Rory Gallagher: The next best thing to a Donegal man

Although it’s Rory Gallagher who runs the supermarket it was Jim McGuinness who made the hard sell.

Although it’s Rory Gallagher who runs the supermarket it was Jim McGuinness who made the hard sell.

Having taken over as manager of his father-in-law Gerry Rooney’s SuperValu in Killybegs, Gallagher took the local GAA panel for training a couple of times on their way to the 2010 senior championship final.

He worked alongside Peter McGinley, who was McGuinness’s assistant manager with the Donegal U-21 panel that reached the All-Ireland final earlier the same year.

As a boy, Gallagher used to travel to south-west Donegal with his father Gerry from their home in Belleek to watch club championships matches when Kilcar, Naomh Columba and Killybegs were kings.

When McGinley told McGuinness he would be unable, due to work commitments in the field of insurance, to continue his role with the senior panel, he gave assurances to help find a successor.

A few names rumbled about McGinley’s head but one that stuck was that of Gallagher. Another firm reference came from Martin McHugh, who had managed Sligo IT to Sigerson Cup success in 2002 when Gallagher was a pivotal player.

“I’m living in Killybegs and had only helped Peter out once or twice,” Gallagher says. “It was very minimal and I only talked to him a few times and had done a few training sessions with Kilcar as well.

“Jim spoke to Peter, who had to step aside, and Martin McHugh, who I believe recommended me as well. So Jim called me and I decided to go to Letterkenny and meet him.”

There was more to Gallagher than the man who just took the few sessions in Fintra and Towney. As a player, he was top scorer in the Ulster championship in the colours of unfashionable Fermanagh for three successive seasons, 2000 to 2002.

Gallagher lobbed an impish goal over Tony Blake’s head in Ballybofey as Fermanagh, in the last year before the qualifiers in 2000, knocked Donegal out by the front door before there was a back.

In the last of those three top-scoring seasons, 2002, Gallagher kicked an Ulster championship record for a single match, 3-9 against Monaghan in Clones. It’s a record that still stands today.

Like McGuinness, Gallagher had a studious edge as a player - building up little portfolios, knowing whether a defender was less comfortable going left than right, whether to demand it over his head into the chest.

He is still the sort of character who watches a match on television holding a notepad.

Gallagher had trained his local club, Erne Gaels, as a teenager. Even before that, he had captained Northern Ireland Schoolboys in soccer, had trials with Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, playing alongside Wes Brown and sharing digs with Damien Duff.

Gallagher was also known to be a quiet man but one who held a mountain of opinions and suggestions on football should he be required to share them.

Seen as a wanderer by some, Gallagher had played inter-county football for Cavan as well as his native Fermanagh, whilst representing and coaching St Bridgid’s in Dublin full-time and lining out for St Gall’s in Belfast at club level.

But having settled in Killybegs, the offer to come on board with Donegal was one that interested him as he driove through Barnesmore in early January 2011.

“I had been on a Fermanagh panel the previous year and was looking forward to a bit of down-time,” 33-year-old Gallagher says.

“At the same time, I always wanted to be involved at this level and Donegal was an attractive proposition with the quality of players they had and the young players coming though that had featured in the U-21 team.

“I went to Letterkenny to have a talk with Jim for an hour or so and Jim being Jim, it took four or five. It was a great meeting. I could see his passion for Donegal and his passion for this team.

“I’m not from Donegal and wouldn’t have had the same passion obviously but it was an attractive proposition to get involved with something that was moving forward.”

Both McGuinness and Gallagher had built up huge reservoirs of experience in football. Some of it was good and some bad, but all was equally important.

With a panel low on confidence, they sought to advance each player individually at training and that would in turn lead to a cumulative improvement in the panel.

McGuinness and Gallagher soon shared a firm handshake and set the wheels in motion with the Donegal seniors. Both shared an almost perverted lust for hard training and battered tactical ideals off one another.

One wintry night in Castlefin just days after their meeting in Letterkenny, there was Gallagher, placing cones on the pitch as the combined senior and U-21 panels made their way from the dressing-room for the start of a season’s training.

The older players would’ve remembered Gallagher from his days with Fermanagh and while the youngsters didn’t, they were hugely impressed by the fact he knew each and every one of their names and the professional attitude that protruded.

The combined group has now taken Donegal to the All-Ireland final and a winner-takes-all meeting with Mayo this Sunday.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Gallagher adds. “When Jim came in he said it was a five-year plan but he never really said what the ultimate aim was!

“But in reality, and I know this sounds boring, but it was game on game. There has never been a day when we send out a Donegal team that doesn’t believe we can win a particular game.

“It’s not like a business, though. We didn’t set out and say ‘we have to win an All-Ireland.’

“The five-year plan is just about improving every single player and that’s the fundamentals of it. We just set out to improve and if you can do that then you put yourself in the position to win things.

“There’s more in the tank. We look through all our games and it doesn’t matter what field you’re involved in, whether it be business or football, but you thrive for perfection.

“You may never get there but you’ll certainly thrive for it. We’ve not had the perfect game yet although people can say nice things when you beat Tyrone, Kerry or Cork, we can find lot of faults in those performances ourselves.

“We want to hit, in our own eyes, an eight or nine out of 10 performance. When we started training in Castlefin in January we put the focus on ourselves. We want to impose ourselves on every single game.

“If you don’t do the right stuff then, just like if Mayo don’t do the right stuff in Ballyhaunis early in the year, then they won’t get here either.

“There are two teams that are hungry for success and two teams that came similar paths in terms of new management in the last couple of years.

“There’s been a fair turnover of players and rapid progression and hard work.

“It’s great to see two fresh teams but at the end of the day there’s going to be one set of supporters having the time of their lives and we want it to be ours.”

Twenty years ago, Brian McEniff and Anthony Molloy carried Sam Maguire into Donegal for the first time, over the Drowes.

Gallagher, not long in his teens, lined the streets of Bundoran that Monday night.

Had the Boundary Commission all those years ago shifted the border only 300 yards east, Rory Gallagher would be able to call himself a Donegal man since the day he was born.

Now, though, alongside Jim McGuinness, he’s the next best thing.