By Michael McMullan
THE drive from Enniskillen to Owenbeg is thinking time for Rory Gallagher and last Friday he was on the road again.
Promotion is secure. The Dublin defeat has been chewed over. Championship is looming. Eight more sleeps to the Fermanagh game. For someone fascinated by sport, this is heaven.
Speaking after their league final defeat to Dublin, Gallagher had poured any water over the new championship structure forcing a different focus.
It’s silverware. It’s the local bragging rights. It’s a passport for staying away from Kerry and Dublin who he insists will emerge from their corners as champions.
First, it’s about looking back before letting the dust settle on a first defeat of the season.
“We are very much looking forward to the championship and very much looking forward to looking at the reasons why Dublin were better than us the last day,” Gallagher said of the temperature in the Oakleafers’ camp.
Derry conceded eight goals before their defeat in Croke Park, an afternoon that saw Dublin create eight goal chances. They needed Odhran Lynch’s trailing leg and diving save to keep two out. Daire Newcombe fisted against the post when it was easier to score and John Small blasted over.
“You shake it off,” Gallagher said. Brian Fenton’s lob should’ve been dealt with even after the square ball debate. Lorcan O’Dell’s lucky lob shouldn’t have been allowed to creep in.
“I don’t think they were goal chances to me,” he added, citing individual errors without delving too deep.
“After the first goal…a bit of panic set in. We rode our luck a bit in the first half, as they did with us having two goal chances each.
“I would be annoyed if I didn’t think we could learn from some of the opportunities we gave away. It’s a balancing act with Dublin, we held them out with regards to point scoring but when we went to chase the game we opened up a lot in the second half.”
Does he accept the first half display as one of the best performances of his tenure? “100 per cent,” came the answer.
In both post-game interviews after the Dublin battles, Gallagher has tagged the Dubs as “second favourites” to lift Sam. Of the four halves between the sides, they’ve won two each.
“I think in the first half the last day we were a good bit better than them and won an awful lot (four from eight) of their kick-outs,” Gallagher stated.
It’s being more clinical that will see them move towards the seniors contenders for the big prize. In his assessment, they needed to have “1-8 or 1-9” by half-time.
“That’s the thing, that if we are to be able to push on, that we are going to have to be able to do,” he said.
“Overall, Dublin are better than us at this point in time, it’s up to us. if we come across them again, to close the gap.”
Losing Conor Glass left a void already started with Chrissy McKaigue not being risked. But without the concession of Killian O’Gara’s flicked goal, Gallagher felt they could’ve absorbed the loss of their skipper.
Gareth McKinless and Padraig Cassidy haven’t had a full season of game time.
“There was an element of tiredness and fatigue kicking in from a game at that pace and that intensity as well…it was a combination of factors,” Gallagher summed up of their second-half performance.
Now Derry face their most important game since their win over Dublin six weeks ago to put them on the shoulder of promotion.
Division One football means even more than it used to in Gallagher’s eyes. It dictates your championship path.
The players were given the week off before the trip to Cork and the league final was sold as performance before silver.
“It’s not that you switch off, but we took a bit of down time as you would’ve seen with the likes of Cavan and what they did in Division Three,” Gallagher said.
Derry heaped the pressure on themselves to have promotion in the can before the last chapter of their league story. It was important to come down before pushing the boost button again. Gallagher spells out Saturday. Without victory, their title hopes are gone.
Fermanagh haven’t won an Ulster Championship game since Gallagher was manager and masterminded wins over Armagh and Monaghan on the way to the 2018 Ulster final on a day Derry won the inaugural u-20 championship as the curtain-raiser.
Of the last eight seasons, the counties have won four games in Ulster. Three of Derry’s came last year.
Much has been made of Derry’s settled team, with just 17 players starting in three more league games. Fermanagh have 16 from the same metric.
“To me, that talk is idle nonsense,” Gallagher said. “It is easy for Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone, Dublin and Donegal to use a lot of players because they have been doing a hell of a lot of things right for the last 15 years, some of them 20 or 30 (years).
“They have a conveyor belt of players coming through who have shown the right application and mentality to play inter-county football.”
This weekend, there will be no surprises. Only goalkeeper Sean McNally, Luke Flanagan and Brandon Horan didn’t feature under Gallagher’s tenure as Erne boss.
“Although I took a few sessions for the (Enniskillen) Gaels, where my kids play, and I know Brandon well; I know his habits and know what he is good at,” Gallagher said.
“They (Fermanagh) have Che and Lee (Cullen) back and Ultan (Kelm) fully fit, they are three incredible additions.
“Physically, they are unbelievable athletes and I have been lucky to have worked with them. They are great fellas and have great attitudes.
“Fermanagh have a settled team and a very settled group over the last 18 months. When Kieran (Donnelly) came in, it takes a while to naturally get to know your players. He knows who his best players are and who fits in with the way he wants to play.”
Brewster Park was home for Rory Gallagher in his days in emerald green. On Saturday, he’ll be plotting the Erne downfall and Derry’s next step.