A Matt-er of fact: Gallagher looks back on his career with Donegal

MATT GALLAGHER believes that rugby isn’t what it used to be.

“Rugby used to be very exciting but now it is horrible to watch. Now it is attritional. Can we bang a hole here? Is there any wonder they have a concussion issue.

“It was so exciting to watch them make line breaks but the guys are so strong now it is just not as enjoyable as it was.

“I was watching United against City recently, City are great to watch. They just want to play football. That’s why people like to watch Dublin and Kerry.”

Matt Gallagher played football for Donegal from 1982 till 1997, and in that time he won two Ulster titles (he missed the 1983 triumph as he was getting his appendix removed) and an All-Ireland title. He played as a full-back and was one of the most vociferous players on the team.

“I was always analytical. I would be playing the game in my head. I was letting people know where they should be.”

So it is no wonder then that a man like Gallagher would watch all sports in this way. No wonder that he can see how a rugby team sets themselves up to win. He’s done it all his life.

A man with this sort of insight can only help others, and he has so much good advice for teams and players who want to achieve their dreams – as he did.

His advice to new players is that they should first look within if they want to improve.

“The advice I have is to not take criticism personally, most of the time it is for the good of the team.

“You have got to analyse your own game. If you can analyse your game, and admonish yourself in your own head, then if someone else does it, it won’t bother you. It’s when someone else points it out and you haven’t realised it, and you realise they are right, then you might be frustrated.”

Gallagher says that he was vociferous as a player, and told his teammates where to be on the field, but he said that whatever criticism he gave to his teammates he gave worse to himself.

“Self analysis was important. I was pretty good at that. I was perhaps sometimes over critical but I wanted to perform as best as I could. I was always very vociferous. I was always taking command. Boys got it, but I was also very self critical. I was very analytical about myself. I was the first to be analysed, then someone else. I wasn’t afraid to get across what we should do.

“The team has to learn to take criticism. You have to take criticism from your teammates as much as anyone.

“When I was playing the only criticism that mattered was the criticism that came from your teammates. It didn’t matter if it came from the fans, they are fickle, but no one knows you like your teammates.”

For Gallagher, the battles that were fought among the teammates went a long way to helping the Donegal team to be successful.

“The training sessions I played in were heavy-hitting. That hardens you up, if you are doing that with your teammates then that will harden you up.

“I marked Tony Boyle in training. He was a tough boy. We used to knock sparks out of each other. Brian Murray would come in. A big brute of a lad. We went to school together. He was a few years younger than me. We played on school teams together. But we knocked the living dung out of each other. Going for the ball you might be taking a piece of each other. It was tit-for-tat. You had to make it as game-like as possible. That hardens you up. Ultimately it paid off for us.

“It is a very simple thing to have someone’s back, but that’s what happens on a team. That’s what creates a team environment.

“Myself and Martin Shovlin were great buddies, we used to play against each other at club level when we were in the same league. We used to fight in the games. We used to say awful things to each other, yet still at the end of the day we would come off laughing and joking. That’s the way that it should be. What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch.

“You have to trust your teammates. It is important that boys have your back. Sometimes that falls down. You are relying on your teammates around you, that they will support you or help you out. That’s what training together and working together does. Everyone has idiosyncracies or perceived weaknesses. You try to play to teams strengths, whatever that is.”

Another interesting lesson that Gallagher explained was that of cynicism. He said that Donegal’s breakthrough in 1992, when they won the All-Ireland, came when they learnt that they had to be more mentally tough.

“We were one of the teams that was good to watch. But we weren’t cynical. We were seen as the nice boys.

“Every team at the top is cynical. Dublin have always had it.  If you want to get to the top you have to have cynicism.  That’s part of it now.  If you can tactically foul then you do it. It’s not new but teams have brought it to a different level.

“For years Donegal would have been good to watch, but we didn’t have the cynicism. We knew how to win a match and play well.

“We eventually acquired the cynicism. We eventually got a hardness to not being as open as we did attack, and we made sure we finished the attack. And we made sure we didn’t lose the ball in contact.

“We got more physical in terms of winning the ball in the midfield.”

Tactically, there were lessons to learn too.

When Gallagher joined the Donegal senior team in 1982, he was joining the game of Gaelic football in a period of transition.

“I made my championship debut in 1982 but from then to 1987 there were big changes. There was a big change in the big full-forward. The forwards became smaller and better. It wasn’t just a big full-forward that you horsed the ball into. It became a case of trying to play the ball through the lines and try to use your better players.

“Peter Canavan wouldn’t have been a full-forward in those early days. He was a corner-forward. A lot more thought went into how the game was played, by everyone not just management. Players were able to make their opinions known.

“Football gradually changed when I joined the team. We gradually got fitter. The tactics changed. It was very much catch and kick when I came in. There was a gradual change.”

The tactics in respect of Gallagher, who played in defence, revolved around breaking up forward play.

“We made it difficult for teams to score goals. That was a big thing. A goal is a big score in Gaelic football psychologically.

“We would try to win the ball in the middle and break.

>body2text<“When I played I tried to keep Martin Gavigan (‘Rambo’) as close to me as I could. The two boys outside me, it was usually Barry (Cunningham) or Noel (Hegarty), or John Joe (Doherty). They had licence to go but I hadn’t. I had to sit tight and man the square. The same with Martin. We had to hold the middle. If we held the middle there was a good chance that we would recover.

“That was something that evolved and we made sure that it didn’t happen. If we did go forward then we had to make sure that we could kill the ball. We had to make sure that we could reset.”

The plan was good, and it worked. But not all the time.

“Things often fall down, particularly when you are playing good players.

“It fell down in 1991 when we played Down and we left a couple of holes and Mickey Linden got a goal. Greg Blaney was an unbelievable player, and he had a brilliant game. They were a fantastic attacking unit. They punched holes in us.

“We had to get a good bit tighter, and make sure that didn’t happen again. That meant that our forwards had to put in more tackles and make sure that the ball wasn’t coming out.

“It was perhaps the same against Meath in 1990, we allowed too much clean ball to come our way. That’s not blaming guys. They were good sides. They knew how to do it. We had to find a way to stop it.

“You often learn more from games you lose than those you win.”

Gallagher emphasised that back in those days, tactics were developing quickly, and the teams he played on often worked out how to stop their opponents.

“The modern day guys will try to get the shooters on the ball. Like David Clifford rampaging through the middle, he will prefer to be on his left foot. You try to work those things out. Then you try to minimise the damage from a defender’s point of view. and as a team, you are trying to push a guy out and hope that one of your teammates are going to come and give you a hand, maybe pounce and nick the ball. A lot of that is communication in training. You try to make sure that when  you are training the situations you play are life-like.”

And that’s where the self-analysis came in. With the self-analysis, the Donegal team were able to learn and improve and get better for the following years.

“We got into a stage where we would self analyse and people took criticism the right way. I am sure it’s the way that it is done now they have the debrief that they would have in the week after.  That’s more time consuming than what we had. But when it happened to us you had to take the criticism. You had to find a way of doing it better.

“If you look back at that 1992 final. Derry got a goal and I got caught under a ball, one of the Derry lads flicked the ball over my head. I should have backed off him. I said to myself that I am not getting caught like that again. I had to make sure that I would keep my shape.

My man scored the goal that kept them in the game, but thankfully we won out, and we had 14 men.

“You are always learning. There is not a player out there who is complete.

“Everyone is learning, and you have to work hard, and work smartly.”

According to Gallagher, working smartly also has to do with understanding the big picture. One of the keys to success is having a team that can handle not only criticism but also rejection.

Gallagher said: “Sometimes guys have to sacrifice themselves for the team. You see that with all the top teams. You have to understand if you are taken off it is a panel game. When I was playing if you were taken off it was nearly an insult it was worse than playing badly. Now it is tactical.

“I was taken off very rarely. I was taken off against Antrim in my last championship game but I was finished then. I was taken off against Down when I played poorly in Newcastle and it stung me. I had played poorly, and it was the right decision. You have got to get your head up again right away. There is no point moping about it. The important ball is the next ball, not the one that has gone past. You have to recover from it.”

However, there was a much greater test in Gallagher’s career with which he learned from and many other players might take something from as well.

In 1988 Gallagher decided not to play for Donegal. He wanted to take a break. Then in early 1989 his brother died. He was hoping to return to play county football in 1989, but the call never came and he watched Donegal lose to Tyrone in the final after a replay.

“I took a break, and I thought I would go back but I wasn’t picked, so I had to take that on the chin. That toughens you up as well.

“My brother died in early ‘89 so my frame of mind wasn’t good. That put paid to that. There was no big chase to get me back. The team had a great league campaign, a fantastic championship campaign. I was an enthusiastic supporter. I enjoyed myself supporting but I kept saying to myself that I should be out on the pitch.

“I wanted to be on the pitch. It was my own fault that I wasn’t out there. I was outside the group. I don’t look back on it. I was disappointed that the lads didn’t win. Charlie (Mulgrew) and Anthony (Molloy) were captains. We had a goal disallowed. Seems like it is something that happens to us. We had a goal disallowed against Derry in 1998.

“You get a decision one day, and you don’t get it another day.”

Gallagher’s career as a Donegal player at that point had been long. He had played minor and u-21 football for his county, and won an Ulster U-21 title in 1982.

“I was driven when I was younger, but I was lucky, I felt I was lucky to make the minor team. I was quite small. Then I had a growing burst, not very far. I was good in the air. I knew my capabilities and my weaknesses.

“We got to the Ulster U-21 final and were beaten by Monaghan. Probably shouldn’t have been beaten but that gave us a great confidence

“The next year we won the All-Ireland (U-21) and that gave us a great confidence. The following year we got to the Ulster Senior final. I missed that with my appendix, but that gave us great confidence. You get drawn away to Armagh the following year (1984). It was the draw from hell. It was so difficult to get out of Ulster, there were so many good teams, especially if you got drawn away.”

<During the ‘80s he battled his way onto the team to be a regular. Donegal had won the Ulster Senior title in 1983, but after that there were no more titles. So when Brian McEniff brought him back in, Gallagher knew that he had to focus himself.

“I was different when I came back. I was getting to the stage thinking, I was 28-29, I was thinking this could be gone. We knew we had a good side. We knew we could beat anyone.”

They beat Armagh in the Ulster final, and then faced down the All-Ireland campaign.

“In 1990 we came up against Meath. They were a fantastic team. A brilliant team. But we learned a lot from it. Then Down beat us the following year and went on to win the All-Ireland. Meath said they didn’t win the All-Ireland in 1990 because the game against us took a lot out of them.

“We made it a real tough game. It took more out of them. It was a big experience for us. For a good while we were in the game. We knew if we eliminated our mistakes, and put more effort into it, we would drive the thing on and we did.”

Brian McEniff’s impact on Donegal is famous. Gallagher, who is good friends with McEniff, recognises one of the former manager’s great talents.

“McEniff was very good. If he knew you weren’t going well he would be ringing to see if all was okay at home, as he knew every mother or father. He’d be ringing your mother or father, or whoever, behind your back.

“He was like a psychologist. He was fantastic, never intrusive and always trying to do something good. He knew when to drive guys and when to lay off. He was a good reader of player’s moods and knew how to drive them on.

“Some fellas have to be driven and others have to be coaxed along. But then again, he had a lot of experience. He had bitter experiences. He had a lot of hardships, losing four semi-finals both as a player and a manager. He was well hardened to that.

“Brian would do a lot of the work in the morning, and in the afternoon was about football. He’d be hearing about injuries and then he would be ringing guys, sorting phyisos or whatever. He would make sure that you were okay.”

Gallagher had his own challenges to deal with in their big year in 1992.

“I got injured early in the year. I missed a good part of the league. We got beat by Dublin in Breffni Park the week before Easter. I had difficulty getting back. I had bruising on the bone. I played virtually the whole year without kicking a ball with that foot because it was sore.

“Then we bought a business. We bought a bar in Bundoran, myself and my wife. We had late nights to work there. I had to juggle that with a job. That was a lot of hardship. My father had passed away the year before. He was a big supporter and a massive GAA man. That was something that I had to deal with. Thankfully we did, Cathy, my wife, did a fantastic job. She ran the business and I was a full-time footballer for a while. There is the team work for you again.

“She understood. She got what was happened. It wouldn’t be possible without the support from home. Mothers and fathers. You miss a lot of stuff. We might not have been putting the time in that other boys were but we put a lot of time in. We were putting time in at the weekends, Saturdays and Sundays. We could have been training three nights a week and at the weekends. You were going flat out. There were a lot of commitments on the team. There were a lot of farmers and farmers’ sons. There was hay to be looked after and that sort of thing. All that had to be looked after. Other lads had businesses. those were things that had to be looked after.”

So balancing those things were so important, and as Gallagher says, external influences like wives and families have to play their part if teams want to win championships.

He had the focus to win.

“I worked really hard, trained really hard. I concentrated really hard. There was no lull, no stupid stuff. No silly fouls, no silly goals. And then I drove the guys around me.”

And they would go on to win the All-Ireland title in 1992, beating Dublin in the final and becoming the first team from Donegal to do so.

However it wasn’t a dream day for everyone.

“Martin Shovlin my great buddy, he missed the All-Ireland final. I remember him coming through the door of the hotel. I knew he was having the fitness test and he was crying. That was heart-breaking and is still heart-breaking because that happened to one of your buddies. But the opportunity knocked for John Joe Doherty who came in and did a fantastic job.

“That’s the way it is. He’s not the first or last guy to miss out on the final. But he is still part of the journey and that should not be forgotten.”

The journey is what Gallagher points out is the most important thing. While he makes many points about how teams can be successful, it isn’t the trophies or medals that made those years so special. It is something more important.

“You miss the camaraderie. You miss your buddies. I remember Donal Lenihan about concussion, he had went north and he hooked up with Trevor Ringland (Irish rugby players), but they got back into the camaraderie right away even thought they’d not met in years.

“I meet a few guys out, you just slip into the nice easy camaraderie. You spent a lot of your time together. We were all chasing the same dream. We were lucky to live the dream.

“We were the first team to win an All-Ireland. We would have liked to win more, but that’s what we will be remembered for.

“You meet spectators and there is still a great warm glow towards us. But you miss the camaraderie with the teammates. They are your family, your second family.

“It is only when you come out of it that you realise how much you miss it.

“The 1992 team has a strong bond, but so will the 2012 team. When you win something like that, you have spent a huge amount of time together. Sometimes the journey is better than the destination.

“There are always hardships that have to be overcome, in some shape or form.”

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