Ulster Senior Championship final
Derry v Donegal
Sunday, Clones, 4pm
By Michael McMullan
THE look on Rory Gallagher’s face said it all, utter devastation matched only by the players as they trudged off the field.
Ten months on and that afternoon in Ballybofey means precious little to the Derry boss as the county eyes a first Ulster final since 2011.
“I certainly don’t take any belief from anything in the past,” is Gallagher’s response when asked if the squad can channel last July’s near miss in any way.
“We take our belief from how we train and how we prepare and how we play in the games leading up to it.
“It was great, to an extent, to battle with Donegal. They’ll get a feel for us and we’ll get a feel for them…but it’s a long time ago now.”
Gallagher has always championed the need to get to the level of Ulster’s top dogs, insisting that standards are “just words” unless you can put meat on the bones of any long-term progression pathway.
“You have got to keep your head down and stay focused on the present,” Gallagher insists.
“Players have got to be very ambitious to meet those standards. Definitely, the Monaghans, Donegals and Tyrones in Ulster over the last significant period of time have all had players of that sort of mentality. If you combine that as a collective, it’s a very powerful group and team.
“Please God, you are going to win more than you are going to lose, you are going to lose some of them, and that’s natural.
“There hasn’t been a team in Ulster that has won three, four or five in a row,” he said.
“I am pleased that we have got ourselves to that level now. What we have got to be now is to be very consistent at that level and learn how to come out on the right side on a very regular basis in all these games.”
After losing out on promotion after leaking three first-half goals against Galway, there was no “panic” in the camp. The result was an indicator of where Derry’s performance on the day ranked, but wasn’t a reflection of the team’s overall picture.
The Meath performance was patchy before Derry pulled clear, but championship wins over Tyrone and Monaghan have opened up the summer.
“It was important for the players to see ourselves being calm about it and we were very clear with the reasons,” said Gallagher of the soul searching after succumbing to Galway.
“We responded a week later (against Meath) and while we were a bit unsettled, we came out on the right side of it…we were moving on after that.”
He speaks of the Ulster final being a “prize” for their efforts so far.
“It is very rewarding for these players who hadn’t been in the competitive place they’d like to be, to now be in that situation,” he said.
A by-product of Derry’s return to the shakeup for silverware is the level of excitement in the county. There was a bumper crowd at the Monaghan game and this weekend was deemed a sell-out as early as last week.
The Derry boss speaks of the level of enthusiasm for club games in the county, commenting how he’d often see the same faces when he was doing the rounds at “three or four” championship games in a given day.
“Once they hear of a group of players that are committed and training hard, they are going to want to see what it is all about…that’s a big part of it,” he said.
The secret is to have a county team performing well and committing to the cause. A foundation is having a defensive system that has kept eight clean sheets in 12 outings in all competitions and Gallagher said it is down to the collective.
“Chrissy (McKaigue) and Brendan (Rogers) are exceptional talents. Paudi McGrogan and Clucky (Conor McCluskey) are markers, CD (Conor Doherty) can hold his own and you’ve Gareth (McKinless),” he summed up.
“While a lot of it is individual (defending), it is done on a collective basis,” Gallagher continued
“They’d be very aware of the collective will to defend, just like the collective will to attack is very important. I very much love seeing those players excel at what they are very good at.”
With the name of Gareth McKinless, the sheer dynamic approach of Derry’s play comes to mind.
“The energy we want to bring is very important to us, the energy we bring to preparation and the way we train is very important, but we want to bring that to a match day.
“We want to bring to being the right kind of channelled energy and not just running about. Gareth is a big part of it.
“It was unfortunate, during the league; he played in fits and starts,” said the Derry boss, hinting at McKinless needing further injury management in the off-season.
“We had to rehab him and get him to the stage to have him ready, so we held him off during the league and he didn’t reach the level as he hadn’t done the training.”