BY CHRIS MCNULTY
BACK in October, Glenswilly, the defending champions, were heading for the cloakroom and out of the Donegal senior football championship.
St Michael’s had them on the rack, Martin McElhinney’s goal putting them 1-2 to 0-1 ahead. The huge crowd in Foxhall sensed that Gary McDaid’s Glenswilly were gone.
Then came a moment that’s magic lay in its simplicity.
Neil Gallagher floated a perfectly-weighted ball into the St Michael’s goalmouth. As it dropped perilously on top of Mark Anthony McGinley, Michael Murphy rose highest and flicked home a goal that would be the catalyst for Glenswilly’s march to a final they lost against old foes St Eunan’s.
That tense Saturday evening at Pairc Naomh Columba came flooding back to Dougie Corbett this week.
A native of Monaghan town, based in Donegal through his work with the Irish Defence Forces in Finner Camp, Corbett was drafted onto McDaid’s backroom team at the start of last year.
He’d been friendly with former Glenswilly chief Francie Martin and had watched the Glen closely during Martin’s tenure, but was only when on the inside looking out that he realised the real worth of Gallagher and Murphy.
Corbett will fly the Monaghan colours this weekend, but is well aware of the potential for Glenswilly’s giants to derail his native county’s hopes of capturing the prize.
“We were heading for the exit but that wee moment of magic from the two boys got us through last year,” he says of that night when Glenswilly prevailed on a 1-4 to 1-2 scoreline.
“Trying to negate that is one thing, but actually doing it is another thing entirely.
“I couldn’t praise the two boys highly enough. When you look at them from a distance you think: ‘They’re some players’ but when you see them at close quarters you can really begin to see their worth. It’s the all-round package that they bring to the table. It isn’t just what they do on the field, but off it they’re just complete pros.
“Michael’s contribution kind of speaks for itself. He leads from the front every single time he goes out. You actually wouldn’t believe the practice that man puts in. I seen him go for what seemed like hours just going over his frees, inside of the foot, outside of the foot and from all angles. That work he does outside of the normal training makes him the player he is.
“That all pays off and you just stand back and admire things when you see Michael standing over a 50-metre free in the white heat of a Championship battle, staring at a fierce breeze and sailing the thing over. That’s some lift to hand a team.”
Corbett is now working alongside Martin at Naomh Colmcille, but keeps close tabs on Glenswilly and wasn’t at all surprised that Rory Gallagher pressed McDaid’s number into his phone when he was on the lookout for a selector last winter after being appointed Donegal’s manager.
He says: “Gary leaves no stone unturned – and I mean no stone. Every single facet of a game from kickouts to sidelines to throw-ups will be analysed. Himself and Rory are a formidable partnership.
“I feel that the whole debacle with the Ciaran Bonner black card against Naomh Conaill and all that appeal business last year had a big affect on Glenswilly and then you had Caolan Kelly being suspended. It was all very up in the air and I do genuinely believe that Glenswilly would’ve won the final with another two weeks to prepare.”
The importance of Gallagher and Murphy to Donegal was really outlined in the game against Derry. They had 66 possessions between them, Murphy with 30 and Gallagher with 36.
It’s remarkable to think just how peripheral Gallagher was in 2011, the first year of the Jim McGuinness-Rory Gallagher combination. Gallagher saw little-to-no game time. He was 28 at the time.
Gallagher came back for 2012 and won an All-Star. He won his second All-Star last year and the midfielder has become, next to his clubmate Murphy, Donegal’s main player.
Gallagher is a transformed player in the last five years.
“Neil is in great form and he has been for the last number of years,” Rory Gallagher said of the midfielder, who has spent a chunk of time at full-forward in recent games.
“He’s a huge part of what we’re about. He has great experience and know how. He has really adapted his play and really adapted his game. He has brought so many new dimensions to the game. It’s no matter what age you are – when you’re contributing whet Neil Gallagher is you’ve no concerns.”
Corbett is in no doubt that Gallagher is the oil that keeps Donegal’s engine ticking over.
“For me, Neil Gallagher is a real unsung hero for Donegal,” he says.
“If you were an opposition manager I think Neil Gallagher would actually be the first man you’d try and stop. Everything goes through him.
“Look back at the year Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012. That game he had against Cork in the semi-final is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a footballer. Cork’s midfield was being lauded that year, but Neil destroyed them. That performance alone got him an All-Star. He just took Cork apart.
“His worth could be seen too in the Ulster final two years ago. Donegal lost to Monaghan and Neil didn’t start that game. Monaghan got a lead on Donegal and by the time Neil came into the fray it was just too late. Himself and Eoin Lennon have had some huge battles and they’ll be in for another one this weekend.
“Eoin was absent last year when Donegal won so if the two of them are in from the off this year it’ll make for a huge battle at midfield.
“They played against one another when Latton met Glenswilly in the club championship too so they know each other pretty well. That one will have a big bearing on Sunday.
“Himself and Murphy are Gods in Glenswilly, but it’s no wonder. They can do whatever is needed whether it’s a quiet word in someone’s ear or a fist-pumping moment in a huddle. They’re just top notch professionals in the game.
“They have improved so much over the years, but it’s all down to the work that they put in.”