Tommy Martin: Donegal must be ready for a Rory reckoning 

There are several reasons why the Derry manager might want not just to defeat Sunday’s Ulster final opponents...
Tommy Martin: Donegal must be ready for a Rory reckoning 

 Derry manager Rory Gallagher walks out before the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Tyrone and Derry at O'Neills Healy Park in Omagh, Tyrone. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

HE’S not the world’s most physical guy but Rory Gallagher has been lining up Donegal for an almighty shoulder charge for some time now.

There are several reasons why the Derry manager might want not just to defeat Sunday’s Ulster final opponents, but to metaphorically launch them into the back row of the Gerry Arthurs Stand in Clones.

Gallagher is one of those Ulster football zealots who believes in the sacral purity of the Anglo-Celt Cup. For true Ulster football men, lifting the cup in Clones is eternal reward for a season of brutal struggle.

And he knows it doesn’t come easy. As number two to Jim McGuinness, the pair needed to generate a burst of spite and ambition to get it done twice with Donegal. He narrowly lost two Ulster finals in his time as Donegal manager and one when in charge of his home county of Fermanagh (against Donegal).

His playing career consisted of disappointments and disputes at the foothills of the Ulster mountain. Fermanagh and Wicklow are the only counties never to have won a provincial championship. Perhaps masterminding an Ulster win on his own steam would deliver some small trinket of glory to the Erne County.

Then there was that awful moment last summer when his Derry team, dancing to his tune, had Donegal by the throat in the Ulster quarter-final. They passed up goal chances and lost out on a penalty claim and then watched in horror as Patrick McBrearty escaped from the manacled lockdown of Chrissy McKaigue for just long enough to sling over the match-winning point. That was it, no back door, done and dusted. Gallagher seethed.

Donegal, of all teams.

A few months later Gallagher pitched up on The Football Pod, Newstalk’s Gaelic football offshoot hosted with Labrador enthusiasm by Tommy Rooney. The show benefits from heavy-hitting punditry assets: seven-time All-Ireland winning Dub Paddy Andrews and Kerry’s former Footballer of the Year James O’Donoghue, who recently replaced the now gainfully employed Mayo legend Andy Moran.

That day even vaunted company such as Andrews and Moran sat hushed and reverent as Gallagher held forth on his ambitions for Derry and the restless competitive spirit that has guided his wandering football life, including a spell as mentor-cum-teammate to a teenage Andrews with St Brigid’s, with whom he won Dublin and Leinster club titles.

Gallagher talks in sharpened conversational jabs, no word wasted, punctuating sentences with colloquial footholds like ‘so it does’ and ‘so it is’, before firing out the next pointed hypothesis. He has at his disposal an extraordinary recall of games, not just dates and outcomes, but the micro-moments that decide them. His knowledge of boot size, PIN number, and mother’s maiden name of every player in Ireland has won over any dressing room he has walked into as a coach and manager.

But it is the combative, serrated edge of Gallagher’s character that has fuelled his two decades of active duty on Gaelic football’s front lines. His playing career was punctuated by rows with Fermanagh managers he deemed incapable of preparing the team to his standards. The brief alchemy with McGuinness was the nuclear fusion of two jagged, uncompromising souls, as if their unified powers were needed to infuse easygoing Donegal natures with the bile and desire to accomplish what they did. The split with McGuinness was brutal and final, over control and influence. It could be no other way. So far, so Roy Keane, except maybe colder.

WHEN McGuinness left in 2014, Gallagher took over an aging, weary squad and hunkered it down behind an ultra-defensive system for two seasons until youthful reinforcements arrived. But by 2017 things had gone sour. Limp championship defeats to Tyrone and Galway drew the ire of supporters. Gallagher walked away amid talk of social media poison.

It was as if the county had grown tired of the steely pragmatism that had shocked the nation under McGuinness and wanted its happy-go-lucky back. Declan Bonner, one of the boys of ’92, was ushered in and it was sunny side up.

Speaking to Andrews and company that day last October, it was Gallagher’s considered thoughts on his departure from Donegal that conjure the sense of the dark energies that may engulf Clones this Sunday.

“There’s an awful lot of rubbish put out there, some of it by the current Donegal management [about] changing the style of play,” Gallagher said. “We had changed our style of play in 2017, so we had…Yes, you’re still playing a sweeper, you’re still defending deep, but we were playing the same way Donegal are playing since, practically.”

Warming to his theme, Gallagher turned his fire directly on his successor. “Hand on heart have Donegal pushed on since then? … Donegal haven’t beat any of the top guns since, they’ve failed on the big occasions. They’ve got a couple of Ulster titles, absolutely. I feel we would have, if we’d kept going on that journey, so we would. I was disappointed, but I don’t mind saying Declan wanted the job and they were pushing that from all angles.”

It was an extraordinary, surgical takedown of a contemporary rival, unheard of in the tepid waters of GAA media content. Gallagher feels his opposite number deposed him in a palace coup, fuelled by fake propaganda and delusion.

Now he comes at his foes with malice aforethought. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

After McBrearty’s point last summer, Derry got the ball up the field deep into injury-time and pussy-footed around the Donegal 45 without summoning the gumption to shoot for an equaliser. It was as if, collectively, they were saying they weren’t ready.

This time they have taken out the other two big beasts of Ulster, Tyrone and Monaghan. Only Donegal remain of the province’s three kings and Gallagher has a taste for regicide.

When the challenge comes, Donegal cannot say they have been blindsided.

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