BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Rory Gallagher telephone Christy Toye after being installed as the Donegal manager in late October, the response of the St Michael’s man came as a huge boost to the new boss.
Toye has been dogged by various injuries over the years, but the St Michael’s man, who will turn 32 this year, decided to return to the Donegal squad having had a big influence in 2014’s reclaiming of the Ulster title and the march to the All-Ireland final.
Toye, a former county captain, will make the 126th appearance of his Donegal career this Sunday as he lines out for the first time under Gallagher, in the Fermanagh native’s first home game as the county boss. Donegal take on Queen’s University Belfast in Ballybofey and Toye has been named alongside fellow St Michael’s man Martin McElhinney at centrefield.
“I felt that Christy had a very good campaign last year,” Gallagher told the Donegal News.
“He’d been out for the whole year before so he did fantastic work to get himself back in top shape again. He was very influential for Donegal last year and he came back to us in tip-top condition. He looks like a player who is really hungry for the new season.”
Odhrán MacNiallais is able to line out having shaken off a bout of flu, as is corner-back Paddy McGrath, while Frank McGlynn will also be included on Sunday.
Gallagher said: “Christy, Frank and Paddy are building up their fitness and are ready to go. They have integrated back in with us and although they don’t have an awful lot of ball work done, they’re ready to go.”
McGrath trained in Dublin on Tuesday night, as did Declan Walsh, who also starts Sunday’s game, while Daniel McLaughlin has been selected for a first Donegal appearance since the 2013 qualifier against Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon. The St Michael’s attacker played for University Limerick last weekend against Waterford in the McGrath Cup and Gallagher hopes he can shake off a knock to line out this weekend.
Mark McHugh made his Donegal return on Sunday in Owenbeg, the Kilcar man playing for the first time since he stepped away from the panel at the end of the League campaign last year. McHugh will sit out the Queen’s game because of a quad muscle
Gallagher said: “It’s nothing major. We’re delighted that Mark has come back. He entered the trials process like the rest of those guys and he performed very well in it. We’d hope to get Mark a good bit of football to get him back up to the levels again.”
Cory Gallagher left Sunday’s eleven-point defeat against Derry prematurely with an injury, but the Dungloe man was back in training on Tuesday and has retained his spot, but a back injury means that Eamon Ward, the 33-year-old Glenswilly full-back who made his debut in Owenbeg, is struggling.
Donegal trained in Gaoth Dobhair on Tuesday night and were set to train again in Castlefin on Thursday night.
Gallagher will assemble his entire squad in Letterkenny for the first time on Saturday for a series of fitness tests.
The new manager expects to again take a look at the likes of Willie Gillespie, Ryan Malley and Eunan Doherty, who have been named among the subs. Kevin McBrearty of Four Masters is carrying a hamstring injury, but Bundoran’s Ciaran McCaughey may also feature at some stage having been an unused sub against Derry.
Gallagher had been hoping to utilise Darach O’Connor, but the diminutive Buncrana man is laid up with flu and will again be unavailable.
The Donegal boss is still keeping his fingers cross that Rory Kavanagh will opt not to retire and that Leo McLoone could return. Those two, along with Anthony Thompson, are currently not available for selection. Of the three, Thompson – although based in England these days – seems the most likely to wear the county jersey in 2015.
Gallagher said: “Anthony Thompson is definitely a player who is keen to be involved. We’ll try to work out the logistics of that and hopefully we’ll be able to work something out. Anthony is keen to make a commitment and he’s a player, obviously, that we’d like to have on board.
“Our panel will be open-ended. It won’t be a case of ‘if you’re in, you’re in to stay’. Similarly, if you’re on the outside, the door won’t be closed.
“We won’t judge anyone over the McKenna Cup, in these two or three games. We’ll judge them over a three-to-four-month period and we’ll see where we are then. Hopefully in the next ten days we’ll have most of the squad back in integrated with the group.”
Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy, given their involvement with both the International Rules trip to Australia and the subsequent jaunt to America with the All-Stars, aren’t expected to see game time until the National League, but Gallagher says that Karl Lacey, Eamon McGee and David Walsh are all very close to returning and some of those could play against Fermanagh next Wednesday evening.
Colm McFadden is recuperating from what Gallagher has called ‘an old muscle injury’ and is in a race to make the start of the National League, but the St Michael’s man is now poised to break Brian Roper’s appearance record (159) having committed this year. McFadden has played 155 times now and should have the record bagged before the end of the League, while full-back Neil McGee is also nursing a foot injury at the moment.
Gallagher said: “They’re back working away and in doing their gym work. They’re back running too. They’ll be that wee bit longer, but at the same time it’s nothing that falls into the long-term bracket.
“We went with a very clear plan. We wanted the experienced players to have a good period of down time before they started the specialised conditioning programme.”
After going down heavily in Derry, Donegal are in a battle to reach the knockout stages of the competition.
Gallagher said ahead of Sunday’s game with Queen’s: “Queen’s will be fairly defensive I imagine. From what we heard about them against Fermanagh, it took Fermanagh a long time to shake them off. At this stage of the year, we won’t be analysing the opposition too much because it’s all about what we can do with ourselves. We’re just looking to get as many lads as many minutes on the pitch as possible and get more comfortable on the ball.
“We need to get a win on Sunday and then worry about score difference. All we’re looking to do is move forward from game to game. The newer lads, we’re hoping, will get stronger and it’s more experience for them.”
In Owenbeg, Donegal started brightly, but Emmett McGuckin’s 16th minute goal pushed Derry into a lead they’d hold for the remainder of the contest and Brian McIver’s side were comfortable victors by the end.
Gallagher said: “I thought that we played okay in the first half on Sunday. We played well enough. We were more than competitive in that period which is what we wanted at the start.
“Martin McElhinney battled manfully and I though Mark McHugh settled in pretty well. Eamon Doherty, for a guy who hasn’t played an awful lot of football for Donegal, looked comfortable, and as the game went on Eamon Ward and Conor Parke grew into it.
“Obviously we’re disappointed to have lost by eleven points, but at this stage it’s not really about the results – as we told the boys before Sunday, it’s about the individual thing at this stage and seeing how they can cope with that.”