Neil Gallagher ‘privileged and grateful’ to have been part of Donegal football set-up

Your stand-out Neil Gallagher memory? His virtuoso performance against Cork in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final? Lifting the 2007 Division 1 cup as captain with a black eye due to a cut above it that required suturing, but no substitution? Bare-chested in Ballybofey having had his jersey ripped as he was sent off against Tyrone in 2015?

For us, full time in Donegal’s 2014 quarter-final win over Armagh comes back vividly.

Just as Joe McQuillan calls time, Aaron Findon gives Gallagher, with ball-in-hand, a skelp across the chops. 

Gallagher remains unmoved only to signal to his opponent “what was the point in that?” That was Gallagher — a warrior within the white lines, Gaelic football’s version of the Big Friendly Giant outside of them.

His retirement from inter-county football earlier this week prompted plenty of Donegal followers and those admirers outside the county to reminisce on a catalogue of moments.

For many, his graceful poise in making a soaring leap to claim a ball from the skies is what will stick out most. The irony of his enforced decision to step away in the mark’s inaugural year isn’t lost on people - or him.

“It was never goals or points or blocks that got me excited watching games but a midfielder or somebody making a high catch.”

A long-standing back problem made Gallagher’s mind up for him. He can’t remember when the probably first surfaced but felt it in the league defeat to Roscommon in Letterkenny last March when he came off at half-time.

“It’s something to do with a disc. It was sore and I rested it for awhile. I hurt it again in the summer and I wasn’t really training when we went on the run with Glenswilly (to the Donegal SFC title). I got a scan in December. It’s just not right and I would only be doing harm now (by continuing).

“You want to stay on as long as you can, but when the body is not able you’ll be soon found out. It was a tough enough decision but over the last few days it’s become more of an easier one because you realise you just can’t give anymore. You’re going to be found out.”

Of course, Gallagher felt a sense of duty to remain on considering Donegal lost so many seasoned players in recent months on top of the unavailability of Odhrán Mac Niallais and Leo McLoone.

“No matter what team it is, if you lose experienced players like that you’re going to miss them. Because I didn’t play much last year it was going through my mind in November and December that I should give it one more rattle to see if I could get up to the level that was needed.

“It was also because there was a lot of young fellas there. When I came into the panel, John Gildea was just finishing and I would have learned a lot from him. 

“But I know I needed to go well in training and the way it’s gone now Rory couldn’t be picking players on reputation. It would have been nicer to play this year and hopefully have some success but the body wasn’t going to be able for it. I’m content with that.”

It was also the metaphorical heights that Gallagher lifted himself to that earned him such esteem. Predominantly a substitute in 2011, no player perhaps other than Éamon McGee had to work harder to impress Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher yet by 2014’s end he had collected a second All-Star in three seasons.

“This is nothing against the old management teams but we had won the championship with Glenswilly in 2011 and after that I didn’t take too much of a break. I trained hard and the bit of competitiveness and fitness came to me and I was saying to myself, ‘Jesus, I don’t want to be left behind’. There was great satisfaction in that, not proving Jim and Rory wrong but proving to myself that after 2011 I could get up to that level and make the starting team.”

For Donegal, what made 2011 different from ’12 were performances like Gallagher’s against Cork. They didn’t know they had it in them; McGuinness had to show them. “It’s referenced before that the Irish News had us ranked as 19th in Ireland in 2010. 

“For us to win Ulster for the first time in 19 years, it was huge. The Jim factor and Rory and that, it was massive. We trained a lot harder. A lot of us were around the 27, 28 mark and then we got the crop of young fellas from the U21s. I had trained and played with (Rory) Kavanagh, (Colm) McFadden, (Christy) Toye and the McGees all the way through and you knew they were great players.

“People will be on about the Cork game in 2012 and Dublin game in 2014 being brilliant days out but for me the best day was Mayo in 2012, obviously. As a player, that’s where you want to be, winning the top game at the top level.”

The visit of Dublin to Ballybofey tomorrow does jog thoughts of ’14. “Supporters have come up to me since and said, ‘that ’14 game was something unreal, the atmosphere, the game, the way we played.’ Some have even said it was better than the (2012) All-Ireland because it was such a great Dublin team.

“And it was a great performance. If Papa [Paul Durcan] hadn’t made that save from [Diarmuid] Connolly we could have gone well behind but we got the goals.

“It was great for the supporters but the fact we didn’t go on and win the final was a regret. Kerry were the better team and the best team always wins. As good a win as that was, the final (defeat) takes the shine off it.”

Still, to be part of only one of two teams that have ever claimed Ulster and All-Ireland titles from the provincial preliminary round, it wasn’t half-bad. 

“I was chatting to one of the players during the week and it was only then and seeing the text messages and social media that you realise how special the whole thing was. I’m privileged and grateful to have been part of the county set-up. It was unreal.”



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