Donegal football is in a healthy state at the moment at adult and underage level with Senior and Minor teams seeking to make it to the Ulster final for the second year in-a-row on Saturday.
Along with gifted players, they are fortunate also to have gifted managers and on Saturday Rory Gallagher will be seeking to extend the unbeaten run of the seniors under his stewardship.
He has been there before, as an understudy to Jim McGuinness in 20011, 2012 and 2013. So there isn’t much he doesn’t know about what it takes and the preparation necessary to be successful.
Indeed, he feels there is little difference between his involvement as coach and No. 2 in those years and as manager now.
“In a lot of ways there is not a lot of difference. You are very much involved with the training of the team; a lot of communication about the way we are going to play and about different opposition.
“It is just a different dynamic now. It’s between me and a few other fellas. Now its Jack (Cooney) and Gary (McDaid) and Maxi (Curran), but basically it’s very much the same as it was between me and Jim,” said Rory.
Back in the McGuinness years, Rory was never static on the sideline, constantly on the move in and out of the pitch with tactical messages or words of encouragement. He was also much more animated than he is now as manager.
“You don’t get a chance to rest when you are running on to the pitch and your heart rate is up to number one. So naturally you’re not as calm; you’re in and out with messages and you’re also trying to watch the game at the same time. So that’s very much different.
“You get a buzz there (on the sideline). It’s a position you feel very much comfortable with and it’s a great place to be when you’re involved in sport, whether it’s playing or management. There’s no doubt it’s extremely tense.
Rory modestly says that he has learned more so now about that end of the involvement than as a player. “Probably I wouldn’t have played in many of those knife-edged big games.”
He did admit that when he was playing he was always thinking of what should be happening on the field as regards tactics, changes, etc. “Maybe a lot of managers felt that was too much so. But it was something I always had an interest in, watching other teams and one thing and another.
“Being on the sideline is a different dynamic than playing. When you’re playing, you’re worrying about yourself, about the next ball that’s coming if you’re a forward and of just being involved in the play.
“If you’re involved in the coaching side of it, you’re watching everything I suppose. You very much have to watch what the opposition are doing so you’re not caught out for anything,” said Rory.
“It is tense, but don’t get me wrong, the most tense I ever felt was the U-21 final against Cavan last year. It was just one of those games; it was a knife-edge game, very defensive. The senior teams don’t seem to be as tense for some reason,” he says.
Looking back on the Armagh game, the manager agreed it was much more relaxed than he or anyone had expected.
“The No. 1 thing that you look for is a great overall energy and intensity and effort in the team. That is always the most pleasing. Then when you have players who can come up with big moments in games; Patrick (McBrearty) came up with the goal from Neil’s (Gallagher) ball in.
“When you have quality players, that is always likely to happen.”
Indeed, the manager is fulsome in his praise of the talent that is available to him in Donegal at the moment.
“I think at the minute we have a lot of quality players. There’s no doubt about that. They are all fully fit. Unfortunately what you do the last day has no relevance to the next day. No, listen, good players making good decisions with high skill levels, that is very hard to beat.
“The quality of players in Donegal over the last number of years (has been high). Even if you look at this team, there were a lot of them around in 2007 and they won a National League. I have yet to see a poor quality team win a National League, and then obviously the big number of underage players in the last number of years and it fits together.”
He also feels that there is great talent being developed with the minors from last year and the present year.
“I think last year’s minors have a lot of good young players. We just felt to leave them off with the U-21s this year to see how they progress. A number of them have come in for a few training sessions (with the seniors) from time to time. Look, there is a lot of good young talent in the county at the moment.”
When asked if this bode well for his four or five year plan, the former Fermanagh player laughs: “At the minute, it’s very much a game on game plan. There’s a wider picture all the time for the county, but I can firmly state it’s one game at a time at this moment in time,” smiles Rory.
Having Gallagher available to take over from Jim McGuinness was the most natural progression, but having the Belleek man avaialble at all surely has fate written all over it, although Rory says he wouldn’t think of it that way.
But then if he had been ‘capped’ by Dublin when he was with St Bridget’s, maybe it could have worked out differently for him. Even then, the Rooneys opening a SuperValu in Killlybegs and Rory getting married to a Rooney and being posted there as manager surely has something to do with fate!
“I don’t really believe in fate. But then you have to roll with the punches, whatever comes your way. Fortunately from my own point of view, it was a county very close to me; I would have had a great affinity with Donegal,” said Rory.
“Maybe you don’t think of it at times, but people say everything happens for a reason.”
Donegal, under Rory Gallagher are on a roll similar to Donegal under Jim McGuinness. The win over Armagh was the first time ever that a Donegal team defeated Armagh and Tyrone in the same Ulster Championship season, but Gallagher is quick to reply.
“It could very quickly be turned around to say no Donegal team has ever beaten Tyrone and Armagh and then been beaten by Derry,” laughs Rory, who feels that Saturday’s Ulster semi-final will be a much sterner challenge than offered by Armagh.
“I have no doubt that Armagh underperformed. But people have to be realistic and I feel we are within our set up. Armagh operated in Division 3. They clearly ended up there in the last number of years because they hadn’t won enough games. There’s no doubt that they are on the up, but no lower ranked team in any division had beaten a team from above them so far in the championship.
“Derry are a different proposition. They are in Division 1. They were in a Division 1 League final less than 18 months ago. They have laid out their cards at the start of the year that the championship was everything to them and they probably took a more relaxed approach to the league as they built fitness.
“They were average enough in the league (against Donegal) but they were missing a lot of players but they have a more settled team now.”
Asked about the possibility of them setting up very defensively as they did against Dublin in Croke Park in the National League game, he wasn’t sure.
“They might view Dublin as a different proposition to ourselves. Dublin play a different style of football. By all accounts they played very well that night. Regardless of that, when you look at their team, they have a lot of quality players; players that won National League medals and played in finals; players that played in an All-Ireland Club final this year; players that played in Hogan Cup finals. They have players that have won a lot of matches over the years.
“I’m sure they will admit themselves that they haven’t had the success that they feel they should have got with the players they have (in the Ulster championship). But that is all parked now. From their point of view, they are probably coming into it having scraped over the line against Down, having been in control. Usuallly that is a good position to go into any game.”
For Gallagher, it is a matter of looking after his own patch and managing things when there are little hiccups, like losing Colm Anthony McFadden to a virus just days before the Armagh quarter-final.
“You learn that you have to roll with it. These things happen. It is not ideal. It’s Friday night and you still hope that Colm (McFadden) is going to be all right. But he’s in his bed and not able to do anything. But those are the things that happen and thankfully, that’s the reason you have a squad,” said Rory, who said Colm was back training and should be ready.
“It was just one of those things that happen and it would have been too soon for him.
“Dr. Kevin Moran said there were a lot of bugs and viruses going about. If there was any danger he would have been kept in isolation.”
There also have been changes in the panel in the past week with substitute ‘keeper Michael Boyle accepting an offer to go to Boston for the summer and the return of All-Ireland winning panellist Declan Walsh.
“We have known for four weeks that Michael (Boyle) was going. Look it wasn’t ideal, he wasn’t in full-time employment and an opportunity arose. It is disappointing, for apart from being an excellent goalkeeper he’s a very valuable and respected member of the panel. He’ll be back; that’s the good thing.
“As for Declan Walsh, it is good to have him back. He had a couple of wee injuries at the start of the year and he was in a job where he can’t get away early for training. For the last number of years he has been training away on his own,” said Rory.
“It’s good to have him back. He’s an experienced man and knows the game. He knows what we are about. It’s great cover to have. He is someone who has been there for big games and is keen to be involved in more.”
For now it is about getting things right for the next game and in that regard the Donegal team seem to know where they are going. They have a large number of exceptional players who are also born leaders and there is a perception that the players have more freedom on the pitch under Rory Gallagher than they did under Jim McGuinness, but Gallagher isn’t sure.
“I don’t know. Sometimes in games, like the Armagh game, it appears as if they have plenty of freedom. Sometimes when they are all on top of their game, it can look like that.
“Every game, there’s different tactics and sometimes you have to be more cautious than others.
“Leadership is a thing that can’t be coached. That’s developed on an individual level. Like having a number of leaders over the last number of years, the other players have fed off that. Their decision making is generally very good.”
The manager says he doesn’t have any dreams before big games or for the future, but does have worries.
“Before every big game there’s nerves. But you can only go by the signs that you see at training. Particularly at training, you break it down one night at a time.
“You would have to intervene. It’s not always smooth running. At times maybe things are not going as well on the training pitch, but it’s important that I realise that but the rest of the players realise that and they are usually quick to spot it as well.”
The ‘dream’ or plan at the moment is to win the next game and get to the Ulster final. “Look at the start of the year when the draw was made the Ulster final is the target but you can only take it one piece at a time. We’re one game from the final now and it would be a great position to be in.
“We’re also looking forward to the challenge of Derry. We feel it’s going to be another test for us; another opportunity for us to go out and prove what we are about,” he said.
He feels it will be a great day in Clones, especially with the two teams from Donegal there. “It’s always great to have the minors and seniors playing together. Both are now coming on the back of a few victories. It helps the minors in particular with the senior team playing after them. It helps get the supporters in earlier.”
Are the Donegal GAA supporters spoiled at the moment: “They are for sure. They are going through a good period with the U-21s being in finals and the minors being in finals. I don’t think anyone should ever take it for granted.”
Managing the Donegal senior team is a high profile job. Apart from huge geographical spread and the success rate, the team is attracting much media attention, which also brings a negative side as regards the time being invested, and in that regard it is not easy for anyone to manage a business and also prepare a team for these occasions.
“When you’re at work, to be honest it’s hard to be focused on work. It means so much to us all, but unfortunately we are not professional,” says Gallagher, who feels he just couldn’t do it without the backup he has at home and in the workplace.
“Look, that’s very important to myself to have the backup from both the staff and the family. It wouldn’t be possible to do it without them,” said Rory.
On Saturday Rory Gallagher and Donegal, just like every day they go out, will be breaking new ground. For this team it is the chance to play in their fifth Ulster final in-a-row and Rory Gallagher would relish the chance to be there with them as manager on July 19th in Clones against Monaghan.