GAA Football

“The way we train is a hell of a lot different to the way Donegal trained"

Derry warm up before playing Donegal in the Ulster Senior Football Championship Final at Clones on Sunday 29th May 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

PERCHED up on a treatment table fifteen feet from where the red-and-white cavalcade of human traffic is joyously headed, Rory Gallagher is asked how it feels after so many near misses to have finally won Ulster himself.

Minus the gesticulating, his answer contains a bit of the time when, as Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho reminded the media that he'd won more Premiership titles than the other 19 managers put together.

Gallagher had lost Ulster finals as a manager with both Donegal (2015 and 2016) and Fermanagh (2018), but the more time passes, the more confident he has become in offering reminders that just because he fell out with Jim McGuinness doesn't mean you Tippex out the fact he was there.

“It's the third final I won. '11, '12, and now '22. I tell these ones [his children, draped over his shoulder], these two weren't born before when I won two. You are part of a management team, the title is not important,” he said just over three weeks ago.

The similarities between Derry 2022 and Donegal 2011 are almost impossible to ignore.

A generational gap bridged by a team set about writing a new world order with a gameplan that only its own kinsmen could love.

When Donegal were expanding on their attacking gameplan off the back of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dublin, their whole staple became getting ahead of the ball.

They did one particular drill where the man in the middle had the ball and would solo at a flat-out sprint. Two runners would start behind him and the sole aim was for those two to get past the ball-carrier before they hit the last cone some 70 yards away.

It became so disastrous for the players' hamstrings that they had to ban the ball-carrier from soloing.

There's always been the narrative that even by the time 2014 ended, Donegal were a broken team physically.

Karl Lacey had surgery to both his hip and his knee in the couple of seasons after winning Footballer of the Year and the All-Ireland.

Michael Murphy had a groin operation in early 2012. Neil Gallagher powered through with knee and ankle injuries.

Luke Keaney would have four hip operations before he was 25, while Paddy McGrath and Patrick McBrearty would both go on to suffer cruciate ligament tears in the years after.

That's not to pin any or all of those injuries at the door of over-training, for who knows whether they might have happened anyway, but as Gallagher looks through the similarities he can see the differences in how Derry train now compared to how Donegal did then.

“It's not as raw. It's not as maybe manic or crazed,” he says now.

“I feel in Donegal we were very fortunate in some of the things we did.

“There was a means to an end with it and there was definitely a feelgood factor to what we were doing.

“Donegal was still in the era where players were only coming round to looking after themselves properly. It wasn't long into that phase. We would train differently now.

“I feel we've inherited the culture of Slaughtneil and now Glen as well, Lavey having won Ulster U21s, it's a great starting point.

“I think it's very different to Donegal in the sense that Donegal weren't a young team to win Ulster for the first time and weren't a young team to win an All-Ireland.

“There were a number of players heading for the exit very soon after that naturally, because of their age.

“The way we train is a hell of a lot different to the way Donegal trained, I can promise you that. I feel it's certainly very sustainable. It's enjoyable as well.”

The bare numbers in terms of the age profile of the two aren't all that different. When Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012, the average age of the team that started the final was 25.6.

Derry's average age against Donegal a month ago was almost identical – 25.5.

Where Chrissy McKaigue (32) and Benny Heron (31) pull the numbers up, Ethan Doherty (20) and Paul Cassidy (22) drag them back down. The other 11 starting players are between 23 and 28.

Donegal's All-Ireland winning team had 12 players in that age bracket, with only Patrick McBrearty (19), Mark McHugh (22) and Neil Gallagher (31) either side.

“We have a number of players heading into their really strong years and a number of players with a good few years to even get to that stage,” says Gallagher of his current side.

“It has to be about Peter [Hughes] and the guys that understand the science of it more than myself or Ciaran [Meenagh] or Enda [Muldoon], they give a bit of direction too.

“I tell you one thing, when we turn up to training, every single night 90 per cent of it is football.”

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GAA Football