Rory and summers in Ballybofey

Rory and summers in Ballybofey
Gerry McLaughlin sport@donegaldemocrat.com @dgldemocrat

The summer of 2000 was as hot as the inside of a camel’s oxter, and Ballybofey was baking as Donegal and Fermanagh had a memorable shoot-out in the Ulster Championship.

The Ernesiders had Tony Collins sent off but they pulled off a great victory thanks to current Donegal team manager Rory Gallagher and THAT goal.

In those days Rory was a gold standard maverick with true magic in his boots and scored one of the most exquisitely audacious goals ever seen in Ballybofey.

Gallagher was only 22 but had all the chutzpah and confidence of a veteran as he found himself one-on-one with Tir Conaill ‘keeper Tony Blake.

Most players would try and pick their spot either side of the ‘keeper.

But the precocious Gallagher spotted Blake advancing from his line and chipped the ball perfectly over his head for a wonder goal, that would have given the likes of Wayne Rooney headlines for at least a week.

However there was not much reaction at the time as the GAA was a lot more dead-pan and modest in that era of mercifully no blanket defence worth talking about.

But it remains a unique piece of shimmering summer brilliance.

Oh and Gallagher was also top scorer in the Ulster Championship from 2000-2002.

But when reminded of this epic feat and Fermanagh’s regular wins over a Donegal side that had Tony Boyle, Brendan Devenney, Adrian Sweeney, Brian Roper, Damian Diver, Jim McGuinness, John Gildea, Raymond Sweeney and Niall McCready, to name a few at a very relaxed Donegal press night in the Sean MacCumhaills Centre, he quips:

“These fellows don’t believe it,” as he references Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Hugh McFadden, who have been wheeled out carefully to deal with all the usual clichéd championship questions.

There is a larger question that has been unasked as yet as to whether this will be Tir Conaill’s final shot for the stars as so many of their warriors are over 30 and have a lot of mileage.

But Rory, formerly of Belleek and Erne Gaels, is not in the least nostalgic, however pleasant the memory.

“Not really as you move on.

“I am a long time gone from living in Fermanagh since 2002, but at the same time, naturally they are a team that I would follow.

“But still, you move on and there has been a great bond and friendship with the Donegal lads over the past five or six years.

“We always want to win the first round of the championship and it just happens to be Fermanagh this year.”

But, unlike previous years Donegal have been given a long rest period before their first outing after a few early epic tussles with Tyrone in recent years.

“It has been eight weeks since our last regulation game against Monaghan and we are really looking forward to meeting Fermanagh and at the same time we have enjoyed the build up.

“Last October we would have liked to have been last or second last out considering we had some very early starts in the past few years and the lads were able to be away with their clubs for a round of championship matches.

“We have had a good time away and it has been topped off with all the good weather.”

One thing is certain already, and that is that Donegal will be having a debutant goalie for the first time in many years as the redoubtable Paul Durcan misses his first championship match in many years.

“Peter Boyle or Mark Anthony McGinley will be getting the shout,” said Rory.

When asked how much of a loss Durcan would be the Tir Conaill team boss said they were resigned to his probable absence.

“We knew he was more than likely not going to be available.

“But he still has a great desire to play for Donegal, obviously he is tied in with work and could not leave the country he is in until well into June.

“But he is over and back and he is an outstanding ‘keeper and we would love to have him but we have been planning all season on not having him”.

The Ulster Championship has had a slow start so maybe Donegal and Rory’s native Erne County might just ignite matters.

Rory takes the question and immediately starts to talk up the opposition.

“Fermanagh are a team on the up and have been very competitive for the past 14-15 years.

“They are always very game and since Peter McGrath came in they have been on an upward curve.

“He came in very late the first year after Peter Canavan and stabilised them and got promotion from Division 3 to Division 2 and they finished out the League very well.

“And when their backs were to the wall they got two draws against Galway and Tyrone.

“We felt they were always going to beat Antrim and we expect them to come to Ballybofey with a very positive frame of mind.

“They will feel that they will need to push on and as we all know Fermanagh have not won an Ulster title and that will be very much on their players’ radar.

“Their manager Peter McGrath has great pedigree and has been around for a long time but he has also adapted to the modern game.

“He is football mad and the county and all his players are very pleased with him.

“Fermanagh abandoned club fixtures for him last year and it takes quite a lot for to get that done.

“They are fully behind him and he has never been out of football.”

So why should hot favourites, and All-Ireland champions of 2012 and finalists of 2014 be remotely concerned about a much physically smaller Erne outfit.

“Defensively they have become very sound after being very free flowing but also conceding quite a bit the first year that Peter McGrath took over.

“They have a very good structure with Ryan McCluskey playing the sweeper last year and he now has a ready made replacement in James McMahon.

“In the middle of the park, Eoin Donnelly and Ryan Jones are as good as there is about.

“They are physically huge at 6’3” and 6’4” and they are also very good footballers.

“Up front Ruairi and Tomas Corrigan and Sean Quigley would grace any team.

“The two McCuskers, Declan and Paul, are unsung heroes and are Trojan workers and are big players.

“But their huge strength is their spirit, unity and togetherness and they are getting the most out of themselves.”

But his response to a suggestion that Fermanagh are punching above their weight sparks some latent native pride and a telling statistic from a man who has always been a walking encyclopaedia on GAA facts.

“I agree with that as Fermanagh has the smallest playing population in the country as the half the county does not play Gaelic football (and the other half is called Lough Erne).

“There are only around 18 clubs and Leitrim would have more clubs.

“But I know that from 1999 to 2010 they won eight out of eleven first round championship matches which is pretty impressive in a province like Ulster.”

And what is often forgotten, but not by Rory and Co, is that Fermanagh beat Donegal in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 in Ulster Championship/Qualifiers.

“They lost a few from 2010 to 2013 but are back to winning ways again.

“Fermanagh, like ourselves in the Athletic Grounds last year, switched off a bit against Antrim when they had the game practically won.

“It can be difficult to keep momentum for the entire game but they should be very pleased with their first half display.

“They were very clinical but they also managed to pull clear in the end.

“Tomas Corrigan is an exceptional player and I was not surprised in the least that he landed those two sideline kicks.

“They are blessed with himself and Sean Quigley and the onus is on us not to give them any chances.”

But he carefully bats away the very real perception that Fermanagh are relying too much on Corrigan and Quigley.

“Ah no, that could be said about any team with the exception of Dublin and Kerry.

“Fermanagh are very lucky to have marquee forwards and they only lost three matches in a very tough Division Two.

“It is very competitive.”

He concedes that Donegal may be physically bigger but swiftly switches back to the opposition.

“Fermanagh have a fair bit of physical power, too, in Mickey Jones, Barry Mulrone and Che Cullen and they have been doing some strength and conditioning, so they will not be found wanting in the physical stakes.”

And the underdog tag will suit Fermanagh perfectly.

“They are always written off by everybody over the years but that won’t bother those lads in the slightest.”

So is this the last year for this remarkable bunch of Donegal players, as the big question is left to the embers of a most convivial chat in the arms of a balmy Ballybofey evening.

And Gallagher shifts gears and takes the question in mid stride.

“The people that are writing us off, you have to, I suppose, value what they are saying.

“There are loads of people who would have wanted Donegal to be over as a force a long time ago.

“Right up to last year, people have been writing our obituary, but we just enjoy going out and playing and we back ourselves.

“We feel we have a really good team and squad with lots of young energy.

“Yes, we have players who have a lot of football played and players who are not going to be around much longer.

“There is not much doubt about that, but those players know how to win Ulster Championship games.”

Rory’s native Fermanagh should beware in Ballybofey!