Ten years ago this summer Rory Gallagher was posting a record tally of 3-9 against Monaghan in the Ulster senior championship. Could you imagine the Fermanagh man getting that sort of space against ‘his’ Donegal in 2012?
The early years of the new millennium were glory days for Fermanagh and Gallagher along with his cousin, Raymond, were part of a side that was among the best in Ulster.
Gallagher was top scorer in the Ulster Championship three years in-a-row but then missed out when the county went within a whisker of reaching the 2004 All-Ireland final under Donegal man Charlie Mulgrew.
The talented Belleek man drifted on to new pastures in Dublin and Cavan and Belfast before eventually returning home.
His football cv could and should have been more decorated, but then that is the case of many down the years.
However, with his background he was never likely to be far removed from the GAA world. And when Jim McGuinness came calling around Christmas 2010, a new chapter opened for Rory Gallagher.
“It was a bolt out of the blue, to be honest. I had moved to Donegal and was working down there (in Killybegs) and Peter McGinley had been in with Jim.
“I had done a bit for Peter with Killybegs once but I didn’t know Peter well. But when he left Jim was sounding out and looking for someone and Peter had mentioned myself and I think maybe he spoke to Martin McHugh as well. I had done a few training sessions with Killybegs and Kilcar,” said Rory, explaining that after a ‘phone call and a meeting over the New Year of 2011, he just got involved.
“It was something I was always interested in from I was young. At 17 and 18 I would have been helping out with underage teams. When I was playing definitely I would have been aware of good things - and bad things - from training sessions and definitely from every game.
“I would have enjoyed going to games and watching teams and how they set up and that sort of thing. It was something I was always interested in.
“While it came out of the blue, it was something I would always have wanted to get involved in, albeit it came a lot sooner than I would have expected,” he said.
Being involved with football came natural to Rory but then being a Gallagher in Belleek, it was always likely to be the case.
“We were football mad. All our families were always involved in football. Despite being from Fermanagh we always felt, from going to school at St. Michael’s, we always thought that we had the chance of winning something.
“We were lucky enough to arrive in St. Michael’s at a time when success was starting to come. Peter McGinnity and Dominic Corrigan were putting in an immense amount of work and I think it was a golden era for Fermanagh.
“I think it followed through then. Fermanagh spent a long number of years in the top couple of divisions and they had a very good success rate in championship football for 10 or 12 years. It was a golden period, if there is such a thing in Fermanagh. Unfortunately there wasn’t an Ulster title won, but Fermanagh did perform at a high standard. While I don’t think they got the absolute most out of the players, they got a lot out of the players they had.
“It was down to the work and I would put a lot of that success down to the work of Peter McGinnity and Dominic Corrigan.”
It is quite clear talking to Rory that the influence of the former Fermanagh senior duo of McGinnity and Corrigan made a deep impression on the young Gallagher.
“They definitely did. Peter McGinnity was a brilliant coach. I was very young but I remember him playing and he was a fantasticallly skilful player and was a great coach of the skills of Gaelic football. And when you marry that with Dom Corrigan, who had a phenomenal will to win and he was prepared to stand up in a period when a lot of people in Fermanagh were not prepared to stand up to other schools in the country.
“I would have learned an awful lot from them but maybe when I was at school they would have thought that I wasn’t learning from them.”
There was much to learn on the home front also with father Gerry involved as a player, manager and coach at Erne Gaels.
“My father was hugely involved and had a mad influence in football. You would have learned lots of things from him, good and bad. But there’s no doubt, I felt I was lucky in my career to come across lots of good managers, some maybe not so good.
“I would learned lots of things from Gerry McEntee when I was in Dublin and with Martin McHugh (in Sligo IT). They were two good managers. They wouldn’t have coached out of a manual or anything like that. It was based on honesty and how to improve you as a footballer and to improve the team as a collective group.
“When I was in Dublin and my brother was in Belfast, my father would have gone to all our games. Football would be a huge part of his life. With the proximity (of Donegal) to where we are from and with Femanagh having little success when we were growing up, Donegal would have been a team we would have followed.
“We would have been there in 1992 at the final; we would have been there at the homecoming in Bundoran. There would always have been a great affinity with Donegal, albeit there was a huge rivalry when I was playing with Fermanagh.
“This year he had two teams to follow with my brother Ronan playing for Fermanagh. He always had someone to shout for.”
There is a huge contrast to the Donegal that Rory Gallagher coaches and the perception of the player that Rory was when he was playing his football.
“There’s no doubt, if you asked any of the managers I played under or supporters of teams I played with, being a hard working forward wouldn’t have been one of the descriptions.
“That wouldn’t have been my game. It wasn’t something that was coached as much 15 or 16 years ago. Then the game has changed an awful lot. Whether players like me would survive in the modern game, is another thing. It is the way football has gone, the work ethic is a huge part of it.
“I would love to be involved in a team like Donegal. Hard training is something that most players enjoy. Some people say they don’t. You enjoy being part of a group that is working hard. It’s an inspiring situation. It’s the collective; there’s 31 or 32 of us and that’s very energising.”
The supermarket manager knows that the game has changed but also feels that the work that is being done in training nowadays helps players to expres their skills.
“There’s no doubt that in the present game it’s harder for the sklful player to stand out. I know when I started out you were playing on one man and if you got the better of him, all of a sudden you were scoring 1-5 or 1-6. That doesn’t happen anymore. There’s more pressure put on key forwards, but I think the harder the skilful players works the more chance that things will come right in the end.
“The game has changed so much. There is so much talk that it’s not for the better, but for me it’s for the better. I was involved with Fermanagh, who had a lot of skilful players but maybe didn’t focus on the opposition enough, maybe we didn’t focus on getting the most out of the group enough. Then Armagh came along and changed everything. They found a way to defend and attack and I think everyone has copped on to that.
“It’s no different than soccer, you analyse the opposition, you set yourself out to stop the other team’s key players but at the same time you work at your own game all the time.”
The ground-changing transition that has taken in the Donegal set up under Jim McGuinness in 18 months is not lost on his No. 2.
“It was huge. I remember moving to Donegal and following the U-21 team and they had great success. Then following the senior team and unfortunately they weren’t going so well. I remember watching that game in Crossmaglen and they were well beaten, but games can run away.
“Some things are taken out of context. Donegal players are talented players but two goals went in that day and they just didn’t perform. I think there was too much made of it personally. I think this current group of Donegal players have always been recognised as being very talented but since Jim came in we’ve won an awful lot of games.
“Jim’s passion for Donegal football, his passion for this group of footballers and his passion for them to improve is immense.
“There’s no one thing. People ask me what’s the magic reason, but there’s no such thing. The way we train, we pride ourselves that we train hard if not harder than any other team in the country. We like to think we train smarter. Them wee things, we like to think, give us an edge.
“There’s a myth out there that Donegal are training more than they are. I know I’m only out of the house two nights a week at county training. But we like to think we train harder than most and smarter than most.”
He also knows that things can go wrong and supporters can also lose faith and confidence just as quickly as it is found.
“It’s a wee bit easier to buy into it when we’re winning. For whatever reason, everyone’s buying into it. I remember leaving O’Donnell Park, there were rumours of discontent when we lost to Laois. County football is a fickle business, so it is.
“The lads are great lads. We’re lucky to have that group and I think they appreciate things are going well and they all want to be involved in it.”
He also knows that the next game is the most important and having reached the same stage this year as they did in 2011 gives them a chance to put last year’s semi-final defeat to bed.
“With all that was written and said about the game last year (against Dublin), people forgot, talking about the tactics, it was a like a soap opera, but we were unbeliveably disappointed that we didn’t win the game.
“We set out with a plan; whether people liked it or not was irrelevant to us. We felt we let ourselves down because the game was there to be won, but we didn’t push on as a group. We made mistakes ourselves on the line. That’s hard to live with; it’s a long winter, when you know you’re so close.
“We had the loss of Karl (Lacey) which was huge. Those are things that happen but we didn’t complain. It takes a long time to come around to All-Ireland semi-final again and you have to make sure you’re there. We’re there now and Cork have experienced defeat before. We’ll not worry about them. We’ll focus on ourselves and we’ll be doing everything in our power to get to the All-Ireland final.”
Living and working in Killybegs, he knows that the south-west is an important area for Gaelic football and is hopeful that Killybegs will be back to the glory days of the 1990s when he was a spectator with his father.
“It’s a team I would have watched an awful lot of when I was young. A lot of the big games were played in Donegal Town and I would have gone with my father, games against Kilcar, Glencolmcille, Ardara. It’s a huge hotbed for Donegal football. Killybegs maybe haven’t anybody at the minute but it’s only a matter of time. Those clubs have kept the GAA very strong and I think the Donegal county team will always be looking for those areas for county players,” said Rory.