RORY GALLAGHER TOOK A look around a Letterkenny hotel room last month and was convinced by what he saw.
At the first assembled gathering of the 2016 Donegal senior football panel Gallagher, the manager, took stock of the jigsaw he’d pieced since Donegal were handed their coats and ushered to the exit of the 2015 season by Mayo in August.
While Paul Durcan, the goalkeeper, has gone to Qatar, there have been no retirements and Gallagher retains the hope that Durcan will be on the roster by the time the 2016 Championship is underway.
The defeat to Mayo was a crushing blow for a side that had lost the 2014 All-Ireland final by the width of a post to Kerry.
An ageing squad, it was said, had run its race, but Gallagher believes his panel is ready to challenge for silverware this time again.
“For sure, I do,” says the Beleek native.
“We’d like to think that if we’d have got over the line against Monaghan in last year’s Ulster final that the thing would have worked out a little differently.
“Maybe if we had a bit more belief in the squad…we could have rested some of the knocks we had for some of the games.
“We weren’t a million miles away and the margins were very thin. We beat Tyrone in the Ulster Championship last May and they very nearly got to the All-Ireland final.
“There isn’t a lot between the top eight or nine teams and I think that’ll be the case again this year.”
Significantly, none of Gallagher’s stellar names have stepped off the carousel.
By the time the Allianz League is up and running the likes of Eamon McGee, Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden, Christy Toye and David Walsh will either be back or on the cusp of returns.
The rest of the frontline troops will be in the Dr McKenna Cup’s unglamorous trenches.
“Those boys are huge,” the Donegal boss says.
“I’m delighted that everyone has stayed on. The ultimate aim I have now is to create some competition in the squad. We probably lacked that a wee bit last year, in terms of the 26-man panel and for the first 15.
“With everyone staying on and with the introcution of the new lads, we feel we have enough there to be really competitive.
“We have some players who are 30 or more but, look, they’re all in excellent shape and they all have plenty to offer. There are none of those boys who should even have been considering retiring.
“The core of the group is still in the twenties and they gave a huge role to play. When the experienced boys are rested, these fellas become the big men and they’ve already shown that they are comfortable with that role.”
Gallagher had an archer’s eye during the playing days and has taken a similarly precision-driven approach into coaching and, now, management.
Three years running – in 2000, 2001 and 2002 – he was the top scorer in the Ulster Championship while playing for Fermanagh.
In 2002, he scored 3-9 against Monaghan, a score that still stands as a record to this day, and he lit the touch paper to score 1-6 in a Man of the Match display against Donegal in 2000.
His performance spurred Fermanagh to their first championship win against Donegal in 64 years and included a goal lobbed past Tony Blake that was, until 2011, the most vivid image of Gallagher for Donegal’s supporters.
A talented all-rounder as a youngster, he captained the Northern Ireland Schoolboys team in soccer and had trials at Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers.
But Gaelic football was the blood that was in his veins and Gallagher was always studious to the world around him, something that Donegal players have noted since he took up the role as assistant to Jim McGuinness in 2011.
“Around half an hour into the first session, we knew we’d struck gold in getting Rory Gallagher on board,” Michael Hegarty once said and Kevin Cassidy agreed when he said: “For me Rory has it all: a great football brain, intelligent, compassionate, and most of all ruthless when needs be.”
12 new players were called into the squad by Gallagher, who let some of the fringe members of the 2015 panel go.
“My priority now for the McKenna Cup is moulding that group of young fellas with the players who have been serving us so well,” he says.
“We’ve been working on the style of play and on our understanding. We’re looking forward to getting up and running.
“These young lads will be top-class inter-county players and we want them to get there sooner rather than later. We want them to put pressure on the experienced core of men we have.
“I’d like to think that we’ll get the best out of them all.”Tags: