Just after he stood for the souped up confrontational poses for the snappers with Glenswilly skipper Gary McFadden hovering over the Dr Maguire Cup, St Michael’s captain Michael Gallagher admitted he had never even seen the famous old trophy up close before.
Come Sunday evening, the 25-year-old could be the first man in his club’s history to lift the cup as the Dunfanaghy-based side continue to pen their romantic story on the footballing fields of the north-west.
With neither of the teams having inscribed their names on the Dr Maguire to date, there’s a giddiness and a freshness about this year’s county final pairing.
You could almost say an innocence, were it not for Gallagher’s physique as domineering centre-fielder and his achievements as an international boxer, where he learned some of his tricks down the years from a certain Eddie Harkin.
For those in the red corner, an appearance in the annual showpiece is not something they might’ve expected when the nights grew longer late last year. A few years back, St Michael’s had the swagger of a side that possessed the capabilities of dining at the top table but for one reason or another they had to be content fumbling through the crumbs.
St Michael’s had whimpered their way to relegation from the top flight and Colm McFadden Snr, who had been one of the club’s bloodlines for as long as he cared to recall, stepped aside from the role of manager and there was even trouble filling the void.
And although the panel contained a number of men who had enjoyed some good moments in senior football and a sprinkling of U-21 players that had reached a county final, the club stood at a crossroads. In stepped Harkin.
“At the start of the year nobody wanted to manage us and Eddie Harkin came in with Seanie Boyle from Falcarragh,” Gallagher said at last week’s Raidio na Gaeltachta SFC launch after the photo-shoot.
“They’ve been great assets to us. It’s a change of faces that’s made the difference with more or less the same team. He took a notion one night after training we weren’t fit enough so we did four 400s. They can be tough down there at the Bridge when there’s gale force winds in winter but we’ve done it all year and it has stood to us.
“Fitness and heart were perhaps things that St Michael’s didn’t have down the years but this year we have the wee bit extra. Last year we played Ardara in a relegation play-off and with 15 minutes to go the legs went when the game was in the balance.”
In just a few short months the fortunes of St Michael’s have transformed onto an upward scale once again. And although the summer months must’ve been frustrating with the occasional absence of four county panellists - Colm McFadden, Christy Toye, Martin McElhinney and Daniel McLaughlin - the remnants of the panel grafted on. But when that quartet made club training their hearts were certainly still in it and the philosophies of Jim McGuinness would benefit Harkin and St Michael’s.
“We don’t get to see much of them when Jim takes them away but whenever they came back there was some difference to training,” Gallagher adds of the county players. “You could really notice the difference in their tackling and it brought something new to our training. It was great for the club to have them on the panel.”
While St Michael’s pottered on in Division Two, making steady progress which is likely to leave them in with a chance of promotion after the county championship has ended, it took until the quarter-final for people from outside of the parish to sit up and take notice. Their 1-14 to 1-10 win over Gaoth Dobhair at Pairc Naomh Fionnan in Falcarragh was arguably the best performance of any club to date.
Five years ago, St Michael’s reached the semi-final and led St Eunan’s in stoppage time. They had one foot in the final but the gods conspired against them. Conall Dunne launched a free into the square and with amid the mass of bodies, St Michael’s goalkeeper Ciaran Gallagher came from his line only to see the ball go in over his head. Ross Wherity, who jumped with another of the Gallagher family, Gerard, was eventually credited with the goal and the opportunity had passed.
As St Michael’s dejected players stared into the puddles at MacCumhaill Park with their hands on their hips, they promised themselves never to leave it behind them like that again. But a bit like the wider economic situation between then and now, sometimes the potential for digression was overlooked. The win over Gaoth Dobhair in August was the first time they’d even reached the last four since. The apologetic forces from above granted them a simplistic progression as an under-performing Glenfin were no match for them in a 1-15 to 1-6 stroll to the final.
“Ross Wherity’s goal in 2006 was a big thing and it was something that was mentioned in the dressing room before the semi-final against Glenfin,” Gallagher added. “It had to be mentioned. It was heartbreaking stuff and it has taken us five years to get back from it. We didn’t even make it to a semi-final in that time since so beating Gweedore this year was a big monkey off our backs. We’ve lost so many quarter-finals down the years but we knew if we could get over that and get to a semi-final then we have enough about us to take it the next step.
“You could see in our games against Gweedore and Glenfin especially that the county boys really stood up. The others, like myself, took a bit of time to get into it but they had already clicked. Brian McLaughlin is another senior man. Even Martin McElhinney, who used to get sick before some of the club games, doesn’t even get bothered going out there at Croke Park. It’s great to have with them boys.”
Having now reached the final for the first time, Glenswilly will provide a traditional adversary. Both clubs have come through the junior and intermediate ranks, sometimes alongside one another, and have had numerous altercations at U-21 and senior level in recent years.
“I’m old enough to have played against Glenswilly for some time,” Gallagher said. “We played them in the U-21 final in 2004 and since that, we tended to meet a lot of times in the league. We know one another inside out and there’s usually plenty of banter but there will be no talk until after this final is over.
“It’s a new experience and something we can look forward to as it’s our first time ever. It’s great for the club, in fact both clubs will be looking for a big day. We’ll go in as underdogs as Glenswilly are favourites as they’ve beaten Kilcar, who were well tipped after being so good at underage, as well as St Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill, who made it the Ulster final last year.”
Although St Michael’s and Glenswilly have enjoyed something of a Siamese existence in their shared path to county final day, their currently working principles are considered different. While Glenswilly have noticeably tightened their belts at the back under the management of John McGinley and Gary McDaid, St Michael’s prefer to rely on their attacking instincts.
“The way we play is attacking and we have four or five forwards who are capable of beating any team on their day,” Gallagher said. “Things like that have just clicked for us and the defence are just trying to keep it as tight as possible.
“When you have a forward line like ours then you cane be confident but you know Glenswilly will try and break us down. We’ll have the same trouble with them, their forward line has some big men but on the day it’s whatever team can come out on top.
“It’s been an absolute honour to captain this team and club. I’ve never even seen that cup before up close. They’re a great bunch of lads to be part of and it’s though going down in Dunfanaghy at the winter but it’s coming into place at the minute. Glenswilly will know they have the exact same opportunity as us. It’s the flip of a coin now but hopefully from our point of view it’s St Michael’s.”