Derry enjoy the pressure of big games claims Rory Gallagher ahead of Ulster Championship semi-final

Rory Gallagher has fond memories of Derry’s last Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final - mainly because he was in the opposition dug out!

By Michael Wilson
Thursday, 12th May 2022, 6:29 pm
Updated Friday, 13th May 2022, 9:39 am
Monaghan’s at Darragh McElearney chases Conor McCluskey during this season McKenna Cup encounter at Owenbeg. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2201GS – 011
Monaghan’s at Darragh McElearney chases Conor McCluskey during this season McKenna Cup encounter at Owenbeg. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2201GS – 011

Sport has a strange way of throwing up such ironies, another being that it was Monaghan who eventually ended Gallagher’s bid to lift the Anglo Celt Cup when the Farney men defeated Donegal in the final that followed that balmy June 27th Clones evening back in 2015.

Gallagher’s Donegal side held off a Derry team including Mark Lynch, Eoin Bradley and current goalkeeping coach, Thomas Mallon 1-09 to 0-10 that day, though the Oak Leaf boss admits a few members of his current Oak Leaf playing panel remember the game very differently from him.

“Derry had just been relegated from Division One at the time and we had come through two massive battles from our point of view,” recalls Gallagher, “We had beaten Tyrone in Ballybofey in a really gruesome game and then we actually performed tremendously well against Armagh in a game where they were seen as very good opposition. I think we were 10 points up at half-time.

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Lachlan Murray n the attack during this season's McKenna Cup meeting between Derry and Monaghan. (Photo: George Sweeney)

“Then against Derry, I won’t say they were the better team that day in the semi-final, although I hear Chrissy (McKaigue) constantly trying to remind me of that, but I thought we were always going to win,” he laughs, “I remember the game as a really dour struggle but every day is different. Every day takes on a life of its own and it’s up to yourself to be able to deal with it in order to try and get to a very high level.

“If you are not at the level you want to be at, you have to be able to dig out a good enough performance to get over the line and, that’s how it is now going into Sunday with ourselves and Monaghan. Whoever can dig deepest and come up with the big moments will come out of it.”

Ironically prior to that last four clash a Derry minor team including the likes of Conor Glass, Shane McGuigan and Shea Downey had defeated a much fancied Donegal team en route to winning the Ulster minor title, a victory that proved the catalyst for a superb run of underage success many would point to as the basis for the county’s current renaissance.

Yet just as on the day seven years ago, Derry will once again be billed as semi-final underdogs this weekend against a seasoned Monaghan side who have appeared in eight Ulster semi-finals over the last 10 years. This season Seamus McEnaney has been introducing new faces like Gary Mohan and notably Jack McCarron but Gallagher believes it’s too simplistic to label Sunday’s game experience versus inexperience.

“Monaghan are extremely experienced but they have married that experience with building a new team. From the teams that won two Ulster Championships in 2013 and 2015, they have brought in a few young players but they also have a good few players in their mid-20s as well, the likes of Ryan McAnespie and Dessie Ward and Conor McCarthy, Niall Kearns, and together they are a very formidable team.

“I think we lack experience of big Ulster Championship games and winning them, there’s no doubt about that, but I believe we have a fairly mature team. We are not ‘young young’, far from it, I think we have a team at a very good age and it’s a team that we very much want to live in the present.

“We like putting ourselves under pressure to deliver big performances and that’s the way we will be looking at the semi-final. There’s no point looking toward the future at this particular point of time, it is about concentrating on the here and now.”

The two counties had contrasting routes to the last four, Monaghan, as expected, strolling past a Down side in disarray this season 24 hours before Derry shocked the country by defeating All Ireland champions, Tyrone by 11 points in Healy Park. So, as a coach, would the Derry manager prefer a straightforward passage through or the kudos associated with any victory following an intense, full blooded championship battle?

“I think at the start of the year you would rather have the draw Monaghan had, there’s no doubt about that, but once you come through a heavyweight battle, like ourselves, it leaves you fairly well equipped for another heavyweight battle,” explained Gallagher.

“I’m fairly happy with where we are at. If you ask me next year would I like a softer draw then I’d say ‘Absolutely’, but when you come out the other side of a game like Tyrone, you have to move on. Look, it’s done us no harm. We had no injuries out of it and we have a good feeling about ourselves in terms of self belief after it, but we also moved on very quickly.

“Any time any team beats Tyrone in the Championship, it’s a fairly big statement to be fair to Tyrone over the past 20 years. They’ve always been in the top three of four teams in the country in terms of the betting for All Irelands.

“It was a good result but we would be realistic enough to know that Tyrone weren’t at a level that they themselves would be happy with, though that’s neither here nor there. We looked after the game fairly comfortably and we will look to build on the positive things from our own performance but also look to improve on certain areas that we are very much aware of as well.”

Derry will be working off a similar panel to the one that emerged successful from Healy Park with the exception of Matthew Downey who has been back in training. Oisin McWilliams has also stepped up his recovery from the broken jaw suffered against Galway in the National League but this weekend will come too soon for the talented Swatragh player.

With stand tickets for the Athletic Grounds having sold out midweek and Donegal awaiting the victor in the final, this week’s semi-final has caught the imagination of an Oak Leaf support not always renowned for travelling in large numbers. Gallagher admitted he was delighted by the scenes after the full-time whistle in Healy Park but stressed that result has long since been parked ahead of an even bigger challenge this weekend.

“Look, you have to live in the moment,” he added, “If you are good then you are good and you embrace it, but you have to stay humble enough to keep your head down and keep working hard. That’s what we try to do, and we recognise that there are bigger challenges now lying ahead, starting this Sunday.”

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