Derry’s great free-thinker

With the Anglo Celt Cup poking one half of it’s prestigious arm out from behind the obligatory sponsors’ paraphernalia in the immaculately laid out Seomra Sean de Burca in Owenbeg, Rory Gallagher’s relaxed demeanour was that of a manager in total control.

Derry boss Rory Gallagher has changed the county's fortunes around.
Derry boss Rory Gallagher has changed the county's fortunes around.

And of course by ‘relaxed’, we mean relaxed for a man who seems more at home patrolling the line amid the white hot atmosphere of a big championship day. As his captain would later remind the same GAA journos with more than a wry smile, “Even dinner with Rory is intense!”

The Derry manager is an obsessive, but not just a football obsessive. Throughout the couple of hours he freely gives of his time in Owenbeg, he’s as comfortable discussing cricket, soccer, basketball and American football as he is Gaelic Games and in every one of those you suspect he finds a different ‘learning’ he can apply to his coaching.

A former Northern Ireland schoolboy captain who might have made a career for himself in the Premier League as a centre-half had a broken leg not halted his progress, he could easily have been one of the leading lights in the Irish League according to legendary Portadown boss, Ronnie McFall, who snapped him up after his release from the Red Devils following that injury. Yet McFall admits, the GAA was always too big a pull for the multi-talented Gallagher.

Even within the often restrictive confines of the GAA, Gallagher has ploughed his own furrow, refusing to follow the accepted wisdom of ‘how things should be done.’

He’s played for four different clubs in four different counties and enjoyed success with all, notably winning the All Ireland club crown with Antrim kingpins, St. Gall’s in 2010. In short, Rory Gallagher has never been a man to conform or compromise his sporting beliefs merely to keep others happy.

So there’s more than a little irony in how the GAA has attempted to pigeon hole one of its most independent thinkers.

His influence on Donegal’s resurgence and the almost miraculous work he did with his native Fermanagh probably brought more condemnation than admiration, such is the fear with which GAA tends to treat anything different.

The ‘defensive’ label stuck and unfairly coloured perceptions. Not that it bothers Gallagher who can’t help but laugh when asked if he feel his teams haven’t had a fair hearing over the past decade or more.

“I think the likes of yourselves watching games regularly don’t pigeonhole teams like that,” he diplomatically smiles at the gathered press corps, “You watch an awful lot of Gaelic, inter-county and club games.

"I think there is a bit of casual commentary from some pundits, who are looking at four, six or eight teams in a day and it’s the easy thing to throw out and they don’t put in the in-depth thinking about a team. I don’t get frustrated about it.

“Look at what sports are on at the minute, Ireland are over playing the All-Blacks. What does every one of those players do when they don’t have the ball, they don’t stay up front. They defend.

"Cricket is on at this time of the year and it’s a sport I enjoy. The best bowlers are great bowlers but they have to bat as well. The best batters have to field, it’s a different way of playing.

"We all watch the Premier League, Man United are getting vilified for carrying Ronaldo - my son’s hero even though he is a Liverpool fan - because he doesn’t defend. I think it is wrong criticism.

“I think American sports are smarter than the rest. baseball, basketball, American football, a sport I enjoy,” explains the Derry boss, “Tom Brady is the best player ever, but he never has to defend because they can bring on a whole new team.

“You can defend in different ways, but you can attack in different ways as well. You can attack with caution. I’ve no problem saying it but when I was with Fermanagh, and I have no problem saying it, you had a better chance of winning the games if you were one point up and didn’t give the ball away. If you gave the ball away, the other team could score very often and that was a different way of playing.

“Where we are now with Derry, we know we have to build scores regularly. We are not going to be able to win a game 0-10 to 0-8 or 0-9 to 0-7. You have got to be able to build scores.”

It’s fair to say many GAA folk are now seeing Gallagher in a new light, even within Derry. His appointment was far from universally accepted with some high profile figures hell bent on blocking him. Trying to find those same dissenters today gives an indication of the job he’s done since being ratified in September 2019.

“You have to change,” adds the Derry boss about his own coaching journey, “ If you continue to do the same thing, no matter what. It’s like newspapers, if they stayed old school they have to fight for survival.

"You have to go online and be different but you don’t want to be different for the sake of it.

“As part of a coaching team, you have to be aware of what is going well and keep improving on it. A massive part of it is individually improving players, developing relationships and understanding things To look at Dublin, they evolved and became a team for all seasons. Wind, hail, with the breeze, against the breeze, down to 14 men, having to come from behind, having to be the front runners.

“There is an awful lot of learning in our own sport of how they do it, so I think any coach would be telling lies if they didn’t learn a lot from how Dublin go about it. We can’t be Dublin though.

Nobody has a Cluxton, nobody has a Brian Fenton, they are unique to themselves, nobody has a Con O’Callaghan.

“It is trying to be aware of our players and what best fits them. We have moved players to different positions this year. We have brought in new positions to some of them, but we are also that when you see them at training they will be able to adapt.”

Thanks to Gallagher and his management team, Derry have been adapting from championship also rans to being All Ireland contenders, but has it been hard to re-focus and handle the colossal leap in Oak Leaf expectations?

“Not hard at all. Anyone else coming out of Ulster would’ve said it was a means to an end to get into the All-Ireland series and that’s what it was to us..

“Did you want to be Ulster Champions going into it? Yes, seeing the semi-finalists now are all the four provincial champions, the feel-good factor, the momentum to win any of the provinces is that you’re the best team in that province and one of the best teams in the country. I think that momentum has to be kept going but very much with a view to progressing in the All-Ireland series.

“It was a very important day for this county, for the players, their friends, the supporters and their families to enjoy it and to enjoy it to the max. There is plenty of time to get down to earth after that.”