Gallagher puts Donegal's Lilies epic into perspective
WHEN Donegal's Kevin Cassidy finally landed the telling punch that floored Kildare in an extra-time epic, it made for a stirring narrative.
It was the finish to a sporting contest normally only imagined inside the heads of Hollywood scriptwriters. Yet this was real, and ever since, the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final has been held up as the night Donegal became men.
Donegal's assistant manager Rory Gallagher, however, feels there is too much drama attached to that assertion.
The All-Ireland champions are set to meet the Lilywhites for the first time since that encounter on Saturday night when they open the National League in Croke Park.
Gallagher grew wistful when recounting the last game.
"That day started very dramatically, with Michael Murphy failing a late fitness test. It was a phenomenal win and it did help enhance our team spirit, but I don't believe it was that dramatic," he said.
"Our character and our team spirit and what we are about is built on our training nights and, yes, through games like that.
"It might not have been a classic with regard to skills, but for intensity, for will to win, for competitiveness and for honesty it was exceptional.
"But regarding it being life-changing for our team, I don't think so."
That night, Kildare died with their boots on, just as they had the year before in the semi-final against Down.
Manager Kieran McGeeney reminded us of how fine the margins are at the top end of Gaelic football when he recalled: "It's funny how sport turns. One point one way and everything goes for Donegal, one point the other way and it doesn't – that's sport."
Prior to that game, McGeeney's outfit had earned a reputation as being one of the fittest to ever line out on a football pitch. Donegal's exploits last year were built on supreme fitness and conditioning.
McGeeney provided some balance to the debate, saying: "It's funny – when you win by a point, you're so much fitter, better, stronger than everyone else.
"I think with Armagh in 2005 we went 17 games unbeaten in league and championship, we got beat by a point by Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final and suddenly everything we were doing was wrong and everything Tyrone were doing was right.
"There is a perception out there that every manager and coach is obsessed with fitness.
"If you came to our training sessions, there might be 10, 15 minutes out of an hour and a half where they're working on any kind of fitness work."
Given the tapering of the training embargo, Donegal were only permitted to return to training on December 29. By then, they were in holiday mode with a team getaway to Dubai.
Donegal took the decision to write off the McKenna Cup by playing a number of trialists and underage players, and Gallagher is fully prepared for a bumpy start to the league.
"We are going to be up against it in the first two games," he said. "Down and Kildare I'm sure were making the most of the time they were back training. They are going to be in better shape than us."
Given that Donegal lost their opening two league games last year to Down and Laois, there won't be lamentations if they lose on Saturday.
As All-Ireland champions, they already have one eye on the first hurdle in Ulster, according to Gallagher.
"Our ultimate goal is Tyrone on May 26. We need to be right for that. That is our focus."