Donegal assistant manager Rory Gallagher has admitted that errors by management contributed to their defeat in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin last year, but getting the chance to correct that has spurred them on all season.
“We made mistakes on the line,” admitted Gallagher at the recent Press night in Jackson's Hotel, Ballybofey.
“There's no doubt we should have went for it a wee bit more, especially when Rory O'Carroll went off, we should have pushed Michael inside.
“But these things happen. That was hard to live with all over the winter. Apart from all the criticism, that was the hardest part for us. The fact that we were so close and it's a long road back without any guarantee that you will ever get back.”
While Gallagher talks of the long road they had to travel to make it back to this stage, he sees how the games leading up to last year's All-Ireland semi identified a key weakness in their approach.
“Prior to that,” he says, “the scoring rate hadn't been good. 1-7 against Kildare [in normal time], 1-11 in a game we fairly much dominated against Derry [Ulster final], 2-6 against Tyrone. We weren't scoring enough, but we didn't expect to put up a big score the way we approached the Dublin game to be honest. We thought ten points might have been enough to win it.
“There was a need all year to put more scores on the board but Rome can't be built in a day. It's probably easier to sort things out at the back, we aren't the only ones to have done it, it was done 12, 13 years ago, but obviously there is an improvement up front.”
To date, Donegal have racked up an impressive 6-87 [105 points] in their six games in this year’s Championship. Last year they played the same amount of games and scored what seems now to be a paltry 7-58 [81 points]. To put that into sharper focus, their scoring average per game has climbed from 13.5 points per game to 17.5 points.
Far from the lazy analysis of many, which is to suggest that Donegal have, to use that ridiculous expression, ‘tweaked their system', Gallagher sees the improvement in the scoring return as down to fundamental factors.
“I suppose it's the way the lads are getting up the field and the quality of the decision-making,” he muses.
“I don't think it should go unnoticed that Donegal won the National League in 2007 and they were coming from a reasonable base with All-Ireland under-21 finalists in 2010.
“But they are expressing themselves now and they have a lot of confidence and belief. That comes from the work they have done in Castlefin, [and] Ballybofey. We see it night after night so it's not a big shock to us.”
A common misconception that many have when they talk about the management team of Jim McGuinness and Gallagher is that they shared a friendship from years previous, but as Gallagher explains; “I, would have played against him a couple of times in college games and a couple of times in county games. Met him on the odd night out but neither of us would remember much about them.”
Having first played for Fermanagh as a 16-year-old, Gallagher has always displayed an ambition that might have exceeded his immediate surroundings and circumstances.
On his introduction to Donegal, he recalls, “I got a call, Jim had to get a guy in with him.
“I was living in Donegal and had done a wee bit in Killybegs, was friendly with Martin McHugh and had done a bit with his club.
“I suppose Jim was looking somebody, we met one day and we felt we clicked. We tried it is as a trial and said ‘we'll see how this goes.’”
As a player for St Gall's, Rory and his brother Ronan became the first Fermanagh men to win senior All-Ireland medals as playing members.
This Sunday, he stands to become the first Fermamagh man to pocket a Celtic Cross if Donegal can pull it off.
Although he may laugh off the suggestion, the long-term hope for those in Fermanagh would be for him to someday emerge as the county team manager. Until then, he has a massive job on his hands.