By Michael McMullan
DERRY are a better team now than the one that saw off Donegal in last month’s Ulster final insists Rory Gallagher.
After returning to the training ground, Derry have been working away in the background ahead of the next phase of the Championship season.
The Oakleafers needed extra time so see off Declan Bonner’s side and the Derry boss has been happy with his side’s progress ahead of Saturday’s Croke Park date with Clare as they aim to book a first semi-final spot since 2004.
There has been much hype across the Oakleaf County and while Gallagher insists every challenge brings its own experience, he can relate Derry’s buzz to the euphoria of Donegal’s 2011 Ulster final win when he was assistant to manager Jim McGuiness.
“To be honest, every experience I’ve had is a bit different and that was a good while ago. Yeah, there was a great buzz about it at the time, but you move on from it very quickly,” Gallagher insists.
He refers to Donegal’s clash with Kildare 13 days later and can relate to how Derry have embraced success.
“I would say the emotion of the fans is very similar and it is incredible to see the joy it brings to everybody, to young, to old, to girls, to boys, to men, to women…and to the families that you get to know, it’s brilliant to see that elation for everybody.”
It ended a Derry famine and was a change of fortunes for Gallagher who was on the wrong side of final defeats with both Donegal and his native Fermanagh.
Speaking some 19 days later, there is no standout moment of Derry’s win in his mind. He hasn’t sat back to think about it.
“I don’t really intend to either,” he said, during an interview that was all about the future.
There were moments after games, but it was the collective progress that really leaves the appeal.
“I have enjoyed the last 17 or 18 months of building towards it and we want to enjoy more,” he added.
In any Rory Gallagher interview, there is rarely a grey area. It’s a decisive yes or no and you soon get the feel of the much defined messages relayed to the players.
There is also the sense that there is always more to achieve, both in the words and how he relays them.
The Ulster Championship was a very definite goal, something the litany of player interviews reinforced in the midst of the Clones joy after last month’s win.
“It’s something we wanted to achieve as a means to an end and that’s to get in the latter stages of the All-Ireland,” Gallagher stressed.
“When you are a young GAA person, you want to play in Ulster finals, but you also want to play in Croke Park in quarter-finals and semi-finals. We have the opportunity to get to a semi-final…as much as the elation is there; it (winning Ulster) is very much a stepping stone.”
After taking just four weeks to navigate a path past Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal, Derry will have had 27 days to prepare for the next.
Gallagher didn’t see it as a break. While they were away from the glare of the Championship spotlight, once they were back in training on the Thursday after the final, it’s been full steam ahead.
“We’ve knuckled down as you’d expect and we have been training at a very good level,” he said.
There was no temptation to factor in a challenge game, something the Derry boss isn’t a fan of “in the slightest”. Instead, training at “a very high level” is his only barometer.
“That’s the way we go. With the panel, they get the opportunity to train every day. Those in the first 15 and in around, they must hold on to it by training well,” he stressed in no uncertain terms.
You get a sense of the serious questions asked of the panel day after day.
Training in the middle of a successful Championship campaign has its benefits as Gallagher explains.
“Naturally the level of training and their own work rate actually goes up without them realising it because they are just on such a high.
“There has been some very good quality training,” he said. “Wherever the gaps (between games) are, we adjust the way we train and prepare. We have enjoyed it and we feel we are a better team today than we were going into the final.”
On the outside of the Derry camp, excitement is ramping up about the potential of an All-Ireland final appearance with Dublin and Kerry on the other side of the draw.
Gallagher accepts it for what it is – buzz that comes with a county getting results.
“In no way would I ever be negative of anybody speaking like that,” he said.
“For us (in the Derry setup) It is almost irrelevant, we can’t get to the semi-final unless we deal with Clare.
“It’s our responsibility to park that to one side. We are more than accustomed to that. Top players don’t worry about loose talk, it’s natural.”
While the teams in the Qualifiers were jockeying around to see who made it through to this weekend’s game, the Derry management made the decision not to attend any of the games.
“Our priority was to train and prepare ourselves so we trained on the Saturday and Sunday when the games were on,” Gallagher reveals.
And once the draw pulled them out against Clare, Derry could tap into the experience of the previous League meeting, mixing in a click into Sky+ and their analysis.
“They are a team that I have come across when I was with Fermanagh and that I have obviously watched and respected from afar.
“They have a lot of very well-established players and they have consistently done things at a very high level and that’s what made them a top 12 team and it’s their second appearance in an All-Ireland quarter-final, which isn’t easy as they’ve drawn Kerry a lot of times.”