By Frank Craig
RORY Gallagher has taken a sort of philosophical view to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it’s affected his first season at the helm with the Derry senior footballers.
Upon picking up the Oakleaf reins back in September of last year, the Fermanagh native’s quick audit of his squad’s credentials immediately identified one obvious discrepancy. They lacked physique.
But enthused enough by the early signs, Gallagher had Derry sitting third in Division Three of the NFL when life as we all once knew it, came to the most abrupt end.
As the seriousness of the coronavirus began to become more apparent, frustration gave way to uncertainty. And as the weeks fell into months, Gallagher and his management team were beginning to accept that the entire season might well become a write-off.
Recognised as one of Gaelic football’s most cerebral coaches, Gallagher decided to use the playing lull to his panel’s advantage.
That initial inadequacy pinpointed was the absence of any real strength and conditioning base. And it was quickly decided to make up some of that lost ground during the playing lockdown.
“There were a number of things to it all,” he said. “You’d obviously like to keep going. I did find the beginning of the season very stop-start. Funnily, one thing I’d never dealt with before anywhere was the hurling.
“We’d the Slaughtneil and Coleraine lads involved there. There was also a situation, again new to me, where I just didn’t know all the players.
“When I was in Donegal, I knew everyone. Even the lads outside the set up and in the club scene. It was the same with Fermanagh.
“So we did lose a wee bit of that momentum of getting even more familiar with each other. But what we tried to do was use the time away as wisely as possible.
“Going forward, we’ve a very good understanding of where we’re at. The reality is, one of the things for Derry, particularly from the outside looking in, is there just hasn’t been a consistency in selection.
“There have been a lot of players opting in and out. What I’m looking for is to get 28 or 29 players that you’re likely going to use for a certain number of years.
“You see in Donegal, the consistency of the selection has been serious over the last decade or so. Even with Fermanagh, one of the obvious things there when I went in was that they were a group of players that were well down that road.
“A lot of them came in under Peter Canavan around 2012, ‘13. There was a good base. They already had consistently been doing a lot of good things.
“Yeah, there are times you don’t get the results you want but there is a certain starting point where you’re just further down the road.
“With Derry, as a group, they very clearly hadn’t been doing enough right as a unit. They’d admit that themselves. But there is a huge amount of players, aged between 19 and 23, that have tasted some level of success as minor and u-20 level.
“What I’d be looking for now is consistency with the group, consistency with doing the right things. That will build team spirit and that will hopefully then reflect itself in results, quality of performance and how we apply ourselves on the field.”
It’s likely then so that Derry will come out of this lockdown a much more physically formidable outfit. With months of accelerated strength and conditioning now under their belts, it’s going to be interesting to see if there is a change in their approach on the field of play.
Gallagher recalls the gains made by some of the younger and more lightweight contenders from his time with Donegal. There are no shortcuts.
It’s work that has, in the past, given the likes of Tyrone, Armagh and even Tir Chonaill as recently as 2012 that small and decisive advantage. But times have changed. If you’re to even tread water now at that level, it’s a basic requisite.
He explained: “In Division Three, when you don’t get off to the best of starts, you just want to get results. Your focus is forced onto the immediate and you can neglect the long-term.
“Again, going back to my time in Donegal, in 2016, we knew we were at the end of an era. A lot of the stalwarts from 2012’s All-Ireland success were moving on.
“We could see the athleticism, power and size of Tyrone at that time. Dublin, Kerry and Mayo were the exact same. We’d some serious potential in the likes of Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Jamie Brennan and Eoghan Ban Gallagher at the time.
“We took them into the set-up in 2015, ‘16 but it took them until around 2017, ’18 to really find their feet. Listen, physicality is a massive part of it. It’s just a base that has to be covered.
“It’s not something that can be done in a couple of weeks. It has to be done consistently over a period of time. And then it becomes second nature – part of the culture and fabric of the group.
“It’s just normal and they need little or no direction. It’s about maintenance then.
“And I find when you get to that point players like to do it because they’ve experienced the difference.
“It’s incredible. When I meet Jason McGee or Michael Langan now the change is massive. When they first came in I couldn’t tell them apart. They were two young scrawny big men!
“Now you see the size of them and the thickness they’ve added. And I often reference those lads when I’m explaining the process to young fellas just starting out on that road. You send lads out the door at the end of the season when you finish up. And three or four months later they come back in and you immediately see the change.
“That’s the standard now we’re looking to set. Derry, to be fair, have been really unlucky. Their big leaders, the (Chrissy and Karl) McKaigues and (Brendan) Rogers, they’d been away a lot with their clubs earlier in the year.
“But there is no hard luck stories with us, we just want to continue to do the right things.”
Derry, traditionally at least, are an Ulster powerhouse. But in the here and now they appear well off the coattails of the likes of Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to fathom how or why they’ve slipped so far off the level now needed to challenge for the Anglo Celt.
Again, from the vantage point of outside the Derry footballing bubble, we’re led to believe it’s because a ‘club comes first’ mantra is prevalent.
“Rightly or wrongly, a narrative exists that the domestic game there is firmly on the power pedestal that inter-county sides usually sit upon elsewhere.
For the uninitiated, it’s an understandable conclusion to draw. But Gallagher has a different rationale for Derry’s decline.
“I didn’t (think that). 22 or 23 years ago, myself and Raymond used to go to a lot of club championship matches around the province. We went to a lot of Derry ones. They were massive occasions.
“There was Bellaghy, Ballinderry, Lavey, Dungiven, they all won Ulster Club titles and All-Irelands. I was going up to Owenbeg for the last six or seven years for championship games.
“I don’t believe the level of physicality that was once there is there now. I know Slaughneil have been dominant and there definitely is a very good standard of footballer. There is no doubt about that.
“But I don’t think the game in Derry has been as physical as it was in the past. You go to Donegal and Tyrone club football and you do see it. So yes, they are very proud of their clubs.
“But that rivalry, where they had four or five clubs that all had genuine All-Ireland aspirations, that isn’t what it once was.
“The odds are much more stacked against them now. Slaughneil have got to finals but you have to go all the way back to 2001 and Ballinderry for their last win. That’s quite a wait for Derry.”
As well as his responsibilities with Derry, Gallagher is also on the Killybegs management team back at home in Donegal. 1992 All-Ireland winner John Cunningham is in charge of the Fishermen with Gallagher on board as trainer and assistant.
Again, you’re looking at another sleeping giant. But Killybegs are stirring once again. They jumped back to Tir Chonaill football’s top tier last season.
And at the weekend they recorded a fine challenge win over one of the current big hitters, Gaoth Dobhair. The likes of Hugh McFadden and Eoghan Ban Gallagher are driving that whole renaissance on.
The rejigged Donegal SFC draw is due to take place this evening (Thursday) and Killybegs can’t wait to see what comes their way there.
It might not quite be at the pace he sets for Derry, but there is a different kind of enjoyment and satisfaction attached to headway made at that level.
“It’s a big reason why I got involved there and indeed stayed involved. You feel you are providing something for lads that they enjoy. This year, it was always going to be exciting.
“We’re back at it now. And they are the sole focus at the prime time in the summer. It’s been so long since that was last the case for club lads.
“The boys had got back up to Division One after four or five years out of it. They were all looking forward to that. There is great enthusiasm and numbers. You see the energy and athleticism of Eoghan Ban and big Hugh. The reality of football now is that inter-county lads are just at a different level.
“But you can see the other boys being inspired and propelled by all of that. Again, you usually wouldn’t have that in any other season. So it can only bring the rest on. Seeing the other lads wanting to get to that level is a brilliant thing.
“It’s exciting in a very different way to see young players making improvements and to see them enjoying each other’s company. We’re just looking forward now to playing games and seeing where we’re at.”
History casts a long shadow in the port town. As well as club success, Killybegs also have four All-Ireland winners, including their manager, in their midst from Donegal’s first and historic success in ’92.
Having found themselves cast adrift as deep as Division Three at one point, you wondered if they’d ever scale those previous and dizzy heights again.
“Everyone involved in the club would have felt it (frustration),” Gallagher said on that demise. “It can be very humbling to find yourself slipping off the radar and down the divisions.
“But that was the reality of where they were at. No more than Derry, when you tumble down the ladder like that it’s usually because you haven’t done enough right over a consistent period of time.
“John is into his third season now. When we first spoke, he said this was a long-term thing. Chopping and changing at club level, you’ll just not get that traction. You have to have a group that, even if they don’t always agree on some things, want to push forward in a collective sense.”
Meanwhile, Gallagher admits that he feels a trick has been missed with the manner in which the GAA have decided to roll out the remainder of their inter-county season.
These unique times, he says, presented an opportunity for a reshuffle. But bar the removal of the ‘back door’ the manoeuvring was minimal.
Because of that, most of the gripes we’ve previously had surrounding our games will once again be prevalent when the status quo returns in 2021.
“It’s a tricky one. I think the provincial system, without a doubt, is uneven. But this is the thing. At the moment, it still means you’ve two chances to win something. You’ve an Ulster Championship and an All-Ireland.
“Being in Ulster finals or winning them has never been taken for granted. Local rivalry still plays a missive part in all of that. But all that aside, I do think this year was the year to trial something different.
“It was definitely an opportunity. You don’t know until you try something different.”
The jump to Division Two can still be made but the Oakleafers will need results elsewhere to go their way in the final two rounds of games there.
On the horizon is, of course, their Ulster SFC opener with a resurgent Armagh.
“It’s massive,” he said on that tangle with the Orchard men. “We’re looking at two sides that have enjoyed massive success in the past. Armagh look as though they are on the verge of a return to Division One. They’ve worked really hard.
“Again, and I know I’m repeating myself, but Kieran (McGeeney) has been consistent with the group of players he’s used and his backroom team.
“They haven’t had the success in Ulster that they’d have liked. But I’ve no doubt they’re hungry. And they’re edging to a point where they’re going to be able to start targeting provincial titles once again.
“I’ve come up against them on a number of occasions over the last few years.
“Personally, I’m looking forward to it. And I’ve no doubt our players are too.”