PLAYING IT SAFE
FOR around a decade big Neil Gallagher has literally been Tír Chonaill's safe pair of hand.
The gentle Glenswilly giant is part of a dying breed of midfielders who regularly scrape the skies and come down with a clean catch.
Gallagher always looks as if he is cruising, with that trademark left-footed solo before leisurely unleashing a pass to the forwards.
But like his great friend, business partner, and comrade Michael Murphy, Gallagher is also a very safe pair of hands to send in to ravenous journalists looking for that increasingly elusive angle.
Gallagher has won two Allstars and is gold dust in Donegal but he has never been comfortable talking about himself. It is only when someone asks him for an assessment of the phenomenal impact Murphy has made on Donegal that the ever-modest Gallagher becomes slightly animated.
For the softly spoken Gallagher is better placed than most to assess the polite, baby-faced superstar who has never feared going into the dark places as well as scoring from great distances and impossible angles.
"For a young fella, he is now 25 and he was made captain of the county team at 21 and that was a brilliant move," said Gallagher.
"His leadership is phenomenal and he would never ask any of the players to do something that he wouldn't do himself.
"He just inspires everyone around him and he is a very genuine person, enjoys the craic but is also very competitive. And you see him put his body on the line for Donegal time after time. Michael is also probably one of our best tacklers".
Kerry great Tomas Ó Sé said that getting hit by Murphy was like running into a train.
"He is well-mannered but it is what he does on the field that counts," said Gallagher.
"Michael may have just put over
a wild score or hang a goal and that just gets it going. And the way he carries himself in the dressing room kind of lifts everybody and we follow his lead."
Gallagher is 32 and captained Donegal to a National Football League title in 2007, and Murphy is a mere 25, but Jim McGuinness saw some special qualities and made him captain at the tender age of 21.
On Sunday, Gallagher, Murphy, and Donegal face their biggest challenge of the season in a quasi bare-knuckle contest for survival in Division One of the League at home against neighbours Tyrone.
Gallagher freely admits to being a bit uncomfortable under intense media scrutiny.
"If you say nothing, you say nothing wrong".
But, as on the field, big Neil never really puts a foot wrong as he deals with the tide of questions about Sunday's eagerly awaited clash.
"The time for talking is when you win.
"There is a lot at stake on Sunday as both teams are struggling for points.
"It certainly will be an interesting game and of course we have the Championship clash again in May.
"Both teams know each other very well and Tyrone have given us plenty of tough games along the way. And whoever wins it will not be far away from being safe".
And when a journo gently points out that Murphy and Gallagher were lined in their last encounter with Tyrone in Omagh, Gallagher does not shirk the observation. "There were a few bad tackles alright," he said.
But the priority on Sunday is Division One survival.
"It is important to stay up, especially if you are bringing young players into the squad and playing against the likes of Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone, and Cork," he said.
"You are playing against the top teams and it is good to have big crowds for young lads and you want to stay there coming into the Championship and competing with the best teams brings on your own game."