Was Neil Gallagher Donegal's best ever midfielder?

THE SPORTING DIARY with Sports Ed Peter Campbell

Was Neil Gallagher Donegal's best ever midfielder?

Best ever Donegal midfielder?

The forced retirement of Big Neil Gallagher is another major milestone in the history of the GAA in Donegal. A reluctant hero, he will go down as one of the finest footballers to represent the county, not just for the way he played his football, but for the way he represented himself on the football pitch.

Never seeking the limelight, he could still hold his own in any area of life. My thoughts go back just a couple of months when he joined a very long queue at the Donal Reid book signing, talking away to those around him as if he was out for a neighbourly stroll in Glenswilly.

My first encounter of Neil Gallagher was at an U-21B Donegal final in Ardara in late 2003. Glenswilly were much too strong for Naomh Ultan and Gallagher, as captain, ran the game just as he did in senior championships for his club last year. He was all over the field, winning the ball back, doing the simple things so well and never wanting to drive forward to get on the scoresheet.

He went on to do that for Donegal as well, although at times managers were a little reluctant to trust him. He probably wasn't putting himself forward as much as others. Brian McIver saw his ability right away, making him captain.

Even under Jim McGuinness, it took a number of games before he was a 'regular'. But from the 2011 Ulster final onwards, there is no doubt that he became Donegal's No. 1 midfielder, and if there was a poll taken on the greatest Donegal midfielder ever, Big Neil would surely make the starting team. I wouldn't disagree with that poll.

One of his greatest attributes, in my book, was his sportsmanship. Never did I see him getting involved in any altercation, but as a peacemaker. You didn't see Big Neil wading in and throwing fuel on the fire. Yet he was able to hold his own in the physical stakes, but he did it in his own quiet and efficient way.

Brian McEniff told me a lovely story about Neil this week. He was the manager that first introduced him to senior football; he had played U-21 for two years under Brian's son, Seanie. It seems that Neil's first game for Donegal was a challenge game against the Underdogs. 'Neil was midfield alongside big Eamon Sweeney from Fanad, and Kieran Donaghy was midfield for the Underdogs along with a fella from Cork. The two boys cleaned them out and Brian Mullins and Micheal O Muircheartaigh, who were managing the Underdogs team just couldn't believe what they had seen,' said McEniff.

Afterwards Neil was brought in for the Dr. McKenna Cup alongside Neil McGee, Ryan Bradley and Michael Boyle - a useful quartet who all went on to taste All-Ireland success together.

We will have to get on with life without Big Neil, and there is plenty of young talent coming through. There should be a role for the gentle Glenswilly giant in imparting his knowledge to those midfield wannabees. Indeed, given his personality, he could be given an ambassador role similar to that which has been bestowed on Anthony Molloy recently. They are of a similar ilk.

Big challenge against Dubs

Donegal face a huge task on Sunday when the Dubs come to Ballybofey, but it a challenge that they can rise to. After watching the recent clash with Roscommon on playback last week, I would have altered my player ratings slightly.

It might well rank as Michael Murphy's greatest ever game in a Donegal jersey, such was his involvement. But for a missed chance in the opening half, he was immense; his 70-yard drop kick pass into the wind in the opening half just a measure of his talent.

Of the others, I would have upgraded Ryan McHugh, who was much more prominent than I had thought watching the game. Also young Jason McGee I thought had an excellent game for an 18-year-old, while Martin O'Reilly was exceptional. Indeed, I felt Mark Anthony McGinley did better in goals than I gave him credit for.

Overall, there were plenty of plusses from the game. Surely, there were too many turnovers and the defence was porous at times, which needs to be corrected before Sunday. With Patrick McBrearty out, would it be an idea to put big Hugh McFadden in full-forward on Sunday. We probably have to keep Murphy around the middle.

St. Mary's of Belfast proved last weekend that if you work hard enough you can attain success. They would have been well behind the other Belfast based sides in the race for the Sigerson Cup, but you have to win four games and the cup is yours.

Donegal Markey Cup final

If you are free on Tuesday next, there will be a great spectacle in Donegal with an all-Donegal Markey Cup final between Coláiste na Carraige and Coláiste Cholmcille, Ballyshannon. The game is set for 12 noon with venue still to be decided. There was a consideration last week that the game could be a curtain-raiser to the Donegal-Dublin game on Sunday, but a number of difficulties, including the huge crowd expected, put paid to that plan. Which is a pity, because it would have been a fitting venue for such a spectacle.

It's not the first ever all-Donegal final for this cup (Carrick and Glenties met a couple of years ago) and there have been a few all-Donegal college finals before with St. Eunan's and Coláiste Inis Eoghain meeting in the McLarnon a few years ago while back in 1996 St. Eunan's and De La Salle, Ballyshannon met in a cracking McLarnon final on St. Patrick's Day in MacCumhaill Park. The Ballyshannon side emerged narrow winners on the day.

Who will be the Donegal winners on Tuesday?