Peter Campbell email@example.com @dgldemocrat
Neil Gallagher’s forced retirement from the Donegal senior football team last week has evoked much comment, not just in Donegal but well beyond.
That’s because the big midfielder had won the hearts of Gaelic football supporters in the county and there was an envy of his talent in other counties.
One of his first coaches at Glenswilly was Gary McDaid, who coached the club’s U-21s to their championship success in 2003.
Even though Gallagher was a leader in that club U-21 team, when it came to the county scene, he was a late developer.
McDaid recalls that in 2000 at St. Eunan’s College, Big Neil was mostly on the bench as the college team lifted the McLarnon Cup, while McDaid also recalls a young Neil Gallagher breaking through to the Glenswilly junior team which lost a championship final to Milford.
“I played alongside him in that junior final and the 2003 U-21 team was the first time that I coached him. Maybe, in some ways we should have been playing in the U-21A that year, but those boys, who went on to make up a great part of the Glenswilly senior team of recent years, had won nothing coming up through the ranks.
“But it was evident from even then that Neil was special. He was able to be in the right place and do the simple things.
“ One other big thing was that he was able to shore up the middle and that is something he continued to do throughout his career,” said McDaid.
“Neil himself would say that he was a late developer. Maybe that was down to confidence of not being involved at county level until U-21. But after spending two years at that level under Seanie McEniff, he was ready for the senior stage.”
Asked to quantify what Neil Gallagher meant to Donegal and Glenswilly, McDaid was quick to respond.
“He was simply fantastic. In my mind the top Donegal midfielder of all time and not just one of the top Donegal midfielders, but in the country.
“What underlined that was if you were down the country and someone asked you where you were from, and you answered Glenswilly. ‘Ah, the club of Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher’. Not just Michael Murphy, Neil was an equal. Hearing that down the country was a very proud thing for Glenswilly people,” said McDaid.
“He has been a huge servant for the club. I knew the leadership qualities that he had, but I got to see that in a different light when I was involved at county level last year, the way he is respected around the county. He holds such respect.”
McDaid also highlighted the great affinity Gallagher has with young kids and children. “You would see that at our club training sessions, where the young kids are all over to Neil and he has time for them.
“Some players are not able to make that connection, but Neil has a special connect with young people,” said McDaid.
Asked what he felt were Big Neil’s special days on Gaelic football fields, McDaid points to the 2007 National League final when Gallagher captained Donegal to their one and only league title.
“I remember meeting him after the game along the fence. That was special for himself and it was huge for the club to have someone captain Donegal to national success.
“I would also feel his performance in the 2012 Ulster and All-Ireland championship was special. I think he had only three starts in 2011 and it is testimony to him that he kept going. Some people felt he might have walked away, but he always wanted to improve. Indeed, some might have felt that his best days were gone.
“But winning three Ulster titles and also winning three championships with the club was huge. I can honestly say that the county and club would not have won those without him,” said McDaid.
As for the future, McDaid says there should be no pressure on Gallagher at club level. “He must get his health right first and build it from there. He needs to be right to play at senior club level,” said McDaid, who added that Neil was not nearly fit last year, not being able to train between games.
“I always tell him that I tried to extend his career by throwing him in at full-forward for periods.”
McDaid feels that Gallagher “would have plenty to offer in a management/coaching capacity. He understands pressure.
“He would be great with young players coming through,” said McDaid, who added that Gallagher could be authoritative when required: “When he needs to speak, he will do it. And he gets respect. Neil was something different.
“And that has to be earned.”