Wednesday 24 January 2018

Gallagher hoping big brother Rory gets his fill from Fermanagh

Former Erne No 1 believes the Donegal manager's native county will cause his team plenty problems

Ronan Gallagher at home with sons Shay (wearing the Donegal colours) and Joe (in the Fermanagh jersey)
Ronan Gallagher at home with sons Shay (wearing the Donegal colours) and Joe (in the Fermanagh jersey)

Declan Bogue

Ask Ronan Gallagher if he thought his brother Rory was always going to be a coach, and he brings up the story of the Belleek Erne Gaels under-16 side he played on and won a Fermanagh 'B' Championship.

Rory was just over the age limit, so instead he managed the team. "Calling the shots," as Ronan puts it. Just 20 years on, the brothers find themselves on either side of tomorrow's game in Ballybofey, Ronan rooting for Fermanagh, Rory wearing Donegal's bainisteoir bib.

Growing up, the two boys would spend summers at their uncle Raymond's farm out the Kesh Road. There, cousin Raymond and Rory would thump the ball at each other, then at Ronan in goals for hours.

As the three sprouted, they could see no reason they wouldn't be successful on the pitch. In 1992, Raymond won a MacRory Cup title and Rory was the main man for the Corn na nÓg win for St Michael's, Enniskillen. A few months later they all hopped across the border to line the streets of Bundoran for the Donegal All-Ireland homecoming celebrations.

By 14, Rory was already corner-back on the county minor team. Two years later, he was playing senior county football. At 25 he had a lifetime of football played and pulled the plug on his county career. He won a Dublin SFC medal with St Brigid's, pulling the strings from centre-forward - still feeding the bullets for cousin Raymond in the corner to fire.

The season after Rory withdrew, Raymond was Fermanagh captain, Ronan was in goal. They played in Croke Park twice in 2003. They came back in 2004 and beat Donegal (again), Cork, Meath (again), and Armagh. They came within seconds of an All-Ireland final, losing to Mayo after a replay.

One question that many still ask is what those teams, and the Ulster final side of 2008, might have done with Rory Gallagher on their team.

"It's easy to say if he had have been about we would have done this, that and the other. But I don't think us not winning an Ulster title was down to not having Rory," asserts Ronan.

"Nor, the All-Ireland semi-final (2004). It wasn't down to Rory or other players. Paul Brewster, Mickey Lilly, Kieran Gallagher and others had all left. The other thing to think about is the group dynamic, who is to say?"

In 2010, an All-Ireland title in the blue of Belfast club St Gall's arrived for both of them as an unexpected surprise. Ronan had been with the Milltown men for years when Rory's work in recruitment took him to Belfast. Rory found kindred spirits in the club with out and out 'ballers' like Sean Kelly and Kevin Niblock, playing a possession-type game. He also had a manager in Lenny Harbinson who could listen to, and successfully implement his acutely-developed ideas.

"It was something to savour and for our family. For the club of St Gall's, it was fantastic," Ronan recalls, before revealing; "Rory hung me out to dry the following night. He went on down to the Fermanagh training and I wasn't at it," he laughs and uses the euphemism: "I was at the 'pool'" - the kind of pool that has a mahogany counter, a till and beer pumps, of course.

"If the shoe had have been on the other foot, I would never have heard the end of it."

That Sunday, both Gallaghers were in the Fermanagh line-up as they lost to Wexford. Rory scored five frees but missed a penalty. A neat microcosm of his career in emerald green.

Rory was gone by the end of the year, Ronan hung on until he found himself training in early 2014 and found he hadn't the appetite any more, knowing that Pete McGrath was thinking in terms of a three or four year strategy.

He is quick to note it wasn't any sense of 'indentured slavery' that forced him out. "You still would laugh when you hear people talking about this increased demands and all of that. I think it's nonsense," he says. "The fellas who are playing county football know how privileged they are and they love doing it."

Principal of Knocknagin Primary School, outside the village of Desertmartin in Derry, Ronan commute from his Armagh home where he lives with wife Catherine and four children: Grainne (5), Joe (4), Shay (18 months), and little Micheál is seven months.

He's also in charge of Madden as they sit one point off the top of the Armagh senior football league. As for Fermanagh, he likes what he sees. "For me, the first thing about it is they are serious about their football," he observes.

"When you watch that Fermanagh team there is a serious likeability factor about them… Their workrate, their energy. They are certainly talented."

He namechecks half the panel. Eoin Donnelly coming in for his first year in 2012, already a leader. The hard work married with talent of Tomás Corrigan, the skills of Sean Quigley, the re-invention of other players.

And how far does he think they can push his big brother's' side on their own turf, he replies: "I know one thing - Fermanagh will go to Ballybofey with no hang-ups and no concerns. I think the Championship is going to come alive this weekend and it's going to be a real fire and brimstone match."

Here's hoping.

Irish Independent

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