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Ulster SFC Final Fermanagh v Donegal: Gallagher's journey can inspire the Ernemen to glory

 

By Declan Bogue

After Fermanagh's incredible Ulster semi-final win over Monaghan, young Seanie Gallagher, all four and a half years of him and shoulder-length hair, was plopped into daddy's arms.

It's something we have seen over the years, victorious managers with their children - or in then Derry boss John Brennan's case after the 2011 semi-final win over Armagh, grandchildren - but it was the first time we had seen it with Rory Gallagher, who will aim to lead Fermanagh to their first Ulster Championship success against Donegal tomorrow - their sixth time in the final.

When he started this managerial business, coming in as Jim McGuinness' assistant at Donegal for the 2011 season, he and wife Nicola had no children. Now, they have Lucy (six and a half), Seanie and Ali (2).

"They are at the games and they are well switched on to where daddy is going," Gallagher smiled.

"I don't know whether they know what is going on or not, but they are excited by the build-up to it and it means a lot to everybody."

With McGuinness, Gallagher climbed the mountain and won an All-Ireland in 2012, two years after he claimed an All-Ireland Club title as a player with St Gall's of Antrim.

It could be said that he had no further ambitions to realise before a delegation of Fermanagh footballers approached him shortly after he stepped away from Donegal, where he had taken the top job after McGuinness' exit, last summer.

Not even six weeks had elapsed since his resignation before he was confirmed as the new Fermanagh manager.

From that point on, a lot of work has gone into making the Ernemen credible challengers. They have now reached their sixth ever Ulster final. And who would join them in the decider but of course Donegal.

"Being from Fermanagh, I don't think I would have been too interested in anything else," Gallagher reflected.

"It was probably something in the back of your mind that you wouldn't have minded doing once and I was a long time gone from living in Fermanagh.

"I was approached by a couple of the players, there was no manager in place at the time. I looked at the age profile of them. They are not a young, young team. The majority of them are all out of college and they are fairly steady, disciplined lads in their life and very focused on their football.

"That appealed and it maybe was the time to do it, rather than looking forward to a break, do this and that for a couple of years and then see how it goes with them."

It's a curious thing. You could never mistake Gallagher for a sentimental type, but something about being on the playing fields in Fermanagh again has awoken dormant memories involving his playing days with Erne Gaels, with old opponents now club chairmen, opening up changing rooms and facilities for the county team.

He recalled: "I went through a period of 15 years where I spent very little time around Fermanagh. An odd weekend around Christmas and that, but even when I was involved with Donegal, it would have been minimal because you had no real spare time.

"You are starting to see faces that you remember from a long time ago and people who would have moved on with their lives and had kids and one thing or another.

"It brings back memories of games you played, going right back to under-age and thoughts like that. It wouldn't have come into your mind space over the last number of years, wee trigger points are going off in your head."

As a player, Gallagher asked questions of the management teams he played under. Sometimes it worked out beautifully, with his St Gall's manager Lenny Harbinson trusting him enough to allow him to shape team tactics, but other times his honesty grated.

Despite being the top scorer in the Ulster Championship for three consecutive seasons without even reaching a final, his Fermanagh career was stop-start and only amounted to six summers. A season with Cavan in 2007 was unsatisfying. And when John O'Neill, a former selector with Mulgrew, became Fermanagh manager for the 2011 season, Gallagher realised his county career was over.

But he had won enough in spells with St Brigid's (the Dublin and Leinster senior Championships of 2003), a Sigerson Cup with Sligo IT where his strong relationship with manager Martin McHugh began, and an Antrim, Ulster and All-Ireland with St Gall's to understand what made a successful team click.

Not everyone in Fermanagh shared those traits. But the core group of players have been on the go under management structures that appealed to Gallagher in making his decision to return.

"I would have to say, I looked at the two previous managers these players had, Pete McGrath and Peter Canavan, and that was a big part of it as well. These boys came in under Peter Canavan and got into good habits," he said.

"A strong base was built so I didn't see it as going in and starting from scratch by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, I felt that there were things I would like to do better, but everybody comes in with a different point of view. I felt there was a very good base and it might have taken them a while to get used to myself and Ricey (Ryan McMenamin), Shane (McCabe) and Ronan's methods, and the way we wanted to do things."

If you were in his shoes, you might see no way out of football. His work is as manager of the Supervalu store in Killybegs, which he has lived a stone's throw from for the last several years.

"Customers don't go easy on you," Gallagher laughed.

Right now, it's the turn of Fermanagh to be gripped by a fever.

Gallagher said: "Fermanagh is almost unique in that they have never won it and there is a desperation from that.

"The community generally involved in Gaelic football in the county is small and nearly everybody will know somebody involved in the team or somebody will have a connection.

"I think the self-worth of those people will go on for the next couple of weeks and we are looking forward to it."

It's a hysteria, but a hysteria worth embracing.

Belfast Telegraph

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