Back in early February, a rough Saturday evening couldn’t stop the former Antrim manager Frankie Fitzsimmons and his long-standing coaching partner Pat Hughes from making a trip down to Newry to see an old friend in action.
Playing and scoring two points from play from centre-forward was Owen Gallagher, formerly of Glenavy and Antrim, now of Moycullen and Galway.
“He was a big, raw lad when we had him but you can see him now, he has trimmed way down and he is in the shape of his life now,” marvels Fitzsimmons.
Tomorrow, Gallagher will walk out onto the Croke Park pitch with his Galway team-mates. It’s difficult to imagine whether there were any footballers from Antrim since the teams that reached the Finals of 1911 (played in January 1912) and 1912 who have featured on the biggest stage of them all.
And he has a chance of seeing action too. While he didn’t contribute against Derry in the Semi-Final, manager Padraic Joyce reached for him against Armagh.
He scored a goal against Leitrim in the Connacht Semi-Final and featured in the Final against Roscommon. Before all that, he was a regular throughout the National League, losing out on minutes only when Damien Comer regained fitness.
“He was unbelievable the night I watched him against Down,” recalls Fitzsimmons.
“I went onto the pitch afterwards to slag him, me and wee Pat, and his mum and dad were there. It was good to see him, and see him doing well there.”
The Gallaghers are a renowned family around those parts of Glenavy where Fitzsimmons has lived for years.
Owen’s father, also Owen, was Fitzsimmons’ own GP. The family’s sporting prowess extends to their brother Dominic, who played on the same Ireland Under-20 rugby team as Iain Henderson. The brothers also spent time in boxing and proved themselves adept.
“Owen is just a big gentleman,” smiles Fitzsimmons.
“I thought for a time he was going to be a priest. Whenever we went away for the weekend with the team, he was very set on getting to Mass.
“The Gaelic might have suffered with all that they were at, but Owen stuck to the Gaelic and it is good to see him doing well.”
Should Galway shock the bookies, Gallagher will be the only Antrim man with an inter-county Celtic Cross.
They have the game to do it, and the versatility. In manager Joyce, they have someone who feels there is a way to do things, but is also driven by pragmatism.
While there is a lazy shorthand out there that Galway are bound by tradition to be a free-wheeling band of swashbucklers, they turned their Semi-Final against Derry into a slugfest by mirroring the Oak Leafs’ defensive approach. In the end, two evenly-matched teams were separated by the brute strength and uncontainable nature of Comer, who scored 2-2.
But Kerry will be ready for them, largely in part due to the presence of another Ulsterman in Paddy Tally.
Here’s a stat for you. This will be the fifth time Tally has been involved in an All-Ireland Final.
In 1995, he was part of the Tyrone squad that reached the Final.
Eight years later, at just 29 years of age, he was the Tyrone coach that Mickey Harte had no problem appointing, despite the fact he was younger than some of the star names on the team such as Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn.
He was back there in 2010 as a coach with Down.
As manager of St Mary’s College, he led them to an unlikely Sigerson Cup success in 2017.
And after spells with Derry, Galway and as Down manager in his own right, he is still coaching away.
Much like Gallagher, he is also breaking new ground. Before Tally, there was never an Ulster figure that played for or coached Kerry.
But when Jack O’Connor came in for this year, he recognised the rag order the Kerry defence was in. Even when he was considering another year in Kildare before the Kerry post was opened, he had been on to Tally to give him a helping hand with the Lilywhites.
Circumstances changed, but for Tally to make a commitment to travel from Galbally to Currans outside Tralee to where the Kerry team train was unprecedented.
Those that have worked with him, though, have total faith in his abilities.
Enda McGinley, who was coached by Tally in 2003 for Tyrone’s first All-Ireland win, says: “He always appeared completely on top of his game and at ease in his surroundings, his sessions were clean and precise.
“His feedback and advice to players was equally so. He was able to give straightforward, blunt advice without it seeming critical nor condescending. It just was what it was.
“His entire aim was about improving the team and the individuals within it and it was clear he loved that challenge, particularly when he saw a group eager to take it on. He was also at that time, and ever since, hungry to learn and critique his own work, seeing ways that things can be improved.”
There are no secrets in the modern game of course, but Kerry have the added inside knowledge that Tally possesses from his time coaching Galway in 2018 under Kevin Walsh; a season in which they were beaten by Dublin in the League Final and All-Ireland Semi-Final.
“Kerry, even or especially for Tyrone men, remain the blue bloods of our game,” says McGinley.
“To work with them directly, to see inside their culture and their mindset, to get to work with the David Cliffords, Sean O’Sheas and Tom O’Sullivans, to work alongside Jack O’Connor, all of that would be just too good a chance to turn down.
“Tally himself is simply a master trainer. He demands the absolute most from his trainees, and if his remit is tackling and defensive set-up then you can be sure that Kerry will not lack in that regard.”
Alongside Tally in Down as selector was Brian McIver. The two later hooked up again in Derry, when they got to a League Final in 2014, beating Dublin at home along the way.
McIver carries similar admiration for Tally’s abilities, but always feels he is either misinterpreted or misrepresented.
“Paddy’s record has been top-class. Everybody just assumes that Paddy concentrates on the defence,” explains McIver.
“But Paddy is very good at getting a team to play as a team, how to transition.
“People can talk whatever they like, but Galway went out in the first half and decided that Derry were not going to score any goals, that they were going to keep this dead, dead tight.
“The whole chat if they won a Final would be that Padraic Joyce came in and changed the whole philosophy to be all-out attack. It’s not at all.
“He has them playing really, really well but whenever needs must, he had them playing very defensively (against Derry).”
For all that, there has been a transformation in the Kerry defensive strategy. Last year they conceded six goals in four League games. They conceded goals against Clare, Tipperary and Cork in the Munster Championship before leaking three dreadful goals against Tyrone as they were knocked out of the All-Ireland Semi-Final.
This year? Two goals from play — both Goal of the Season contenders — one in the League through Tyrone’s Darren McCurry, and another in the Semi-Final win over Dublin via Cormac Costello.
The evidence is there that Tally has tightened up the Kerry defence considerably, no doubt with the help of other coaches Mike Quirke and Diarmuid Murphy.
But a Kerry team using a Tyrone man to get to the promised land? Quite something.