GAA

Farrah Way: Oisin Gallen bringing his own style to Donegal’s inimitable number 14 geansaí

Oisin Gallen burst on to the scene in the Division Two final in 2019 but completed 70 minutes for Donegal just once in the next four years. He has gotten the better of his injury troubles now and is leading the line in the number 14 jersey synonymous with Michael Murphy. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Oisin Gallen burst on to the scene in the Division Two final in 2019 but completed 70 minutes for Donegal just once in the next four years. He has gotten the better of his injury troubles now and is leading the line in the number 14 jersey synonymous with Michael Murphy. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

AS Oisin Gallen kicked his eighth point of the afternoon, the crowd in O’Donnell Park began to laugh.

They’d torn quickly through their bag of oohs and aahs as they watched him try and pull the good ship MacCumhaills to the land of a county final that his grandfather Eddie had taken them to as manager in 1959.

It’s semi-final weekend in Donegal club football, an infertile land for scoring forwards that still grapples with the effects of Jim 1.0 and the Naomh Conaill team from which his fingerprints remain irremovable.

Gallen kicked ten points that day against Gaoth Dobhair. Not enough for MacCumhaills to win.

The eighth score was like the famous picture of Maradona and the Belgian defence. Five green shirts around him, one tackling from behind, another throwing himself into Gallen, whose body is turned to an angle that makes the shot off the outside of his right foot that almost impossible. Only almost.

The previous round, he’d a shootout with Michael Murphy. He hit 1-5. Gallen hit 1-9.

“It was a shootout of points I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like,” says Luke Gavigan snr, his club coach from beginning to end of his underage days.

Gallen now fills the Donegal number 14 jersey synonymous with Murphy and, by extension, success itself.

In the beginning, when he still had his puppy fat as a young boy, nobody saw it coming really.

Then they thought it would come sooner. The chat in Donegal was that this was the best young footballer in Ulster, not just the county.

He was still 18 when he kicked four points from play in Croke Park in a Division Two final against Meath. Tongues wagged.

Donegal still feel they missed out on a good shot at an All-Ireland minor title when his group fell between the cracks the year of the change from U18 to U17.

Joining Patrick Dolan as the first ever Ulster Colleges Allstars from St Columba’s in Stranorlar, he hit 1-11 as captain in the Arthurs Cup final.

As a young boy in the sloping front yard that ran to the road, Gallen kicked every day. Left. Right. Left. Right.

The only people able to lay claim to his two-footedness are himself and his parents, Sean and Geraldine. It was just something he did from no age.

“You know the way a left-footed player kicks on the right, it looks unnatural? If you watch him in any of the games, the way he strikes with the left is completely natural,” says Eamon McGee, who had him at U20 for a year and saw enough of him in that club semi-final last year to do.

“Shane Walsh is in the same mould, he spent so much time with the left and right that it looks natural. Gallen’s strike with the left is the same. It’s just pure, pure practice.”

But having thought it would come sooner, people in Donegal began to think that they’d never see it at all.

Having completed the 70 minutes of that 2019 league final with Meath, Gallen went out on the last weekend of April and dislocated his shoulder in a club game against Cloughaneely.

Oisin Gallen's 0-9 haul against Derry in Ballybofey last summer brought him back into the national consciousness and helped earn him an Allstar nomination. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Oisin Gallen's 0-9 haul against Derry in Ballybofey last summer brought him back into the national consciousness and helped earn him an Allstar nomination. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

He played bits of the championship off the bench but it led to surgery in the winter. So began his injury horrors.

Between that league final and last year’s mid-February clash with Monaghan, Oisin Gallen completed 70 minutes for Donegal just once.

Since then, he has played in 11 of their 13 games, eight of them from start to finish.

The fuse really lit with his performance against Derry on his home patch in MacCumhaill Park last summer, where reigning Allstar full-back Chrissy McKaigue tried in vain to curtail him to the point where RTÉ gave him Man of the Match even though Derry won by five points. Gallen ended the summer with an Allstar nomination of his own.

Jim McGuinness built his first generation around his number 14. There is no question that he wants to do the same again.

With Murphy, it was three parts football and two parts his command of the changing room.

Gallen is different. More of a background presence, a reverence shared by each of his three brothers, all similar in personality.

Perhaps, in time, he’ll come out of that shell.

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GER Canning famously irked the natives when he declared during the 2021 game with Kerry that Oisin’s nickname ‘Farrah’ was a bow to Olympic long-distance runner Mo.

It’s a family heirloom, famous in the twin towns of Ballybofey-Stranorlar.

Oisin’s grandfather Eddie ‘Farrah’ took on a barber shop on Navenny Street in the town during the 1960s.

A wordsmith and a craic artist, men would travel from far and wide to hear his stories.

When MacCumhaills won the county title in 1959, Eddie and Josie O’Meara were at the helm.

His son Sean, Oisin’s father, took on the mantle of the barber shop in recent years and runs it in exactly the same way.

“You go in and get the hair cut with [Sean] Farrah, he could talk about anything. Anything,” says Paddy McNulty, chairman of Cappry Rovers soccer club and Oisin’s former team-mate.

“Mad Everton man. He’s very good craic. Gaelic or soccer, that’s the place everyone goes to talk about sport, not necessarily to get the hair cut. It does be packed, and he’d add on a wee bit to stories.

“If you’re low on confidence, you’d go in Farrah’s and come out thinking you’re a top player.”

Oisin, whose heritage on his mother’s side is McGinty blood from Glenfin, had made Cappry’s first-team in the Donegal Premier Junior Division before he turned 16.

McNulty recalls having to take him out of the firing line just once, when they went to Ballymun and played Sandyhill Shangan in an FAI Junior Cup game in 2017 and young Gallen was at right-back.

“They started firing a few things at him. For his own safety and for our safety, we had to take him off to put on a more experienced player that could take the shit that was coming from the sideline. He was getting everything, things thrown at him.”

The Cappry side on a good day could resemble a GAA Allstar select.

Gallen could have been anywhere from right-back to the left wing but played most of his soccer in central midfield.

One particular afternoon they went to St Catherine’s in Killybegs with Gallen in a midfield three between All-Ireland winners Ronan McNamee and Frank McGlynn.

Professional sport could easily have turned the young MacCumhaills man’s head. The League of Ireland would have been a comfortable landing.

Perhaps not helped by the shoulder injury, he arrived in Melbourne in late 2019 to take on the AFL combine.

He came fifth overall in the Agility Run, where players weave in and out through a series of poles, registering a time of 8.197 seconds.

Gallen had gone out alongside Cian McBride, who ended up getting a contract and staying out until he was released by Essendon last autumn, since when he’s returned to Meath colours.

Jason McGee and Eoghan Bán Gallagher had been out in the years previous but Donegal managed to keep hold of the lot.

Oisin Gallen celebrates after Jamie Brennan (15) celebrates a goal against Kildare at Ballyshannon on Sunday.<br /> Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
All smiles: Oisin Gallen celebrates after Jamie Brennan (15) celebrates a goal against Kildare in 2019. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

At the time, the all-seeing eye of Murphy was taking part in AIB’s Toughest Trade programme, where he went over and trained with French Top 14 rugby side Clermont Auvergne.

“Oisin is well able to make up his own mind. Some lads need a bit more direction and advice than others and Oisin is definitely not one of them. Really smart, level headed lad who knows what he wants. He’s really driven to play for Donegal and that’s one thing that’s really evident from him - so that would influence him in any decision he would have to make,” he said back then.

Yet it took for his injury troubles to start for it to really come out of him.

“I remember being up with the 20s and being scundered for Gallen,” recalls McGee.

“The seniors would be training and Gallen was just up and down the line at Convoy doing that conditioning work and then up to the gym.

“It’s the most monotonous thing, it’s a horrible place to be. You’re injured, doing the conditioning runs up and down the line and then up to the gym to do whatever. I thought that’s a man that deserves a medal for that.

“He’s put in wile effort this last few years to keep himself at that level physically. He always had the football.”

The fact that it was a shoulder injury first and then an elbow injury that also required surgery led to a huge amount of upper-body work in the gym over the last 18 months.

That has been visible in his change in physique.

“The strength has come really in the last couple of years,” says Luke Gavigan, who believes the underage success of those MacCumhaills teams they came up with was a big factor.

“Physically he’s obviously doing his work in the gym but still staying lean. Whoever is doing his programmes, it’s working well with him. He’s probably 6′1″ or 6′2″ as well, he’s a big lad. Big difference.”

There’s also been the effect of finishing his studies in DCU. Instead of travelling up from there to Convoy twice a week, he’s taken a job in St Aengus’ National School in Bridgend, 45 minutes up the road on the Derry border.

He hasn’t been out with Cappry Rovers in a while, and they don’t expect to see him again any time soon.

In some ways, Oisin Gallen was the perfect man to slip into Murphy’s old geansaí.

It will sit relatively lightly on his shoulders, partly because they’re very different players and very different characters.

If you’re looking for comparisons, he is much more like a Colm McFadden-type figure, an out-and-out inside man, an assassin.

But Gallen is his own man.

Before and after games, Luke Gavigan – whose son of the same name was on the same teams as Gallen in soccer and Gaelic football – will text him and the reply is always gracious.

“There’s no arrogance or chip on the shoulder that you might associate with someone of that ability,” says Eamon McGee.

“He’s just such a good lad to have about it, there’s no nonsense with him. Wile easy worked with, he’ll come up and talk and is just a wile good-mannered young fella.”

He might put manners on a few full-backs before the year is out.