June 26th, 2011, St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones in front of more than 18,000 spectators: Donegal 2-06, Tyrone 0-09.
Rory Gallagher can still pinpoint the day the modern Donegal revolution began in earnest. It was Jim McGuinness’ inaugural season in charge and Tyrone were reigning Ulster champions and the main GAA power base in the north. If the new Donegal manager and his team were serious, they had to topple Tyrone. And they did.
A first Ulster title since 1992 followed and 12 months later so did Donegal’s second Sam Maguire but more importantly, a culture of success had taken hold, one that would eventually supersede McGuinness and his right hand man, a certain Rory Gallagher. Donegal’s opponents in that 2011 Ulster final were, ironically, Derry making their last appearance in the provincial decider
Fast forward 10 years and there are definite parallels for Gallagher’s progressive Oak Leaf side who have won rave reviews en route back to Division Two. The missing ingredient though is a statement championship victory.
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“When I first got involved with Donegal we targeted Tyrone,” explains the Derry manager, “We had to beat Tyrone to announce ourselves and we did that and you take off from there.
“With Fermanagh we wanted to win Ulster Championship matches and beat Armagh and got momentum from that. The League is the league, this is what we sign up for. You don’t sign up to be known as a good league team. Obviously you want to play at a very high level to prepare for the championship but no doubt, we want a defining victory in the championship and Sunday is the opportunity to do that.”
For Gallagher, Derry’s 2021 league campaign wasn’t just about promotion, it was about proving the county should never have been in Division Three in the first place. Winning wouldn’t be enough for the Oak Leaf boss, Derry had to win their games well to make a point within the squad. Five games, 6-88 scored and 3-44 conceded later, the point was made.
“I badly wanted us to get promoted but I wanted us to win the games comfortably and by and large we did that,” reveals Gallagher, “That gives me, the management team and the whole squad confidence that we are at a vastly superior level to Division Three. We had to go and prove that.
“Now, next year in Division Two is for another day, for us the big challenge is can we close that gap to Donegal at the weekend? Donegal, Armagh, Tyrone and Monaghan have all been playing in Division One, Cavan are Ulster champions and have been in Division One, we are outsiders from that point of view but I believe we have the ability and the right personnel to get into that sort of company.
“Mentality can’t just arrive the week before a game and we have been building on that and building on that. Mentality comes from the commitment we have had to each other and building up a really good spirit. As much as tactics are important, it’s just as important having a really positive spirit and a really happy group to be in and around while keeping a good bite and a focus on ourselves.”
As positive as the Derry reviews have been this season, few are offering much hope for the trip to Ballybofey, a ground from which visiting teams rarely come away with much joy. Watching Declan Bonner’s side dismantle Down two weeks ago merely reinforced those sentiments for most but Gallagher isn’t reading too much into the events in Pairc Esler.
“I thought it went very much along the lines of what we would have expected. Down had been struggling in Division Two, albeit they stayed up. Donegal had been putting up decent scores in the Division One, 1-20 etc, and you expected them to hit more than 20 scores against Down given those statistics. It was much as we would have expected.
“To be honest, we won’t overly analyse the Down game. We would judge Donegal more on their league displays because they were playing against opponents of similar quality. We won’t read to much into the Down game either way. We feel Donegal are very strong, they have been at a high level now for 10 years and this present side for three or four years. They have serious strengths but also a few weaknesses which I’m sure they are aware of.
“A lot of it is about us imposing our own will on the game in the various different aspects. If we do that, I’ll be happy that we can perform at good level.”
Sunday will be Gallagher’s second Covid impacted championship outing with Derry and he belives the squad is in a much better place now from when they took on Armagh late last year.
“While I thought we turned a corner massively when we got back mid-September 2020, I still wasn’t overly happy with our preparation. We didn’t have a huge amount of time with the overall fitness of the squad. We had a number of players who hadn’t been training fully. We obviously had Chrissy and Brendan who had knee surgeries but there is now a vastly superior level of conditioning and preparation.
“Obviously with Covid, no county has had the time they would have liked and we are the same but it has still been very refreshing because we have all the best players, all the characters we want. From our point of view we are just much more content with where we are as a group.
“When I first sat down with the Co. Board, none of us wanted to be at the level we were at. We all want to be at a far, far higher level. We felt there was a quality of player there and thankfully with Conor (Glass) coming back, obviously Gareth (McKinless) getting involved, Ethan (Doherty), Paul Cassidy and Odhran Lynch, all alongside the existing players that we had, we have a better quality of player now than even when I would have talked to the Co. Board about getting involved.”
With Gallagher this week declaring Brendan Rogers fit to play, Derry have a full squad to choose from for a match their manager has had one eye on from afar distance out. The Ulster Championship doesn’t come much more difficult that Donegal in Ballybofey. If Derry want to make a statement, they have the perfect platform.