New conductor drawing an old tune in Donegal
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
Jim McGuinness stepped down as Donegal manager on the first Friday of last October.
Rory Gallagher was appointed as his replacement on the last day of the same month.
In between Donegal learned that their journey back to a fifth successive Ulster final would require wins over Tyrone, Armagh, Derry or Down and then, most likely, Monaghan once more in a final.
The pitfalls attached to being 'next man in' after an iconic and ground-breaking managerial figure like McGuinness had multiplied in one evening.
In four years of McGuinness' stewardship they won 13 of their 14 Ulster Championship matches.
Now this draw, this gradient across football's most treacherous slope. There was plenty of time to make excuses. People would understand.
Donegal's distant pastures have been greened by their visit to an All-Ireland minor final last year and three successive Ulster U-21 finals. This year's minor team is reputed to be something special.
Three years' time might constitute perfect timing for a prospective manager with pieces to be picked up perhaps.
But Gallagher didn't flinch. This was the job he wanted. This was the time. These were the players he felt association with. And he had a head-start that no other candidate could take the same leverage from.
"There is no doubt it (the draw) made it a greater challenge but I had made up mind that it was something that I wanted to do," he recalled.
"I had three great years working with the boys previously which were very rewarding. I looked at the potential of our team and I made up my mind regardless of the draw.
"The reality is that there are very few teams in the country that would be as attractive as Donegal," he reflected.
As attractive as reigning All-Ireland champions?
"That is a question that never came up. We can't wonder about that. The reality is that the evidence would suggest probably not, you know."
If the scale of the draw was one obvious impediment to saying no, so too was the investment of time over the previous four years that most of these players put in.
McGuinness pulled from a core group of 22 players for his 24 matches, using just 33 players in that period. That suggests a lot of mileage, on top of the road some of them had already travelled prior to 2011.
"If you look at this group of players there is no doubt that nine or 10 of them have been on the road a long time, some since 2003, 2004," admitted the former Fermanagh footballer, now resident in Killybegs.
"But that has also strong plus points. They are a very close knit group of players and have a good understanding of each other.
"They have good relationships with each other on the field so I am not just talking off the field. They are also at a stage where they are very comfortable in each other's environment and they challenge each other and push each other on."
He feels it was wrong to assume a mass exodus after last year's Kerry defeat and then McGuinness' departure less than three weeks later.
"What age do you retire at? There are none of the lads 33 and I am not sure if any are 32 at this stage. Rory (Kavanagh) was the oldest. Thirty-two now, if you look after your body and the (players) are more educated than ever about that, is not too old.
"People probably think that they are older because they have been playing from such a young age. The McGees have been in since they were 19, Murphy has been in since he was 17, Neil Gallagher has been in since he was 20/21, Karl Lacey has been in since he was 19. That leads to the perception that they are older than they are.
"Everyone is different. Pace goes at different stages. Will Patrick McBrearty still be at the level he's at now at 33? He's at it since he was 17. Will he be happy to get 10 great years out of it?
"Patrick is already into his fifth season and Michael is in his ninth. The reality is that everyone is different. Brian O'Driscoll got a hell of a run at it. Gordon D'Arcy as well.
"I can't see why, if you look after yourself and your own commitments allow you to, that you can't be able to do it (play inter-county football in your 30s).
"Players now are looking after themselves far better than they ever did. You only have to look at Aidan O'Mahony and Marc O Sé. In my opinion they were better players in 2014 than they were in 2011."
But any consensus on this Donegal team is that time is not on their side. Gallagher doesn't, however, feel an overwhelming need to succeed in his first year in charge.
"I don't actually feel that it is my first year in. It might be my first year in the role as manager but I don't feel it that way. No matter what, I feel that this year, here and now, is the one to make the impact.
"No doubt, some of our players will not be there in two or three years' time. They have a lot less left in the tank. Unfortunately, it is not like other provinces where you can say that they will be at the business end. We might not even be in the first round proper in Ulster."
Mark McHugh this week described Gallagher as the "most intelligent football man" he knew.
He made a conscious decision when he took the job to commit to as much of the coaching of the team as possible but the fundamentals of what have been in place for the previous four years will remain.
"I think there's a myth out there. In the three years I'd been involved and this year now, we've never trained more than two nights on a Monday to Friday basis. It's never happened," he said.
"Some 90pc of those sessions have been Tuesday/Thursday. People can look at the records in Castlefin and Convoy to verify that. Yes, we go into the weekends and sometimes we train on a Saturday or Sunday if there is no club fixtures.
"But like anyone that wants to look after themselves to any degree, you'll do that. If you're a runner, you'll run three times a week."
The on-field hierarchy has remained in place too, Michael Murphy the natural born leader.
Murphy encountered some discipline issues at the beginning of the year and became the first player to pick up three black cards in a campaign.
But rather than jump automatically to his captain's defence, Gallagher likes to think that Murphy has 'tidied up' his contact side of his game.
He does however feel that Murphy can be a victim of "gamesmanship" that referees need to see through.
"There is no doubt that he got a number of cards and a number of them he deserved, but there were one or two that were questionable. If you look at another player and see did they get the same sort of treatment, they did not get it.
"Michael works very hard on all aspects of his game and I think he has completely tidied up because he had been ordered off the field twice in his first three games. He worked on it, he improved on it.
"Being the size he is, I think some of the tackles look worse than they are.
"He has a huge work-rate and that inevitably will lead to a few more fouls.
"When you see his frame, when you stand next to him and see him togged out, you see how big he is. The reality is that he is very much targeted by opposition.
"He is a key player and some will inevitably make more of it. That is natural, that is gamesmanship and it is up to the referee to see that."