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Neil Gallagher: King of Donegal’s castle

Donegal footballer Neil Gallagher poses for a portrait at Donegal Castle. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Donegal footballer Neil Gallagher poses for a portrait at Donegal Castle. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

BY CHRIS MCNULTY
c.mcnulty@donegalnews.com

IT’S A pity that Neil Gallagher doesn’t break bread with the fourth estate more often.

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It’s not that the Glenswilly man has a superstition about not giving pre-match interviews or that he has a particular dislike for the Gaelic Games correspondents, but rather, by his own admission he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ with it all.

Gallagher is a reserved individual who prefers to do his talking on the pitch, but the 31-year-old possesses one of the more intelligent football minds around. The shame is that we don’t get much of an insight.

In a quiet corner of the Abbey Hotel, Gallagher has been selected for a press call by Donegal boss Rory Gallagher, organised to promote Sunday’s crucial National League clash with Tyrone.

“I wouldn’t be volunteering anyway,” he smiles at his company.

“I just like to focus on the game and worry about that sort of stuff afterwards. I’ve done them before, but it’s not something I’m too interested in. The time for talking is when you win something.”

Gallagher’s story is one worth telling, though.

He first appeared on the radar of county managers when Brian McEniff gave him a call one night in 2003. He made his Donegal senior debut against Queen’s in the McKenna Cup that December and his Championship bow arrived against Armagh in 2005.

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He’d been county captain in 2007 when he led Donegal to the Division 1 title before he was dropped for a disciplinary breach by John Joe Doherty in 2009 following the Ulster SFC defeat against Antrim.

In 2011, Gallagher was a peripheral figure under Jim McGuinness and many had his inter-county future written off. Since then, he’s won two All-Stars and is an indispensable member of Rory Gallagher’s team.

The towering midfielder won his place back and never looked back.  An All-Star award came at the end of 2014, but didn’t make up for losing the All-Ireland final, but Gallagher never really contemplated walking off into the sunset.

“It’s been middling, not too bad,” he says of his current form.

“The fitness has been coming along rightly. I had a good break after I finished with Glenswilly at the end of the year so I got a few wee niggles sorted.

“I came back in January and have been training away since. The injuries are well cleared up now. It’ll be the next few weeks, coming into the middle of May, where you’d be looking to perform a bit better. I’m ticking along ok.”

An engineer with Donegal County Council, Gallagher recently entered into a business partnership with his club colleague and Donegal captain, Michael Murphy.

Gallagher is a director of Michael Murphy Sports in Letterkenny, where he does some shifts in the evenings and at weekends.

Gallagher was Donegal captain when the young Murphy, then a student at St Eunan’s College, first came onto the county senior panel. He knows the totemic skipper better than most.

“I read about Paul O’Connell there, someone was saying that he wouldn’t ask any of the other players to do anything he wouldn’t do himself; well, Michael is the same,” Gallagher says.

It’s the first time that Gallagher really expands on an answer and it’s a fascinating couple of minutes as the midfielder leans in and talks about a player Joe Brolly famously dubbed ‘the man child’.

Gallagher says:” “To make him captain when he was 21, people thought he was a bit young, but, no, it was a brilliant move. When he first came on, you just knew how good a talent he was.

“As a captain, the leadership he shows… You see him sacrificing himself, coming out the field and making tackles. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him as regards the leadership he shows.

“Then there’s the ability to get people to follow him. I mean, he just inspires the players and he lifts everything around him. He has a great drive for football and trying to be the best player that he can be.”

The two play the odd round of golf at Barnhill and are playing off a handicap of 14.

“He’s competitive,” Gallagher points out. “Even on the golf course, you can see that – he has that competitiveness.”

Gallagher himself is regarded as one of the leaders of the pack. Eamon McGee recently touched on it when he said: “The same men are still driving the dressing room: Michael Murphy, Karl Lacey and big Neil.”

Gallagher might very well beat the drum, but it’s clearly Murphy who calls the tune.

The midfielder says: “It’s what he does on the field that lifts teams and shows the way to go. He’ll hit over a wild score, hang a goal or just do something to get the thing going. And there’s the way he carries himself in the dressing room that lifts everyone. You just feel like you have to follow his lead.”

The winter months not only brought about a change in manager in Donegal, but Gallagher also lost his midfield sparring partner, Rory Kavanagh, who called it a day at inter-county level.

Kavanagh mulled over his future at length before finally announcing in January that he’d played his last game for the county.

“I always knew from playing against him at club level how good he was so it was nice to play with him for the county,” Gallagher says. “Being the same age as him and growing up with him, we both knew each other’s strengths and knew when to step it up.

“He’s a big loss. He was a big leader for us within the squad. I felt that he had a couple of years left in him. He’ll definitely be a big loss come the summer.”

Gallagher is, in his own words, ‘taking it year-by-year now’ but, even if he was ‘caught on the hop’ when quoted as saying he’d be returning to Donegal’s squad in the days after the All-Ireland final in September, there was never a danger of him quitting.

“Especially this last few years with the success that we’ve had and with the big games that we’ve played in, you couldn’t beat that,” he says.

“It might be hard enough training away at this time of the year, but come the summer you can’t beat playing in those big games. When you pass the 30 mark people wonder about what’s happening. There are a few boys around that mark in the squad, but there’s piles left in them.”

That number includes another close friend, Christy Toye, who has come back after a spell dogged by injury to take a leading role in the cast once again.

Gallagher says: “Toye is a fine player. He always was. He’s stepped in there no bother. He played very well last year after a year out. He played wild stuff last year and is playing wild stuff this year again. There’s plenty of football in him.”

McGuinness left a void in early October, but on Halloween night Rory Gallagher was appointment.

“Rory (Gallagher) wasn’t really new to it because he’d been in for the three years before,” insists Gallagher about his namesake.

“He knew and we knew what to expect and that made it seamless. As a player, you don’t think an awful lot about that. You just get on with it really.”

After defeats against Kerry and Monaghan in their last two outings, Donegal are dicing with relegation ahead of their meeting with Tyrone. They’ve had no shortage of big meetings over the years and Sunday promises to be no different with a Championship-like tussle on offer, just seven weeks before their main event on May 17.

“Both teams are struggling for points so there’s a right bit at stake,” Gallagher says.

“We play in the Championship in two months’ time so it’ll be an interesting game anyway.  We’ve played them every year this last while and we’ve had plenty of tough games. Whoever wins it won’t be far from being safe.

“When you’re in Division 1, especially if you’re looking to bring new players into the squad and playing against the top teams, it’s good to get that competitive environment for the new players. It really helps them come the Championship. Just being in Division 1 and competing with the best is good every week.

“We’ve two games now and it’s up to ourselves to hopefully get the points to stay up.”

We press ‘stop’ on our recording devices, Neil Gallagher leans back, exhales and returns to where he’s comfortable: Away from the prying questions.

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