GAA Football

'Roar'-y Gallagher and his own unique art of war: John Cunningham

Derry boss Rory Gallagher (left) in his time as Killybegs coach along with manager John Cunningham.
Pic: Donna El Assaad
Proinsias Ó Creag

FORMER Donegal star John Cunningham knows his county's Ulster SFC Final opponents Derry will be led by someone who 'lives and breathes football' in the shape of their passionate manager Rory Gallagher.

'Razda', by his own admission, was and still is a combative character when it comes to football; the 1992 All-Ireland winner took no prisoners on the pitch and, to this day, refuses to suffer fools gladly if he's on the sideline.

Sent off in the Ulster decider between these two counties 30 years ago, Cunningham had no hesitation in calling on the knowledge of Gallagher, even though he'd just left the Donegal job and was about to take over his native Fermanagh.

When Cunningham took over the role as manager of his own club Killybegs back in 2017 there was no doubt one of Donegal football's biggest sleeping giants needed a potent wake-up call.

Rory Gallagher's split with Donegal that same season had been an acrimonious one. And even though he was in the midst of taking up the reins as the new Fermanagh boss, Cunningham made an approach.

'Fishermen' stars Hugh McFadden and Eoghan 'Ban' Gallagher played under Gallagher with Donegal and instantly vouched for his credentials.

Gallagher said 'yes' to the invite and when that unlikely managerial hook-up was eventually announced, the famous David Bowie song line, 'Putting out fire with gasoline' might have sprung to more than a few minds.

"I'd be an animated enough character and people probably did think, 'That can't work'," Cunningham joked. "But you seen how players fed off his enthusiasm. And Rory made a real impact with that group. He's unbelievable. He lives and breathes football. You hear that about plenty but he genuinely does.

"Whatever it is about him, he has this serious knowledge on every player. That's impressive enough at county level but it was the exact same on the club scene here in Donegal. And when you arm each of your own players going out with four or five wee snippets like that, it's amazing then to see so much of it come off or play out. And from the outside looking in, he's so animated. He never stops! And that's interpreted a whole load of different ways.

"But on the training field, he's amazing. His aim is to improve every single player. It didn't matter if it was the worst reserve in a group of 30 or 40. And again, that observation and then the small but significant detail he picks out… they're brilliant nuggets. The lads really took to him here."

Cunningham believes there is so much riding on the outcome of Sunday's eagerly awaited decider with more than just the Anglo-Celt up for grabs. It's a pressure-cooker environment and one he's glad to be on the outside of looking in.

"At that level, I don't know how they do it. It has to consume every single minute of your day. Imagine this week, what it's like for both [Donegal boss] Declan [Bonner] and Rory. It has to be the first thing they think of when they wake and the last thought that goes through their head at night.

"The commitment is massive. There is so much on the line on Sunday. Donegal need to make a statement, the last two years have been difficult.

"But the burning desire that both Rory and Derry will take into this game, to win an Ulster title, will be so potent. But something has to give. One of them is going to come up short. It's a fascinating duel. It'll be exciting and, no doubt, spicy."

Derry's renaissance under Gallagher has been startling. By his own admission, the Covid-19 shutdown at the start of his first term at the helm back in 2020 indirectly allowed him to press a reset button. The glaring inadequacy pinpointed at the time was the absence of any real strength and conditioning base. But when that new Oak beef was finally married with the undoubted footballing talent he knew was there, the results were spectacular.

"Ulster football has missed Derry being a force," Cunningham added. "They've been in the doldrums for quite a while. But the hype around them is serious now. Beating the All-Ireland champions and following that up with a victory over Monaghan; those were big statements. So eyes are on them now.

"They are in serious shape. The concentrated work they've got through under him is well-documented. They are a physically big and strong team now. But they have some brilliant and mobile footballers.

"They're going to bring a serious hunger to this. Their appetite to work and the intensity they're bringing, that's what Donegal are going to have to be so aware of in the lead-in.

"And Donegal are going to have to outwork them. This is going to be a real battle. We are in a game here. There is real and recent familiarity from last season. Both sets of players will know each other.

"It was so close then. I'm hoping Donegal can match all that enthusiasm and that our experience in that kind of environment, under that sort of pressure, will be the telling factor."

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GAA Football