By Michael McMullan
DONEGAL star Emer Gallagher is hoping Sunday’s home quarter-final clash with Dublin (MacCumhaill Park 2pm) will entice fans to put their shoulder of support to their latest All-Ireland bid.
It comes at the business end of a season of two halves. After losing all their league games, Donegal found themselves relegated from Division One before showing the courage to bounce back.
Their resurgence saw them lift the Ulster title and after wins over Waterford and reigning champions Meath in the All-Ireland group stages, top spot ensured a home draw this weekend.
“In Donegal, we always say we are geographically challenged,” Gallagher said of the “huge” factor of playing at home.
“If the match is in Dublin, it is a big journey and a full day out for a lot of our supporters to see us and it is not always possible for people to bring their whole family down the road for a day out.
“It will hopefully give the opportunity to have a big crowd on the day and the majority of them from Donegal and that makes such a difference to hear your own people around you and that extra wee bit of support, it really drives you on when things are tough.”
Gallagher, who saw many of the top teams play this year from her analyst role with TG4, said Dublin are really coming into “their groove”.
She spoke of the high quality of the Dubs’ game with Kerry and feels they’ll be very hungry this weekend.
Donegal lost both the Ulster (to Armagh) and league final (to Meath) last season before also falling to the Royals in a well contested All-Ireland semi-final.
Going into this season’s league, staying up was the only focus, with relegation to be avoided at all costs.
“It just didn’t work out that way,” Gallagher said. “It is just lovely that we have been able to regroup and bring a few of the more experienced heads back in.”
Many of their defeats were by the bounce of a ball. The Galway game was left behind after not translating possession onto the scoreboard. It was the same down in Kerry, a performance Gallagher ranked their best of the league.
“We definitely tried to take the positives out of each of those performances and, in a funny way, it’s the reason why things are going so well now,” Gallagher added.
“We definitely reestablished that hunger within the team. Nobody wanted to lose another game, we were sick if it, there was no worse feeling.
“We were probably training harder than we had ever trained before and just weren’t getting the results.”
With many of the experienced heads still on their sabbatical, there was a focus on what Donegal had in the camp. Gallagher was one of the first to in that category return after the off-season.
“I came back in December. At that stage, I was looking around and I really felt like there was a huge age gap between me and the rest of the girls,” she said.
Once the focus turned to who was in the camp rather than who wasn’t, things changed. It was about pushing on and anyone joining later would add to the mix.
The improvements came. A 1-4 salvo from attacking ace Karen Guthrie saw off Cavan before there was a tough afternoon in Lifford against an Armagh team, they’d turn the tables on in the Ulster final.
“After the final whistle went it was very emotional,” Gallagher said of the winning feeling at Owenbeg.
“It was pure relief in some ways because whenever things hadn’t been going well during the league, we had to change our tune completely.
“In previous years, we’d been saying that the All-Ireland final is our goal. At that stage of the year, it just felt that the All-Ireland was so far out of our reach that there was no point in even thinking about it. That was a dream somewhere that we couldn’t achieve.”
At that moment, winning Ulster was Donegal’s All-Ireland. It was their Everest after leaving two Ulster titles “behind”, especially the 2022 extra-time classic Armagh wrestled back twice to take the silver.
“For us, to actually win the trophy in a year when people would’ve said we were much weaker, it was a huge accomplishment for us because Armagh are no weak side,” Gallagher said.
“We are fully aware of the talent that is on their team. They showed us an exhibition of football in the group stages that day up in Lifford. We knew it was a massive uphill battle for us.
“It was a real team performance; it was one of those days when everything clicked and that everyone played well and we played well as a unit.
“For us to win that match was a huge boost for us and it has pushed us on from there and it’s probably one of the most special wins I had in a Donegal jersey.”
That was then and this is now. Sunday is about Dublin and getting a performance in Ballybofey to push them down the stretch towards a spot in the last four.
Gallagher feels the race for the Brendan Martin Cup is “absolutely” open. As they watched the quarter final draw, there was no preference for any opponent over the next.
“In previous years there was one or two favourites who may be carried that tag the whole way through,” she said.
“You couldn’t really say that anyone is miles out in front at this point whatsoever. Every team has had good days and bad days, good performances and weaker performances. It’s just so interesting to see.
“Two years ago, Meath took everyone by surprise with their All-Ireland win. Last year, again, they did everyone by surprise because they only really came good at the end of the championship.”
This weekend will tell more of the story. After Donegal’s relegation, their top spot would’ve raised a few eyebrows.
“It is really is so hard to call this year and I have been lucky to see a lot of the other teams play with working with TG4. I have got to see different teams at different stages of the year,” she added.
“At some stages, some teams have shown real strength. Even the likes of the Mayo and Armagh game, Mayo were so strong for the majority of the match but yet Armagh came out as winners, so it is very hard to call.”
When Maxi Curran and his squad put the final plans in place, Croke Park thoughts will be for another day. Dublin in Ballybofey is the only item on the agenda, an occasion for the Donegal public to embrace.