Neil Gallagher was always uncomfortable under the glare of the media spotlight.
Even when he was the Donegal captain, in 2007, he hated doing interviews.
They were a necessary evil for the Glenswilly man and you felt that it was a big relief when he could decline the requests and dodge the media engagements when Kevin Cassidy took the armband in 2008.
“I wouldn’t be volunteering anyway,” Gallagher explained after surprisingly turning up at one such gig in 2015; as an eleventh-hour replacement.
“I don’t bother doing them too much. I just like to focus on the game and worry about that sort of stuff afterwards. If you say nothing, you’ll say nothing wrong.
“It’s not something I’m too interested in. The time for talking is when you win something.”
A colleague tells the story of encountering Gallagher in a coffee shop in New York on the All-Star trip in 2012 and of coming face-to-face with ‘the most intelligent football brain around’.
The journalist chanced his arm and was rubbing his hands when Gallagher – an All-Ireland winner and All-Star midfielder at that stage – agreed to a one-to-one interview the following day.
24 hours later, a different Gallagher appeared and the writer in question fed off scraps for what he’d promised his Sports Editor would be a blockbuster: “It was if the sight of the dictaphone and knowing he was doing an interview just closed him off completely. It was unbelievable the difference.”
Gallagher is probably shuffling uneasily since the news broke of his retirement and the social media tributes started to flow.
— Glenswilly GAA (@GaaGlenswilly) February 20, 2017
Rory Gallagher’s mind goes back to 2012 and a game against Cork.
Not the All-Ireland semi-final, but a League game that March. Donegal had lost their opening two League games and were in a tight spot when Cork arrived in Ballybofey.
Within six seconds of the throw-in, Gallagher arrowed a ball into the edge of the square and Michael Murphy netted a goal. Donegal won 1-6 to 0-6.
“If we’d lost that game, and things were difficult, you wouldn’t know what way the season could have gone,” Rory Gallagher said this week.
In 2011, Neil Gallagher was very much a peripheral figure on the Donegal team.
So much so that there were questions surrounding his future that winter. But after aiding Glenswilly to their first Donegal SFC title, Gallagher came back a transformed man.
The Donegal manager said: “He did a lot of unseen work. Physically, he was always there and he was a very good tackler. What will stand to me is his use of the ball, whether it was to sell a dummy, give a pass or deliver a long ball into Murphy.”
Gallagher owned the summer skies in 2012 and was an All-Star, having delivered one of the finest performances by a Donegal player of an era, dominating the aerial joust against Cork in the semi-final.
Rory Gallagher said: “From a point of view of running the game, it was exceptional. He had that art of timing. Barry Moran was going well coming into that final in 2012 (against Mayo), but Neil won that battle for us.
“That display in 2012 was top class.”
Gallagher worked at his game and forced his way into Jim McGuinness’s plans in 2012. He always seemed to have time on the ball and had an almost telepathic understanding with Murphy.
The two are big friends off the field and Gallagher is a partner in Michael Murphy Sports & Leisure.
“There’s the ability to get people to follow him: I mean, he just inspires the players and he lifts everything around him,” Gallagher said of the Donegal captain two years ago.
“He has a great drive for football and trying to be the best player that he can be.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of him as regards the leadership he shows.”
Gallagher was in many ways reinvented after McGuinness became manager and Murphy took over as the team’s leader.
He added to his skill set simply because he had to. He could sense, in those months at the end of 2011, that he was on borrowed time and in danger of being cut adrift – but he came back to become one of the most effective players the following year.
It was a testament to the man.
The hard graft never phased him and he could always lead – It was one of the reasons Brian McIver, the Donegal manager, gave him the captaincy in 2007.
That spring, he became the first Donegal man since Anthony Molloy to climb the Hogan Stand’s steps to accept a National title, as Donegal defeated Mayo in the Division 1 League final.
The image (left) is iconic. Gallagher shipped a heavy hit during the game and took the silverware while heavily bandaged and sporting a badly swollen left eye, before calling for, in his acceptance speech, for Eamon McGee to ‘sing a wee song’.
Indeed, Gallagher kicked Donegal’s last point in the 2012 All-Ireland final win over Mayo, gliding over at the Davin End after striding onto a pass by Frank McGlynn.
Rory Gallagher met him one day in late 2013 and he contemplated bowing out then.
The Donegal manager said: “It was just no fun if he couldn’t give his best. That year we were wiped against Mayo and he didn’t enjoy playing when he wasn’t fit to give his best.”
His last act in a Donegal career that spanned 140 games was in a League outing last March against Roscommon. He never fully recovered from a back injury that halted him that afternoon.
His return to action, even with minimal training and despite far from full fitness, helped turn Glenswilly’s fortunes and in a few weeks they went from no-hopers to county champions.
Gallagher will be content when the spotlight turns away from him but even when that light dims, his standing as the greatest midfielder this county will remain.
Some man for one man, as Murphy aptly put it, Big Neil was the man for the big day.Tags: