When Sean MacCumhaill’s defeated the now defunct Clanna Gael 2-10 to 0-11 in the 1971 Donegal championship final the win catapulted a young forward to the attentions of the county management.
Eugene Gallagher had starred for MacCumhaill’s, the side who own Donegal’s county grounds in Ballybofey against the concoction of clubs now known as Four Masters of Donegal Town.
Gallagher’s footballing career ended in the embryonic stage, though, following a handful of National League games in 1971 and ‘72 when he was forced to retire with a cruciate knee injury before he had even turned 24.
In the months that followed, Donegal, under player-manager Brian McEniff, won a first ever Ulster title in 1972, defeating Tyrone 2-13 to 1-11 in Clones.
“I had to quit playing but was, in terms of the county set-up, only a young lad who played the odd time here and there,” Gallagher said.
“I played a few league games here and there but never appeared in the championship. A cruciate injury is complicated enough nowadays but I never played again after it happened to me.”
Despite his career being cut short so soon, MacCumhaill Park is almost Gallagher’s second home.
“In the years that followed I always involved with the club on the officer board,” he said. “I’ve been treasurer now for 39 years but with next year being my 40th I might as well retire then!”
Gallagher, who is now 65 and works at Irwin Electrical in Letterkenny, is the groundsman at MacCumhaill Park, the venue that will be the cockpit of Irish sport on Sunday when all eyes will focus on Donegal’s Ulster championship opener against Tyrone.
“There used to be a park committee in Ballybofey and I always involved somehow, whether it was lining the field of putting out the flags,” he said. “I always just saw it as a part of the day-to-day running of a ground.”
Jim McGuinness and Gallagher share conversations when the county senior panel train in Ballybofey but there “are no special requests” from the Donegal manager.
Down the years, MacCumhaill Park has hosted numerous fledgling championship and qualifier encounters. Not long after Gallagher retired, in 1973, the last time Tyrone visited Ballybofey in the championship, was perhaps the most controversial match at the venue.
Donegal forward Neilly Gallagher had opened the match brightly, scoring three points having just returned to the team following a two-year absence having opted out, but was decked by Tyrone’s Mickey Joe Forbes.
Gallagher, a club man of Gaoth Dobhair, spent the night in Letterkenny General Hospital, concussed with seven stitches as his souvenir. The public houses in Ballybofey locked their doors that evening.
The incident sparked an atmosphere that was poisonous. Cans and bottles bit Donegal substitutes as they warmed up after Tyrone’s Patsy Hetherington was grounded.
After the 0-12 to 1-7 Tyrone win, Donegal officials were so enraged with the whole occasion they considered withdrawing from the Ulster championship and joining Connacht.
“There were riots that day after Neilly Gallagher was hit,” Eugene Gallagher recalled. “There were fights everywhere. I was there as a supporter. There was no stand there in those days, just six of seven rows of wooden benches.
“In those days there weren’t too many women and children going to matches and it was probably better off that day. It’s 40 years ago now. That’s the last time Tyrone played championship in Ballybofey.”
Gallagher recalls the wet afternoon when Donegal defeat Cavan in the 1992 Ulster quarter-final replay on their way to a first All-Ireland title up through to 2007.
Then, Brian McIver’s Donegal were Allianz League Division One champions and welcomed Armagh, who were aiming for a fourth successive Ulster championship.
The team under the management of Joe Kernan has defeated Donegal in the championship in each of the previous five seasons.
In those five years, Armagh had been luscious in the frequent wins over Donegal, lucky only occasionally.
“In terms of numbers, the 2007 match against Armagh here in Ballybofey had something in the region of 20,000 people,” Gallagher said.
“Armagh had a very strong record at that time over Donegal but we won thanks to a lucky late goal from Brendan Devenney.”
Numerically, the 19,870 who attended against Armagh superseded the 17,520 the Slattery Report has fixed on the ground this summer.
“Health and safety has a real baring on things now and you can only put in what you can put in,” Gallagher said. “That’s why all the renovations had to be done here.”
“The crash barriers, the automated turnstiles, the railings - Everything is all in order now. For the general supporter, perhaps it’s not great that this match in Ballybofey. There’s a lot of supporters not going to get because tickets are so tight.
“From a club point of view, it’s great for Sean MacCumhaill’s. They’ve got the ground down up and it’s ready for any big fixtures that might come our way in the coming years. Of course there’s a benefit for the club with the bar, programme sales and half-time lottery tickets.
“We’re going to have almost 18,000 people here for the match and the all the hotels in the town are booked out both on Saturday night and Sunday, as it’s a northern bank holiday.
“There will be spin-offs for the town as a whole. It’s well due on the town as businesses are struggling here. Having the match is a massive benefit.”