Gallen the latest product from Donegal's conveyor belt of attacking talent
In the Division 2 League final in late March, not many bothered to make the long journey from Donegal to see their county eyeball Meath. With the match live on television, and Donegal having reasonable expectations of a prolonged Championship run, they may have been forgiven for staying at home for this one. Early on, when their team fell eight points behind, they must have regarded it a wise move. By the end they might have rued not being there to see Donegal play as well as they did.
The match had Neil McGee making his record 174th competition appearance for Donegal - he was introduced for a struggling young full-back, Brendan McCole, who was being torched by Michael Newman. On some days full-backs are hung out to dry by a lack of labour out the field but McGee's arrival seemed to steady and calm the Donegal last line. Meath continued to create goal chances but weren't as clinical and their dominance waned.
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At the other end of the scale was an 18-year-old in his first season who took to his maiden Croke Park appearance with no hint of fear or trepidation. Ballybofey's Oisin Gallen scored four points, to add to the four he'd nailed the weekend before against Kildare, and showed real promise: nimble, clever and effective off both feet. With Jamie Brennan shooting 1-2, the goal a brilliant effort involving the colossally effective Michael Murphy, Donegal's attack was in full song in the final stages. Brennan, also a talented hurler, and an Ulster medal winner at minor and under-21, finished Donegal's second leading scorer behind Paddy McBrearty last year heading into the Championship and has an exciting run of form leading into this one as well.
They were without McBrearty against Meath in March as he continued his recovery from the serious injury suffered in last year's Ulster final win over Fermanagh, Donegal's opposition this afternoon in their opening Ulster title defence. At the time of the League final, McBrearty was back in training and due to return to club football with Kilcar the following weekend. He is now firmly back in contention to reclaim a place in the full-forward line he graced before suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury last June.
Since taking over as manager, Declan Bonner has been a firm exponent of attacking football and he has players with the flair to execute it. McBrearty's return is much anticipated, their Championship prospects on winning Ulster cruelly diminished by his absence during a long recovery.
In Croke Park against Meath, Gallen, a recent injury concern, Murphy and Brennan shared 1-13 of Donegal's 1-17 total. Gallen is naturally right footed but has been practising with the left since a young age and there is no discernible difference when you see him shoot. Niall O'Donnell, another promising young player, scored 0-2 in the League final while Ciaran Thompson and Michael Langan are other forwards offering Donegal plenty of attacking options.
But Murphy, who underwent knee surgery at the start of the year, remains the fulcrum of the team's attacking play. Now aged 29, he returned for the League game against Armagh, making a late first half appearance and scoring 1-2 in a match Donegal won by a point at home. On the night he replaced Gallen after 28 minutes and made an instant impact.
Gallen didn't figure in the senior panel at the start of the season, being part of the county under-20 squad, but he was summoned when they were short players for the McKenna Cup. Having dipped his toes in that competition he made his first League start against Tipperary and created an immediate impression when scoring 0-3 despite Donegal's defeat, their first to Tipp in the League since 1981.
Gallen had a good first half in the match that followed against Fermanagh, scoring a point, but like many of his team-mates his impact diminished when Fermanagh took over after the interval. A week later Gallen was sacrificed against Armagh for Murphy, on the Donegal captain's comeback.
Gallen really caught the attention in Ballyshannon when they defeated Kildare, scoring 0-4, as Donegal earned promotion. On the same day Niall O'Donnell scored 0-3, form both young players carried into the League final the following weekend. Gallen turns 19 in July, more than ten years younger than Murphy. It gives Donegal hope that the county is still springing players of real quality, with Gallen the find of this year's League. A month before the League final he was on the DCU Freshers team beaten in the All-Ireland final.
"The defenders will get to know him and make things difficult for him," says Terry O'Reilly, chairman of Gallen's home club, Sean MacCumhaills. "But there is no doubt he will have a very bright future, he is not afraid to have a go, and he comes from a lovely family so his feet are firmly planted on the ground."
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