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Gallagher and O'Rourke pointed the way

By Declan Bogue

Just before 2pm tomorrow, two men from opposite ends of Fermanagh will shake hands on a Clones sideline before their teams go to war.

There hasn't been time for it, but Donegal manager Rory Gallagher and Monaghan's Malachy O'Rourke might have been forgiven over the past few weeks of casting their minds back 20 years to a cold winter afternoon in the old Tuam Stadium, when Gallagher made his debut for Fermanagh's senior team as a 17-year-old schoolboy, joining O'Rourke on the pitch.

Essentially, Gallagher was the long-term replacement for O'Rourke as the creative hub and free-taker on the three-quarters line.

Gallagher wasn't fazed by reputations, but studied a few things about O'Rourke - how he carried himself, his relentless practice of free-kicks at their training base of the Lakeland Forum.

His exceptional commitment to training rubbed off on Gallagher, who adopted a policy with his cousin Raymond and later passed down to Rory's younger brother Ronan, that no matter how hard training was, they would never drop out.

When O'Rourke transferred to play for Errigal Ciaran, Gallagher could still keep an eye on him as his mother hails from Ballygawley and his uncle, former Irish League soccer player Eamon Kavanagh, was a prominent Errigal player.

Their former team-mate Paul Brewster was a high-profile county man who had plenty of time to admire Gallagher, who played on several St Michael's school teams with his own brother Tom.

Brewster was immersed in the developing trend of sports science in Gaelic Games and in O'Rourke and Gallagher, he had kindred spirits.

"The two boys were always good football men. You can play with some people and know they think about the game, they think and work about it and figure it out. Then there are others who just play," Brewster began.

"Malachy was one of the established players when I started out. He knew what was going on."

Professor Peter Finn at St Mary's was a big influence on O'Rourke as they pulled off a remarkable Sigerson Cup victory in 1989.

Brewster's club and county team-mate John Reihill was on that team and carried stories of how advanced Finn was.

On the county scene, Fermanagh manager Hugh McCabe brought bring in Benny Burns, a schoolteacher from Enniskillen who trained the Tyrone team to the 1986 All-Ireland final to tap into cutting-edge methodology.

"Benny introduced all that science. Malachy bought into it straight away because he was hoping someone like this would come along," recalled Brewster.

But once McCabe left the job, former Meath player Terry Ferguson came in with a more traditional approach.

Gallagher said: "There was very little science for us in that period. We did an awful lot of running under Terry.

"I remember there was an old cross-country course at St Michael's. A lot of the pre-Championship training was there.

"People would tell you now that it would only slow you down. We weren't to know that then. We had very little knowledge."

O'Rourke, the student who based his thesis on the Vo2 Max capacity of inter-county footballers, became disillusioned.

Brewster added: "When it came to the likes of Terry's training, there was no science to it.

"You could definitely sense that frustration in Malachy.

O'Rourke hung about for the start of Pat King's spell in charge and he brought an All-Ireland 'B' title and a McKenna Cup win, beating Tyrone in the final in his first year.

Gallagher was establishing himself, but while you might think he was tapping up the senior players for information…

"Quite the opposite," Brewster laughed.

"When you are into it and you want to absorb it, Rory was a bit like Malachy, asking himself 'how can I improve?'

"In Pat's first year, we had Limerick away in a league game.

"I was living up in Belfast and Rory was playing soccer on the Saturday with Portadown at the time.

"He was under Ronnie McFall, one of the top sports managers at the time.

"Now, I had been in Queen's and was picking up stuff from boys like Anthony Tohill and Kieran McGeeney, boys like that, but I was picking Rory's brain on the way down to Limerick after collecting him for the drive down.

"While he was still a teenager, his mine of information even then was way ahead of established players."

In later years, Gallagher won an All-Ireland club title with St Gall's on St Patrick's Day in 2010.

The final was on a Wednesday. By the Sunday, 'Rooster' was togging out at centre-forward for O'Rourke's Fermanagh side, his first game back since the 2005 All-Ireland qualifier defeat to Down.

"I would say Malachy regrets it," recalled Gallagher recently, adding: "I missed a penalty at a crucial time! We ended up getting relegated. I think we were in a bit of bother. We were on our way down."

The team were indeed on their way down - to Division Four - and the magic of O'Rourke's first year in charge had vanished. But he still saw enough of Gallagher to make up his mind.

On that period, O'Rourke recalled: "Rory wasn't vocal in an overpowering way or anything else.

"I always found him to be a very smart fella and anytime you chatted to him or asked him things I always found him to be very smart, and he was obviously a very smart footballer.

"I always knew he would be very interested in coaching and that he would go on and be a good coach."

Maybe things could have been very different if O'Rourke had invited Gallagher to county trials in late 2007 and he had been the eight out of 10 freetaker that would have delivered their first Ulster title in 2008.

Neither man is prepared to go there nowadays.

Brewster stated: "Ifs and ands are pots and pans."

The county continue to hunt for their elusive first provincial title.

Meanwhile, the only Ulster-winning manager from Fermanagh and the man with the highest-ever scoring tally in an Ulster Championship match go head to head with their adopted counties in the provincial showpiece tomorrow afternoon.

It's a small world, Ulster football...

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