Rory Gallagher's vision for Derry could finally emerge against Longford in Division Three opener
He’s been Oak Leaf boss for a little over 20 months but tomorrow could be the first time we catch a glimpse of Rory Gallagher’s vision for Derry.
When Gallagher succeeded Damian McErlain, the remit was clear. Derry, despite just gaining promotion from Division Four, represented potential unfulfilled, a frustrating example of unfulfilled talent. It’s probably what attracted the high profile Fermanagh native to the post. The county’s record at club and schools’ level illustrated it wasn’t ability that was holding Derry back.
Gallagher deals in results. Somewhat lazily labelled a defensive coach, he might prefer the term ‘realist’. His track record, notably with Fermanagh where he achieved promotion to Division Two and an Ulster final appearance, highlights how he can extract the best from a group of players.
It was a background that won him the Oak Leaf job and there were small but undeniably positive signs last year before his ‘Project Derry’ was stopped in its tracks by Covid. No one requires further explanation about the course of the past 14 months but for a new manager trying to make his mark and shape a squad of players, lockdown was a straitjacket to be struggled with. Zoom meetings, individual training, empty grounds.... it’s been unfamiliar terrain for everyone and many have struggled to adapt.
But Gallagher hasn’t been constraint in the least. There was a revamp of his management team prior to the restart last year with the likes of Peter Hughes, Anne Marie Mulholland and Hugh Gallagher drafted in and even before the encouraging Ulster Championship display, albeit in defeat, against Armagh there was a feeling Gallagher’s gaze had already moved to 2021.
And amid the uncertainty, delay and various false starts that this season has already brought, it’s clear the Derry manager is happy how his squad has been evolving. So, will this be the year we finally get to see Rory Gallagher’s Derry in its true guise?
“I feel we are a lot stronger than we were in the week of the Armagh game for example,” explained the Derry boss this week, “Fitness wise, we carried a number of players that day and two of the boys needed surgery directly after the game. Conor (Glass) was only coming back in, Ethan (Doherty) and Paul Cassidy have now had a more significant amount of time, Gareth (McKinless) is back in.
“I believe we are in a far better place and are a far better team. We just need to go out now and do it. Personnel wise, overall fitness and chemistry between the group, I think it is much superior than it was coming up to the Armagh game.
“It’s an important aspect for myself and the rest of the management team that the players start to see how we want things done and the way we feel is best suited to getting them results. I think we have made significant strides in that.
“It has been challenging but I believe we definitely have a much better collective vision of what we want to do both with the ball and without it.
“I’m really looking forward to getting these games now and putting all that into practice and please God we do ourselves justice and get the results that I feel we are capable of.”
Having a fully fit squad boost is a rare but welcomed bonus for Gallagher ahead of what promises to be an intense four week period. A number of experienced players who were carrying niggling injuries last season have been able to have surgery and return fully fit while Karl McKaigue is once again injury free and Gareth McKinless has returned. With only three league games to determine your fate, this season will be about hitting the ground running and staying the distance. While the Ulster Championship remains on the horizon, for Derry the league is arguably more important this season.
“Given what I believe is the quality of player we have, we should be playing at a higher level but we have to go and prove that,” said Gallagher, “Realistically, teams in the lowers divisions struggle to win provincial championships so the sooner we get out of that the sooner you can be serious about beating the top teams in your province and across the country.
“At this point in time, it is only about getting into the top two in our section and to break that back even further, the best chance we have of getting into that top two is to win on Saturday against Longford. Then you can start speaking about top two. You would like to think two wins would get you there.
“Again, everything has been put into getting the best possible performance from the boys, to put into practice the stuff we have been working on since getting back together, things we have been talking about for a long time, we just need to bring a greater level of consistency to the way we play.”
With many manager concerned over what has been a shortened collective pre-season for every county, Gallagher has a different perspective and revelaed he is chomping at the bit to get going again.
“Yes, it has been a shortened collective pre-season but it has been an unbelievably long pre-season in another way and I feel our players have used their time very well. I have said this before but Peter Hughes has been brilliant since getting involved with us last August or September.
“The work the boys have been doing themselves, obviously with Peter’s input, has left them in good shape and in a position where we were able to go ‘bang’ as soon as we got back to training. From that perspective, I certainly cannot complain about the preparations.
“The players were itching to get back collectively and it was brilliant to get back. Listen, the first day or two, it just takes a wee while to get settled back in but, no, it has been very refreshing.
“We have met up a few times, sometimes not even for training but for maybe some tactical work and stuff. It’s great to have them back but it’s also now time to focus on the competitive action and I think there is a good focus for that.”