Gallagher the missing piece in McGuinness' jigsaw – Hegarty
WHEN Michael Hegarty ambled through the gates of Páirc Eiméid in Castlefin in January 2011, he was met by a wink from a familiar face.
Hegarty was returning to Donegal training for the first time since 2009, after agreeing to give Jim McGuinness another go.
The sight of Rory Gallagher had Hegarty wondering: "What the hell is he up to?"
Gallagher lives in Killybegs, Hegarty in nearby Kilcar and the pair knew each other well.
It soon became apparent what Gallagher was 'up to'.
"Rory was very hands on, even on that night of his first session," Hegarty says.
"From day one, Rory wasted no time. He really got stuck in. Around half an hour into that first session, we knew we'd struck gold in getting Rory Gallagher on board."
News this week that the Fermanagh man was no longer part of the Donegal management has rocked the north-west.
Whether it was by his own accord or Jim McGuinness', Donegal have lost a man Hegarty describes as "the missing piece."
The former Tir Chonaill forward says: "Rory was a massive part of what Donegal were about this last three years. He brought so much to the table.
"When Jim was putting the jigsaw together, Rory was the missing piece.
"He was a massive influence on the players. He was such an intelligent player himself and he brought that intelligence, and more, to the Donegal dressing room."
Gallagher's tactical nous was said to be his greatest trait.
He had an almost forensic knowledge of the opposition. Donegal's players have spoken of the way he dissects opponents.
Mention the most obscure inter-county footballer to him and Gallagher could respond with an encyclopedic analysis of that player's strengths and weaknesses – right down to the hand with which he'd bounce a ball – and, in some cases, he even predicted, correctly, the changes that would be made during games.
"He was like that even with Donegal, in that he knew who the good players were; the ones who'd make the difference," says Hegarty.
"He was an outside man and had no preference for one player or the other.
"He was able to pinpoint things in the opposition, but these were things that you just wouldn't think about."
Gallagher was much more than just an assistant manager in Donegal.
Since McGuinness took up his role at Celtic FC last autumn, Gallagher has been dealing with most of the media requirements, outside of the official press days.
Gallagher was the point of contact to the Donegal footballers from the outside world and was often, especially in the weeks leading up to games, the man to whom the media would turn for injury bulletins and the like. Within the squad, Gallagher was also seen as a go-to man. Players who felt fatigued and wished for a little pardon would have knocked on Gallagher's door; players who had perhaps pre-planned events that clashed with a training session would first have visited Gallagher.
Those who have been close to the set-up estimate, conservatively, that Gallagher would have dedicated a 30-hour week to Donegal, on top of holding down a full-time job already.
He and McGuinness would speak for hours on end about all things football.
Gallagher's input into conditioning programmes, training schedules and recovery went beyond that of the traditional 'selector.'
At training, his influence was vast. He and McGuinness would have the players split in two groups who would compete against one another.
It fostered an ultra-competitive mind-set in the camp, but the meeting of these strong minds caused the earth in Donegal to move this week.
With McGuinness' schedule at Celtic reported to have got busier, there will be more onus on Gallagher's replacement. McGuinness and Donegal are in search of someone who, like Gallagher, will be more than an 'assistant'.
"It's a massive shock," says Hegarty. "I find it hard to see them getting someone of that calibre again to push them forward. Rory did so much so well."