WHEN RORY Gallagher sat down to meet representatives of the Donegal County Board at the start of September, he knew that change was in the air.
Gallagher addressed the county committee meeting at the beginning of that month and already knew at that early stage that he was looking at a long-term project.
As far back as last April, he says, he was aware that Odhrán Mac Niallais was considering taking a year out in 2017; Colm McFadden and Eamon McGee had already retired; and he got a vibe that Christy Toye and Rory Kavanagh had been on the bus for a final time in the autumn; David Walsh’s injury troubles had caught up with him, too.
Anthony Thompson considered his options at length last winter and was in the doubtful bracked, while Leo McLoone’s body language at times last summer was that of a man that was on his last legs in the panel.
At a press conference in Ballybofey yesterday, Gallagher confirmed the retirements of Kavanagh, Toye and Walsh; as well as noting the already-revealed news about Mac Niallais, McLoone and Thompson.
“I’m really happy with the squad we’ve picked – we picked the squad in September and I knew these situations back at that stage,” Gallagher said.
“I’m delighted with the squad we’ve had. We’ve been working really hard. We have a lot of youth there and it’s all about moving forward.”
There was a sense of finality and the ending of an era as Gallagher read aloud the names, particularly those of Kavanagh and Toye. Between them, the pair wore the green and gold 309 times since making their debuts in 2001.
Eight players have left the Donegal panel since the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin in August and seven of those are All-Ireland winners from 2012.
As a pointer to the changing of the guard that Donegal has witnessed in the years since, ten of the 19 players who featured in the All-Ireland final win over Mayo in 2012 have since departed.
Gallagher met with Chairman Sean Dunnion, Secretary Aideen Gillen, Treasurer Ciaran Kelly, Assistant Treasurer Paddy Tinney and Ulster Council delegate PJ McGowan – the sub-committee appointed to liaise with the manager – in September and sought an extension to his tenure.
Clubs backed the new deal, giving Gallagher a three-year term with the option of a fourth year that, if activated, would take him to 2020.
“We talked about extending our term and that was with the new players in mind,” Gallagher said.
“We felt there was going to be a break up. It’s a challenge now to build a new team.
“There will be new players now in the League in the Championship.
“It is a big sea change of players coming in and out, but felt that it was going to happen.
“We knew in 2014 that there was 18 or 24 months in a lot of them, but it’s been very refreshing the energy of the young lads we have had in.
“They’re mad keen and they want to be in from day one. I’m very excited about it. We’re looking forward to new challenges.”
As things stand, 16 of Gallagher’s panel are under 21: Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Caolan McGonigle, Kieran Gillespie, Conor Morrison, Cian Mulligan, Stephen McBreatry, Christy Fildara, Rory Carr, Mark Coyle, Michael Langan, Brendan McCole, Jamie Brennan, Ethan O’Donnell, Jason McGee, Micheál Carroll and Enda McCormick.
The Donegal manager has introduced eleven new faces to his ranks, while he has welcomed Darach O’Connor and Michael Boyle back from cruciate injuries. The landscape is well altered with Gallagher also having changed his backroom team; and the initial soundings regarding the new trainer, Richard Thornton, are glowing from those who have trained under the Tyrone native so far.
Given the volume of departures from his panel, Gallagher is likely to be forced into blooding some of those young fledglings in the Allianz League next month.
He said: “They will get their chance every single night at training. If they are putting the hand up they have a great chance.
“There’s been a few new lads in over the last few years, but now there is a raft of them and there is a new dynamic there.
“We had them assessed physically and they’ve put in a lot of work. They’ve a lot done and you could see evidence of that on Sunday.”
While noting that ‘the door is open’ for Mac Niallais and Thompson, whose futures are unclear, there appears no way back for McLoone.
For the first time in years, the Donegal team that takes to the field this year will be a drastically changed one, although the manager believes they will still contest for the summer’s main honours.
He said: “We are a very ambitious group. We’re going to just put our head down and work hard every single night.”
Particularly with the retirements of Kavanagh and Toye, following Donegal for some will never be the same again and, whatever happens from here, we can say with certainty that the eras have now changed – and changed utterly.