to sit up and notice now.

To beat Tyrone so comfortably without Paddy McBrearty is a major plus.

Karl Lacey Source: Lorraine OÕSullivan/INPHO

There are other positives too. Martin McElhinney made his first appearance of the year as a 64th minute substitute, and then lined out for  his club St Michael’s in a league game on Sunday.

Karl Lacey is also nearing a comeback, he was introduced for Four Masters in the second-half of their draw with Glenswilly on Sunday. He was forced to leave the action with a facial injury before the end, but it’s hoped it’s not a serious one.

After a quick winter of transition, Donegal are primed to win back their crown in Ulster. Aside from Tyrone, Monaghan are their biggest challengers for provincial honours.

Donegal take on the Farney today, a team who look re-energised this year with Jack McCarron in electric form inside.

Gallagher’s men will be motivated at the prospect of laying down another marker to fellow Ulster brethren.

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Kevin O'Brien

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