“It was a big game last Saturday night. It was a bigger game this Saturday. We all know why. There was a lot of stake between the two teams and I’m very proud of our boys’ efforts over both nights and I think we the better team over both nights,” said Donegal manager, Rory Gallagher.
The boss looked even more exhausted than his players, if that were possible, as he stopped to talk to media just outside the Donegal dressing room.
But despite that, there was a broad smile which reflected the way his team had represented the county to reach the Ulster final for the sixth year in-a-row.
“It’s a massive achievement. You can’t put into words the effort these boys have put in, not only that, but we enjoy it. We enjoy each other’s company. They will enjoy themselves tonight; let the hair down a wee bit. But it’s two weeks, a short turnaround. As you say it’s six finals, but it would be more important to win four.”
While Donegal were the better team, as Gallagher pointed out, they didn’t make it easy for themselves, being just two points up after totally dominating the opening half.
“It was a disappointing position to be in, having played so well. We went full games not having scored ten points against Monaghan. To have ten points on the board and we looked really fluid, and we looked really lively, was good. They were two disappointing goals. But Monaghan are a great team and they are always going to come up with something.”
One of the areas which pleased Gallagher was the attacking plan: “We worked hard on that, but we worked equally hard over the last six years on defence and attack. People think we spent the whole time defending, getting plenty men behind the ball. But we have worked really hard at it, but it is relatively easy when you have good quality players, and we have lots of them at the minute.”
Asked about Donegal being able to use short kick-outs this time around, Gallagher said: “Maybe they felt we were more dangerous when we go long. Despite what you boys saying we were in trouble on our own kick out last week, we would have been very happy with how it went, when we done the maths on it.”
Gallagher agreed that Donegal were hit by a sucker punch for the first goal. “We were caught cold. Conor McManus is an exceptionally quick thinker and fair play to him, but I would be disappointed from our own point of view.”
Rory Gallagher's response to a question about the outstanding display of Marty O’Reilly put the group of journalists around on the back foot. “Look, who was he marking?” asked Rory, which left them scratching their heads. But Rory quickly continued: “Karl O’Connell. He kept Karl O’Connell quiet and kicked a couple of points over the bar, a great day’s work for Marty. He’s a great lad and we have been working with him now for five years and every day he comes back from more.
“He has to fight for everything he’s got. He comes back smiling and just empties the tank. To be fair in the last 18 months, he has really dug in and he has got himself a lot fitter, to be fair. He had a couple of wee setbacks with niggly injuries and he had glandular fever one year, but he has really responded well in the last 18 months.
“I think we have found a position for him. He played inside when we were stuck inside, but out the field, whether it’s half-back or half-forward, he has done really well.”
While Donegal gave everything, the manager had a view on why footballers look fresh or tired. “Look, if you listen to some people, we looked tired last week and we look old and all that. If you’re playing well, you look fresh; when you’re struggling in periods in games, you look tired. But look, Monaghan are an excellent team. I don’t think that’s the end of them. I wouldn’t be surprised me for the two of us to meet down the line.”
Gallagher had strong praise for Michael Murphy, not just for his performance on the night, but also his leadership.
“He is just an outstanding player. He kicked his frees; he won ball inside; he won a couple of kick-outs. We like to have Michael all over the field. He is an exceptional player and more than that, he is an exceptional leader in our set up.”
Asked about the standard of the two games and the fact that many people throughout the country felt they were the best contests of a poor championship so far, Gallagher responded.
“When I was young going to games, the games at the start of the year were generally flat enough too. Maybe we get a wee bit carried away. Nobody likes to see mis-matches. In Ulster we have been spoiled. Maybe the first rounds weren’t as competitive but I think now we have had three brilliant semi-finals and it’s Division One teams playing each other, which is a big part of it too.”
The Donegal manager was asked was it a plan to rest players during the league so that they would be ready for an assault on the championship.
“We have a relatively small group of players. We can’t be at a phenomenally high level all year long. We weren’t happy to lose a league semi-final; we weren’t happy to lose four games in-a-row at the end of the league, but we felt in three of them we were in a good position to win. We like to think we live in the real world; we see ourselves every night at training and we know where we’re at, but you always have to prove it.”
Last week it was six minutes of added time, this time around the board said five, which certainly got a reaction from the Donegal bench at the time.
“I’m looking forward to seeing other managers with this four, five or six minutes. If that’s the norm, there’s no problem; we would have no issue with any of it,” said Gallagher, who agreed that there was a feeling of de ja vu in the final minutes. “Your stomach’s churning; you could end up with extra-time after playing so well. But fair play to the boys, they dug it out,” said Gallagher.
“Monaghan are a serious team and I couldn’t give them enough credit. The respect we would have as a group for them; we knew they always were going to come.”
Now Donegal must prepare for another big Ulster final, but one big plus will be the return of Neil McGee, who served the second game of his suspension on Saturday night.
“It’s massive. Himself and myself and Sean (Dunnion) were down at the appeals and it was sore on him; it was a tough week, but he had to take it on the chin and we’re delighted to have him back now,” said Gallagher.
“It’s a huge two weeks. We are really looking forward to it. We are well used to the run in now; it’s a wee bit shorter, but the bodies will recover and the great thing is there will not be a whole pile of training,” concluded Gallagher.