|Venue: St Tiernachs Park, Clones Date: Sunday May 29th throw in: 16:00 CET|
|Cover: Watch on BBC Two NI; Live text commentary, match report and highlights on the BBC Sport NI website|
Venture back to April and you wouldn’t have blamed Derry fans, who have mixed feelings about the county’s hopes for the upcoming Ulster Championship.
On the one hand, their Division Two campaign showed some striking results. There was no return to the top of football, but there was enough evidence of Derry’s upward trend in those seven games to suggest a long-overdue championship run was on the horizon.
However, their strike against Galway that ended the prospect of reaching Division One was still fresh in their minds, while Ciaran McFaul, who was outstanding in Glen’s first County Championship triumph in November, had left the panel.
But nonetheless here they stand, close to ending a 24-year wait for an Ulster title with Rory Gallagher the demanding. full-bodied architect behind the revival that has gripped the province.
And while he ponders every conceivable clash for the Clones’ showpiece against Donegal on Sunday, it’s worth recounting Derry’s eventful journey under the Belleek man ahead of their first provincial decider since 2011.
Of course, Gallagher’s appointment sparked debate in September 2019. With Derry in need of a new leader following Damian McErlain’s departure, the Borough Executive turned to Gallagher just two months after the end of his Fermanagh rule.
The reaction to his arrival in some parts of Derry was lukewarm. Some felt the job should have gone to then-Derry Under-20s boss Mickey Donnelly or former senior captain Johnny McBride, while many felt that Derry should have gone with Gallagher – who is seen as the arch-proponent of defensive football – in situ would soon resemble his Fermanagh or Donegal sides.
But Gallagher, who defied all odds to lead his hometown of Erne County to the 2018 Ulster Final, would never allow dissenting voices to get in the way of the new project to which he immediately gave his steadfast focus.
“I don’t have a particular style of play,” Gallagher told BBC Sport NI’s Thomas Niblock shortly after taking charge in Derry.
“I believe the fundamentals of improving players are the most important. The biggest thing for me is improving players and pushing them to reach their potential.”
The new era began in the low-key, wintry climes of the Dr McKenna Cup, with losses to Monaghan and Donegal sending a young, experimental Derry side out of the group stage.
Another disappointment was to follow in Gallagher’s first league campaign at the helm, which, after being interrupted by the outbreak of the global pandemic, ended with them narrowly missing out on promotion to the second division as Down – whose shares have since plummeted – rose.
But while they ultimately failed to make it up the ladder, there were clear positives for Gallagher to build on.
There was no question that without turning Derry into a swollen, ultra-defensive unit, Gallagher had tightened things up in defence. They had conceded 95 points, just like in the 2019 season, but played in a higher league.
There were also signs Derry had unburdened sniper Shane McGuigan’s shoulders with 11 different goalscorers in the win over Longford, indicating their growing ability to spread points across the team.
Players have benefited from intense fitness programs during lockdown, while Gallagher’s midfield has been significantly strengthened with the return of Conor Glass from Australia.
After the pandemic threw up the schedule, an Ulster Championship quarter-final with Armagh ensued just seven days after the league ended, and Derry paid the price for an error-strewn first-half performance as the Orchardmen went a 0- 17 to 0-15 win.
But, again, there were positives for Gallagher as he handed championship debuts to Glass, Odhran Lynch, Conor McCluskey, Padraig Cassidy and Ethan Doherty, who have all become pillars of the team.
Heartache in Ballybofey
If late 2020 showed tentative signs that things were going in the right direction, last year provided further confirmation that Ulster’s sleeping giant was stirring.
Derry rode through the Division Three campaign to earn promotion ahead of the Ulster Quarter-Final against Donegal at Ballybofey.
It led to a heartbreaking result for Gallagher and his players. In a Championship creep played at a mostly empty MacCumhaill Park, Derry led by four points early in the second half but was stunned when Paddy McBrearty’s final strike sent Donegal wide.
Visibly dejected at full-time, Gallagher gathered his thoughts in time to insist Derry would learn from their mistakes. Delivering championship results makes teams, but Gallagher knew at the time his side were getting close. The district board did the same when it wanted to secure its services until 2025.
While Gallagher’s preparations for this year’s Division Two campaign were hampered by Slaughtneil’s and Glen’s participation in the All Ireland hurling and Ulster club football competitions, Derry kicked off his latest surge in promotion with convincing victories over Down and Offaly.
Indeed, players’ commitment to the Gallagher project was underscored by Slaughtneil hurlers Chrissy McKaigue, Shane McGuigan and Brendan Rogers – key figures for the club and county – who, 48 hours after the ordeal of losing an All-Ireland club, reported for training. Finale to Ballygunner.
“Buy-in, Cohesion, Shared Drive”. All of these expressions became synonymous with Derry under Gallagher.
Of course, the key to Derry’s swing early in the season this year was banishing the cork-shaped silhouette that haunted her every move for two years.
In March 2020, in Derry’s last game before the pandemic-enforced shutdown, they were beaten 3-13 to 3-11 by the Rebels but Gallagher admitted his side were “lucky” to have lost just two later “get a lesson in the middle of the field”.
Redemption was to come at Owenbeg in February, however, when Derry sauntered to a nine-point win. It was her 10th straight league win and arguably the most satisfying.
However, promotion to Division One eluded them. Galway made sure of that, but Gallagher knew the most thorough test of his side’s progress would come on May 1 in the Championship cauldron against rivals Tyrone.
Speaking of The GAA Social last yearGallagher recalled that when he and Jim McGuinness plotted Donegal’s path in the early stages of their memorable reign, “everything was geared towards beating Tyrone”.
For them, the Red Hands were the benchmark and given Tyrone’s current status as an All-Ireland champion, Gallagher may have viewed this year’s Ulster quarter-finals as an excellent chance to prove himself against a heavy-hitter.
The result sent shockwaves across the province as Derry dismantled Tyrone with a 1-18 to 0-10 success that brought back memories of their famous 2006 win over the Red Hands.
Sure, there have been impressive league advances, but that 11-point win at Healy Park was Derry’s first in Ulster since 2015.
It was hard to overstate its importance and a similarly emphatic performance followed against Monaghan to bring them close to their first Anglo-Celt in almost a quarter century.
From Chrissy McKaigue’s man marking clinics to Gareth McKinless’ Herculean contributions at both ends of the field, Gallagher has transformed a talented assemblage of individuals into a true championship force.
“Rory came in, it took him a year to figure it out, he’s got those who engaged and he showed them what it takes to win,” said Kieran McKeever, the last Derryman to win the Anglo-Celt won.
“They’ve adopted his style. I think the players now believe they can get to the top. If someone said at the beginning of the year that we were going to keep Division Two and beat Tyrone in the first round, we would to do.” took it with no problem.”
Donegal All-Ireland winner Mark McHugh, who witnessed first-hand Gallagher’s intense methods at Donegal and Kilcar, described the Derry manager as a “genius”.
“Can I say he’s the best coach I’ve ever had? Yes, he’s probably just ahead of Karl Lacey. He covers everything. There is probably not a scenario on the football pitch that he hasn’t covered.
“If something happens in a game, whether it’s the weather, the referee or the opponents and what they might throw at you, he kind of handles it.”
So much will be true next Sunday, no doubt about that.
Donegal in the Ulster final to a sell-out Clones. It’s the ultimate litmus test for this upcoming Derry side and Gallagher will dig the depths of his vast knowledge of football to clinch the county’s first provincial title this side of the millennium.
Whether Gallagher’s diligent prep work will result in a famous victory over Donegal remains to be seen, but given where Derry started, his role in this year’s Championship history will not be easily forgotten.