Gallagher putting his own stamp on Donegal disciples
New boss has team heading in right direction after McGuinness departure
On the day before New Year's Eve, Rory Gallagher assembled his full Donegal squad in Downings, the Gaeltacht village on the Rosguill peninsula.
It was a crisp December day, and after the players had finished their session on the GAA pitch, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean across the bays of Sheephaven and Mulroy, they went down to the ocean to soothe the lactic acid from their legs and release the tension in their minds.
It was a new beginning because the wheel had turned full circle. When Jim McGuinness took over in the autumn of 2010, his first collective meeting with the players was in the Rosapenna hotel in Downings, which is within view of the GAA field.
McGuinness' four years in charge was a glorious era for Donegal football, but Gallagher's immediate priority was to ensure that Donegal's world stayed the same, that his predecessor's departure didn't signal the dismantling of football's new order.
McGuinness' project can easily be measured through the massive success he delivered, but the rich culture and ambition he embroidered into the soul of Donegal football left a far more indelible imprint than any amount of cups and medals.
He changed football. He completely altered Donegal's mindset. He made Donegal people immensely proud again of their footballers.
He established a template and level of professionalism which set the example for the Donegal squad as an entity, but its creation had been so organically systematic that that was Gallagher's starting point.
Could he maintain what Donegal had created? Could he grow it further? Could Donegal flourish under his management in the way they had flowered under McGuinness?
They were all legitimate questions given the way McGuinness' time in charge appeared to rhyme with the natural life cycle of this squad.
New players had rejuvenated the team last year but 12 of the panel had been around since 2006 and the digits on the collective mileage clock had been further increased with each grinding season under McGuinness.
The squad still has a decent age profile, while the landscape has been gradually changing behind them. Donegal have contested the last three Ulster U-21 finals and reached last year's All-Ireland minor final for the first time.
Yet the group Gallagher inherited, - and which he had helped McGuinness build and mould as his No 2 for three years - was still the squad around which his management would be framed and ultimately judged.
Although the details behind the split between McGuinness and Gallagher, and Maxi Curran, in 2013 were never publicly revealed, one of the reasons was believed to be the different philosophy Gallagher favoured towards the older players, and how their training template needed to be more specific as opposed to a collective approach.
Nobody could argue with the results McGuinness produced, but every player's training template had the same starting and finishing point.
Donegal trained harder than anyone else last year, but the toll on their bodies and minds was exacerbated over a long campaign and they were devoid of their normal intensity and energy in the All-Ireland final against Kerry.
Gallagher began his reign in December with a series of trial games, but the more seasoned players were allowed to recover from injuries, and a manically condensed club championship schedule, before being gradually eased back into the heavy work.
That flexible approach has also allowed Anthony Thompson, who is now based in Essex, to train on his own and return for matches.
McGuinness had been unique; nobody was expected to follow his lead but Gallagher was the best placed to tread in his footsteps. His key role in establishing the fundamentals of Donegal's system removed much of the concern associated with McGuinness' departure. His knowledge and close links with the players ensured continuity. But Gallagher had the ambition and confidence to forge his own identity as a manager.
Gallagher has long been acknowledged as one of the best tacticians in the game, blessed with a sharp footballing intellect. McGuinness proved his own tactical acumen last year, especially against Dublin, but Gallagher is even more of an ideal fit now in the evolving game that the Donegal beast initially unleashed.
Certain games this spring, especially the slugfest against Monaghan, added to the evidence postulated by Armagh and Kerry in last year's championship that Donegal struggle when teams tactically mirror their style.
Nobody will appreciate that requirement to keep evolving more than Gallagher, while also trying to keep some powder dry for the summer.
The flipside to that coin is how much more can Donegal evolve? How much can they really conceal?
Donegal have always believed the system is everything but they had become so conditioned by the system that they were eventually strangled by it in last year's All-Ireland final.
Even when they were trailing Kerry by three points late on, they were locked into defensive mode.
Gallagher will have recognised as much but there will be no real recalibration of Donegal's style now, just slight tweaks, some of which have been visible.
Frank McGlynn started at No 10 last week against Mayo. Neil McGee started at right full-back. Donegal won't start lumping high ball into the full-forward line but this league campaign has shown that Michael Murphy will probably be positioned closer to goal.
Murphy's role has long been a key topic of debate in Donegal. There were times last year when he carried the team on his back from a foraging role in the middle third.
Donegal have still often needed him closer to goal but running the risk of having Murphy tied up - as he was in the 2013 Ulster final - is a delicate equation they have tried to balance.
The runs he makes, and the attention he attracts, further allows Donegal to try and rip the seam in a blanket defence but they will still need to utilise him more than they did in that role last year. Murphy spent minimal time in the full-forward line against Kerry and when he did, Donegal only kicked two balls into him.
Patrick McBrearty also should have started that match. How would Kerry have coped with Murphy and McBrearty inside at the same time? Gallagher has already shown this spring that McBrearty is going to be one of his main weapons.
At the end of the season, Rory Kavanagh retired, Dermot 'Brick' Molloy stepped aside, while Leo McLoone hasn't come back, but the core of the team has still remained largely untouched.
Although more than a dozen new players were added to the league panel, Donegal started the same 17 players in their first four league games.
Gallagher has still left his own stamp in different forms. He cleaned out almost the entire backroom team from last year.
Having cleared the decks for the county team last summer, a round of club championship games after Donegal start the Ulster championship against Tyrone in five weeks is included on the fixtures plan.
The summer will offer a clearer vision of where Donegal are really headed, and whether they can maintain the momentum McGuinness generated, but the early indications have already been positive.
In terms of conditioning, they were well behind where they were this time last year but the seven points they accumulated in Division 1 was the most points they secured in the top division since winning it in 2007.
Under McGuinness, Donegal never picked up a point on the road in Division 1. Last week's draw in Castlebar was enough to put them into a league semi-final. Stephen Griffin, who landed the crucial equalising point, hadn't seen any significant game-time since the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final collapse against Cork.
Gallagher's personality will become more apparent on the squad as they develop and evolve but the level of professionalism that McGuinness instilled in the group is still their base template.
When they went on a team holiday to Dubai during the early-season break in February, no old or bad habits resurfaced with McGuinness or Gallagher not around to enforce the law. Murphy took them for a few early morning sessions to brush off any cobwebs.
At the beginning of 2014, there was a feeling with McGuinness and this group that the season was one final push. One last hurrah.
Now that McGuinness is gone, it would be wrong to assume that Gallagher's goals only extend as far as keeping the team competitive. He is highly ambitious. A winner who will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit for success.
Last year, Gallagher was involved with the Kilcar seniors. One evening during the summer, he was asked to talk to the U-14s before a county final.
Gallagher came into the meeting with a dossier on previous games, taking the young players through their strengths and weaknesses. Then he spoke to the youngsters about what they needed to do to become the players they could become at 16 and 17.
Donegal are in safe hands.
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