BY CHRIS MCNULTY IN CLONES
LAST December, as he was piecing the Donegal jigsaw together, Rory Gallagher had a brainwave.
He’d worked for three years previously with the majority of the panel he’d just taken charge of and had watched Martin O’Reilly’s development closely in 2012 and 2013.
Before the Donegal squad assembled for collective training, Gallagher dispatched O’Reilly to train with the county under-21s.
The thinking behind it was to improve both Sean MacCumhaill’s man’s fitness and finnesse.
It clearly paid off. O’Reilly has played 875 minutes of football this year – more than any other Donegal player – and on Saturday night it was his 45th minute goal that put Derry to the sword.
It was his second Championship goal, following his strike against Armagh a fortnight earlier.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” O’Reilly said.
“You spend most of the game running up and down the pitch. No-one sees that and are probably questioning: ‘How is this man getting on the team?’ I was just glad to get the chance and to knock it into the back of the net.
“Rory had me in from away back in December. He was trying to get me fitter and he gave me a good run at it in the League. He just wants you to work hard and he’ll give you the chance.
“He gave me that chance. He told me: ‘Go out and work, do everything that I asked you’. That’s what I’ve been trying to do so far. There are a lot of great substitutes there on the squad so you can’t take the feet off the gas at all.
“I’ve been trying hard. Rory named the team earlier today and I was just delighted to hear my name getting called out.”
O’Reilly took receipt of an exquisite pass from Neill Gallagher before going around Thomas Mallon, Derry’s goalkeeper, and firing home the killer goal.
He said: “It’s a great feeling. I was just delighted to see it go in. The result is the main one here – so long as we get over the line I don’t mind who scores.”
The Dublin-based schoolteacher is now in his fourth year on the panel. In 2011, he watched the Ulster final from a bar in Grand Canaria having turned out for the Donegal Under-21 hurlers that year.
Now, though, he’s readying himself for a fourth Ulster final with the senior footballers – a game that will be the county’s fifth provincial decider in a row. Derry made life difficult for Donegal, but O’Reilly wasn’t surprised by the steel shown by the Oak Leaf.
He said: “It’s brilliant to get into the final. A lot of people had us already in the final, but that was very silly to write Derry off like that. We were getting built up far too much. We had to come here and beat Derry.
“They were a very good team and we knew they’d be hard to beat.
“The only ones who didn’t have Derry written off were us. We knew what they’d come with.”