A taste for success

As a player Rory Gallagher always made a big impression and brought a swagger to Fermanagh football. Now, as right hand man to Jim McGuinness, he’s bringing that style to Donegal.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.” — Steve Jobs

THE first night they met him, they didn’t know who he was.

It was a wintry night in Glenfin and as the senior and U21 footballers of Donegal started arriving into the car park, an unfamiliar figure was already out on the field, laying out cones and footballs. When they got out, a couple of the veterans could place him. It was Rory Gallagher, the Fermanagh boy.

Any football historian or veteran of the GAA quiz circuit would have known of him. In 2002, Gallagher blitzed Monaghan for 3-9, the highest score that any footballer has run up in a single Ulster championship game.

There was a time too when Donegal football knew all about him. In 2000 he dumped them out of the championship with a majestic lobbed goal and when the counties met again in the following year’s championship, Donegal paid him such close attention his marker once followed him all the way over the sideline when John Maughan wanted to issue Gallagher an instruction, forcing the Fermanagh manager and playmaker to retreat into the dugout to have their little timeout in some privacy.

But that was the guts of 10 years ago and for all but a couple of the Donegal players of 2011, the quiz question in their midst was drawing a pass.

He knew them though. Each and every one of them — their name, their club, their job or college — even the lads on the fringes of the U21 panel. Throughout that first session, he had a word for every one of them.

“Nice to meet you, Danny.” “That’s the ball, Mark.” “What we’re doing here, Eamon…” It bowled them over. How did he know all their names? Be able to put faces to those names? They’d already come to appreciate that attention to detail was one of the hallmarks of Jim McGuinness’s management and now they’d discovered that his right-hand man was a similar operator.

Since then they’ve all seen their own game continuously improve by his diligent and technical tuition, but in truth, Gallagher had their respect at hello.

It was hardly the first time he’d created a favourable first impression. Shortly before Billy Bingham infamously exchanged insults with Jack Charlton on a poisonous November night in Windsor Park, the Northern Ireland manager was at an underage five-a-side soccer tournament in which a team from a little village in west Fermanagh somehow made it to the final.

That somehow was Rory Gallagher, and Bingham was so impressed by his poise, touch and vision, he recommended him to a trial for the Northern Ireland schoolboys with whom Gallagher would star. He’d later go on trial at Manchester United and Blackburn, rooming with Damien Duff and partnering Wes Brown at centre-half along the way, before returning to Belleek and his true first love, Gaelic football, which would take him on quite some journey as well.

He’d win Leinster titles with St Brigid’s in Dublin, All-Irelands with St Gall’s in Belfast, Sigersons with Sligo IT as well as a stint with Cavan before ending up here in Donegal. Along the way he’d earn a reputation for being something of a maverick, but when Jim McGuinness was looking for a number two after Peter McGinley stepped down because of increased work commitments, the new Donegal manager learned that Gallagher was one of the most cerebral and ambitious and misunderstood footballers of his generation.

Gallagher and McGuinness wouldn’t really have known each other, except for a few jousts on the football field and the odd stop and greet encounter when running into the other on a night out in Letterkenny. Martin McHugh though would have been a close confidant to both, being the standout player when Donegal won their All-Ireland and a 19-year-old McGuinness first broke onto the panel in 1992, and then manager to the Sligo IT team that Gallagher inspired to a Sigerson Cup 10 years later.

McHugh had long publicly lauded Gallagher as “an exceptionally hard trainer who demands the highest standards” and their friendship had become even tighter since Gallagher and his wife Nicola moved to the nearby fishing village of Killybegs a couple of years ago to run a SuperValu store.

Gallagher had also taken a few local teams for a couple of sessions, including the Killybegs senior team that McGinley guided to last year’s county final, and when McGinley had to step down from McGuinnness’s management team only months after joining it, he recommended the 32-year-old Gallagher.

Gallagher had been playing inter-county football as recently as last year but coaching was something he had a great grá for ever since he was 17 and would take his club senior team for some sessions on their way to reaching the county final. A player some would consider outspoken and difficult and threatening, McHugh and McGinley considered insightful and innovative and challenging. A few days after Christmas, Gallagher called into McGuinness’s performance consultancy. It was four hours before he left.

“About all I’d have known about Jimmy as a manager before that was from following the run the U21s had with him last year. I was struck alright that the players were playing for their manager. He got the absolute best out of them and only for a few illnesses and a crossbar, they would have won the All-Ireland.

“Then I met him in Letterkenny and I found he was a long way down the line for someone who had never managed a county senior team before. His passion and vision for Donegal football was phenomenal. He placed particular emphasis on physical conditioning and he was very interested in my ideas on coaching which would be similar to his own.

“I suppose we would both have felt that we played under a lot of management setups, some of which were good and a lot of which were bad, and that we could take the lessons from them and pool it altogether. A lot of teams train but they’re not coached. I’d have felt it would be my job to improve every player individually and that training would have to incorporate situations players are going to encounter in games, not just drills for the sake of it. We can’t guarantee Donegal are going to win an Ulster or this or that, but if we make every player on the panel that bit better, we’re going to win a lot more matches.”

What probably makes them such a vibrant management is that they were both frustrated players. Essentially they’re trying to provide the kind of setup they themselves yearned for, and suspect the likes of Kevin Cassidy were yearning for as well.

Gallagher watched the Donegal team McGuinness played for alongside stellar talents Brendan Devenney, Adrian Sweeney and Michael Hegarty and often thought they should have been there as equals with Tyrone and Armagh. Instead they would fail to win even an Ulster, losing four times to Fermanagh in five years. Fermanagh weren’t as talented as Donegal but they were honest.

For Gallagher it was no great mystery why such honesty didn’t convert into any silverware. It wasn’t that the county was so small but rather it wasn’t geared for success, something which never rested easy with him.

He was playing for the county minors at 14 and in 1996 destroyed Tyrone in an Ulster minor championship game that seemed at the time would finish the inter-county managerial career of some fella called Mickey Harte. Gallagher also won an All-Ireland vocational title at a time when other young Fermanagh players were winning their share of McRory and Sigerson Cup medals.

The county senior side might have only won two championship games from 1983 to 1998, but Gallagher entered their dressing room interested in neither mediocrity nor respectability.

“People would be constantly talking about Fermanagh having an inferiority complex. I certainly didn’t have that. People and players would get sentimental about the idea of just reaching an Ulster final or playing in Croke Park. I never got caught up into that idea. I thought it would be great to win an Ulster final and win in Croke Park.”

In his eyes the necessary support structure wasn’t there and for the 2003 season he opted out, prompting calls for Dublin, where he lived and played for St Brigid’s, to snap him up. A county board meeting was even held in camera to debate the Gallagher issue before concluding Dublin should be for Dubs only. That same year helped St Brigid’s to a county and Leinster title, Fermanagh would go on to make both the league semi-final and All-Ireland quarter-final that year, the most successful in the county’s history, only for it to be trumped the following year when they reached the All-Ireland semi-final, with Gallagher again in the stands.

He’d often get volleys of abuse there, usually from supporters with a few drinks in them, but that didn’t bother Gallagher. He’d got abuse when he played for the county as well and that didn’t dilute his love for his county and the dream of winning an Ulster. At the end of that 2004 adventure, Gallagher phoned Charlie Mulgrew, asking if he could try out for Fermanagh again.

The following spring he would finish as the team’s leading scorer in the league but after kicking a second point from play 15 minutes into the Division Two semi-final against Meath, he was switched from centre forward to full-forward. Then the week of the championship opener against Armagh, Mulgrew informed Gallagher he wouldn’t be starting because “Armagh have a fear of Stephen Maguire and that’s why he’s full-forward”. Gallagher was inwardly seething he couldn’t be accommodated elsewhere but bit his lip and came off the bench to score a goal but after the team’s exit from the qualifiers, Gallagher let Mulgrew and his selectors have it outside a dressing room in Newry.

“I didn’t hold back. I told them that our preparation was a joke, in terms of training, discipline, analysing opposition. I didn’t rate his man management either. If he didn’t like my style of play, fair enough, tell me — I’m a big boy — instead of making up a bullsh*t excuse.”

The trend would repeat itself. In 2008 he was in the stand in the Ulster final, this time as a BBC commentator, as his beloved county again came within a free kick of glory, a free he’d surely have nailed. Fermanagh’s recurring freetaking problems would prompt Malachy O’Rourke to recall him to the setup last year, and eight years on from his last Ulster championship start, he found himself back wearing the green and white but the side would suffer a heavy semi-final defeat to Monaghan and relegation to Division Four.

“I didn’t enjoy the year at all. I was very keen to go back but was very disappointed at the direction it went in. I didn’t feel the training was great. Not all our best players were there. It had all the signs of a setup going backwards.”

After O’Rourke stepped down, the county board encouraged the players to meet to draw up some names they’d recommend.

Gallagher was one of 12 players who’d meet up, an attendance rate which disappointed him, but not nearly as much as learning the following month that John O’Neill got the job. O’Neill had been one of Mulgrew’s selectors that Gallagher had let fly at in Newry in 2005 and though O’Neill had been linked with the job before the players had met up, they’d informed the board they’d unanimously rejected his candidacy.

That essentially finished Gallagher with Fermanagh. O’Neill didn’t invite him back. Gallagher wouldn’t have gone back either.

Yet still the dream of winning that Ulster persists, at least for Gallagher. While Fermanagh football self-destructed over the spring, McGuinness and Gallagher masterminded Donegal to promotion to Division One. For all the science McGuinness put into assembling his programme and backroom team, Gallagher is his only selector.

They’d like to think they’re letting the players express themselves, rather than being the robots they’ve sometimes being portrayed as, which, Gallagher smiles, is at least progress from the party boys label they appear to have shaken off.

As someone who was a pundit himself with the BBC and Gaelic Life paper, Gallagher would follow football discourse closely, and while he finds much of it entertaining, too much of it is removed from how football is now played and won.

“I enjoy the pundits. I just don’t believe all the criticism is informed. Pundits don’t see a team play every week. They’d have seen our game against Antrim which was a poor game but they were a bit harsh because conditions were poor. They seemed to forget too that we weren’t the team that lined out with seven defenders.

“The same team lined out with seven players in the league but Liam [Bradley] threw out a comment which people drew on when it was just a bit of gamesmanship from Baker. I don’t have any problem with the pundits as long as they’re not personal with boys. I’m looking forward to the day a lot of them take up county management.”

Gallagher hasn’t been afraid to walk the walk. And you suspect he won’t be afraid to continue to talk too. Speaking and standing up for himself has always been his way.

Picture: Donegal manager Jim McGuinness (right) and assistant Rory Gallagher at Clones. Picture: Sportsfile


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