The 2-9 to 0-12 defeat was the final chapter in what Gallagher’s predecessor Jim McGuinness termed the ‘Olympic Cycle’.
The greatest legacy McGuinness left remains the change in culture, that winning mentality, which he embedded in the county.
Whereas the Donegal seniors were known as something of a stag party in years gone by, there’s a maturity about how Gallagher’s contemporaries conduct themselves.
At half-time in his first meaningful game as manager on Saturday night in Ballybofey, Derry were 0-9 to 0-6 in front in the Allianz League Division One opener.
“There was nobody more disappointed than them at half-time,” Gallagher said of his dressing room.
“We maybe didn’t set things out clearly enough for the lads. Derry had the upper hand in the first half and controlled large parts of the game.”
Derry were one of the success stories of last year’s spring. A promising journey eventually saw their path stop at Croke Park; only for Dublin to waltz to a 3-19 to 1-10 win in the Division One final.
It was a hammering Brian McIver’s team didn’t recover from and having lost to Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final, Derry exited the qualifiers having conceded 2-16 at home to Longford.
McIver might be considered more of a traditionalist but on Saturday his Derry line-up was shaped in what has become the norm in Ulster. Derry were patient in possession; defended their 45 and in Mark Lynch, had a player to pick up the pieces.
The Derry captain scored five first-half points, four of which came from frees. With Derry having returned to training before Donegal, as a result of their championship exits last term, the doom-mongers huddled on the Ballybofey terraces might’ve been justified in fearing the worst at half-time. Derry were 0-9 to 0-6 in front.
But when Donegal defeated Derry 1-11 to 0-11 in that Ulster quarter-final last May, it was as consequence of the fabled “championship quarter”. On Saturday, it was the same. From being three down at the start of the second half, by the conclusion of the third quarter Donegal were in firm control and three in front. Martin McElhinney joined Neil Gallagher and Christy Toye in the middle third and Michael Murphy was told by his manager Gallagher to take up station on the edge of the Derry square.
“We had one or two small positional changes, but it was down to the players — they upped their effort levels,” Rory Gallagher said of the second half. “Five minutes before half-time, we thought that these boys’ legs were gone. It’s amazing what a bit of momentum can do.”
With Patrick McBrearty, who had a reasonable first half, coming to life and Murphy causing an already cautioned Niall Holly all sorts of bother, the tide began to turn. Holly was, according to referee Marty Duffy, guilty of hooking the Donegal skipper but Murphy rattled the crossbar as Derry survived. Just beforehand, Duffy had shaken his head when Enda Lynn might’ve been caught by McElhinney.
Defensively, Donegal improved their turnover rate — a constituent of their staple diet — and used that as a launch pad. Odhran MacNiallais’s goal on 53 minutes was typical Donegal. Emmet McGuckin was dispossessed by a combination of Mark McHugh and Karl Lacey 10 metres from Paul Durcan’s goal. Twenty-one seconds later, with the impressive Marty O’Reilly and Toye involved in the forage forward, MacNiallais had planted the ball into the Derry net, having given Thomas Mallon those deceiving eyes and gone for the near post.
Gallagher’s Donegal isn’t far removed from what he inherited. But in time, there might be signs of change. Saturday was about getting off and running. Donegal did that in what was another false dawn for their neighbours.
“It was almost a replica of the Ulster Championship match last year,” a disappointed McIver said. “They took control with that crucial 10 minutes after half-time, got a couple of crucial scores, get on top and we found that very hard to break down. We have said it umpteen times: the one side you don’t want to be giving a lead to in the country is Donegal.”
Scorers for Donegal: M Murphy 0-5 (5f), P McBrearty 0-5 (2f), O MacNiallais 1-0, M O’Reilly and C Toye 0-2, M McElhinney 0-1
Scorers for Derry: M Lynch 0-6 (5f), C McAtamney, B Heron, E McGuckin, B McGoldrick, E Lynn, E Bradley 0-1 each.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; P McGrath, E McGee, F McGlynn; R McHugh, K Lacey, C McGinley; N Gallagher, H McFadden; C Toye, O MacNiallais M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, M O’Reilly.
Subs: D McLaughlin for McGinley (27), M McElhinney for McFadden (half-time), D O’Connor for McLaughlin (69), G McFadden for O’Reilly (70).
DERRY: T Mallon; O Duffy, N Holly, J O’Kane; K Johnston, G O’Kane, M Craig; M Lynch, C McAtamney; B Heron, D Heavron, E Lynn; S L McGoldrick, E McGuckin, B McGoldrick.
Subs: B Óg McGilligan for McAtamney (48), L McGoldrick for Holly (54), E Bradley and T O’Brien for McGuckin and B McGoldrick (57), C McFaul for Heron (65), J Kearney for Lynn (69)
Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo).
Odhran MacNiallais’s goal on 53 minutes came at the height of Donegal’s momentum to post the hosts 1-11 to 0-11 in front. Ultimately it was part of a 10-point swing as the visitors had led 0-9 to 0-5 before losing 1-15 to 0-12.
On first inspections, the prototype used by Jim McGuinness in his four years in charge of Donegal will still form the backbone of successor Rory Gallagher’s tenure.
Derry were the better side in the first half and went in 0-9 to 0-6 ahead as they lined up in almost a mirror image to Donegal. However, their natural instincts meant they failed to retain that shape and didn’t tackle with the same intensity as their hosts.
Patrick McBreaty is in his fifth season as a senior footballer but it is sometimes difficult to comprehend he is still only 21. On Saturday he revelled in a position of responsibility — instead of last year, when he was predominantly an impact sub.
Marty Duffy awarded Donegal a debatable penalty when Niall Holly was adjudged to have hooked Michael Murphy only moments after Enda Lynn had a decent shout at the other end as Martin McElhinney challenged.
Derry welcome last year’s other All-Ireland finalists — winners Kerry — to Celtic Park on Sunday as Donegal make the daunting journey to Croke Park to face Division One favourites Dublin.