July 17, 1992
Donegal full back Matt Gallagher.
LION-HEARTED MATT GALLAGHER
Donegal's great utility player
Good defenders are a much under-rated breed in the world of gaelic games. Although an afterthought, never the inspiration of post-match celebratory analysis, they're a species respected by the faithful but largely unrecognised by the masses of fair weather supporters. This season, however, the guardians of the motto "Thy shalt not score" have demonstrated, in no uncertain manner, that when it comes to deciding the spoils of war they're the troops that make all the difference.
The respective provincial football championships this year will be viewed in hindsight as the Year of the Defender. Consistently, those at the heart of things at the back have, for once, outshone their team mates and out-gunned their opponents in outstanding exhibitions of dogged determination and rare resilience.
Take for example, Dermot Flanagan's display against Sligo when Mayo needed an anchor and the corner back provided the necessary with aplomb. Then there was the sweeper's role exhibited supremely by Dublin's Paul Curran in his county's match with Wexford. Connie Murphy of Kerry, composure personified against Limerick while in Ulster, Henry Downey's feat in holding Down's Greg Blayney scoreless was a major episode in Derry's provincial semi final victory story. Gay Sheerin and Roscommon too.
Above everyone else though, the player shortlisted by most commentators as their Player of the Provincial Championships is Donegal's Matt Gallagher. Now in his eleventh championship season with his native Donegal, the rock-solid stopper has been nothing shorts of brilliant over the course of his county's three match gallop to the Ulster senior Championship final showdown, which takes place on Sunday next. The idol of Gaels for years now across the parochial Laghey-Ballintra areas of Donegal, the 30 year old lion-hearted defender is the man for all seasons, all games and all Gaels in Donegal. The 1992 season has proven that fact like no other period beforehand.
Gallagher's regal ways weren't always confined to the Donegal rearguard sector. Indeed, despite more than his complement of injuries over the years, the Naomh Brid stalwart is considered as one of his county's most versatile operators. Former team manager of the Donegal team, later Sligo's boss, Tom Conaghan, believed in Gallagher's versatile skills so much so that he employed the 5 feet 10 inch, 13 stone veteran in various positions in attack for the team. Even though he is still found on occasions, up front at club level, Gallagher is now a permanent fixture in the last line of defence under Brian McEniff's regime. He'd tell you that he's back to where he started with the county and back to where he belongs
Perhaps the fact that Matt Gallagher is now undoubtedly McEniff's first choice player to man the critical full back berth, has given the one-time Aodh Ruadh player the assurance he may have lacked in previous campaigns. Being settled now, emphatically so, at full back has added a solidity and a greater air of confidence to his game which struggle to gain a foothold when his own versatility was used to the betterment of the team. Consistency and reliability marked Gallagher's performances particularly over seasons '89/'90 and '90/'91. Now it seems, brilliance and control have been added to make for a powerful product.
His early football days were enjoyable, a learning experience and highly successful. As his home club, Naomh Brid, bided their time in search of sufficient numbers to begin underage work in depth and with some sort of continuity, the young Gallagher duly set about picking up some glittering prizes at the nearby famed Aodh Ruadh G.F.C. There, the first of a series of winners medals were collected on the double at under 12 level right through the grades up to and including under 21 grade. It was the start of a roll which hasn't really stopped or slowed down since for the approachable Donegal defensive kingpin
His early education provided by Aodh Ruadh, alongside the likes of latter day county senior team mates Brian Tuohy equally rewarding days spent on the football field in the colours of De la Salle College Ballyshannon. There in the company of the now Civil Service (Garda) team representative, Brian Murray, a senior colleges medal was added to his burgeoning collection.
A player who always performs with great flair and passion, Matt Gallagher's appreciation for the good times in football have come about mainly because, like many another, he has tasted the downside of the game as well. A stretch on the county minor side was an unfruitful experience and there then followed the bitter disappointment of defeat to Monaghan in the under 21 Ulster final of 1981. Though that setback was more than compensated for in the following year when joining up with comrades Shovlin, Carr, Molloy, McMullan, Bonner and Mulgrew to not only scoop the Ulster under 21 title but the All Ireland as well. Troubled by injury, the agony of missing out on a chance to stake a place on the team that lifted the Ulster senior championship in '83 brought everything back into prospective for the by-now Donegal hardened campaigner.
Rated by his team mates as probably the closest marker one could least like to have along your side at training, the popular sales representative and recently turned newest public house proprietor in Bundoran, Matt's greatest fan is undoubtedly wife Cathy. A Glaswegian lass with a great gradh for the game, when Cathy's not giving a hand out at the Gallagher's "The Bradog" pub, she's a dab player with the Bundoran G.A.A. ladies team. It's a winning combination on and off the field for the Gallagher's, there's no question about it!
Both Matt and Cathy, employed in London back in 1986, never lost touch with the Naomh Brid club despite toiling aboard. How could they? Thrilled with a McKenna Cup winners medal in 1985, Matt was equally delighted when his home club scooped the County Junior title with three Gallaghers on board, a year later. Brothers Pauric (a former county player but tragically killed a few years ago), Dermot and Declan played the proverbial blinders to help their club win the Junior title. It was a performance which would be repeated in 1987 with Matt available this time at centre half back the club stormed to the Intermediate championship title in their inaugural appearance at that stage of the competition. For good measure Naomh Brid went on to complete the Intermediate double with an impressive league campaign.
Despite a welcome second McKenna Cup medal clinched last year, Matt's greatest disappointment to date followed later that summer when Down's famous run to the All Ireland title really took off when the Mourne county downed Donegal in the Ulster final. For once, the Donegal defence crumbled as a unit. On an individual basis, however, Gallagher initially charged with policing Linden but then switched in as an emergency full back, emerged with reputation in tact. An All Star nomination in '91 proof of the pudding
Two years ago, Donegal and Gallagher had beaten this Sunday's opponents, Derry, in the provincial semi-final. How does Tir Connaill's full back rate Derry's 1992 package. "They're a much more formidable team than they were in 1990. We beat them quite comfortably on that occasion but this time around we're bound to find it a lot tougher" declared the man who had such a good game on Enda Gormley then. For Sunday's duel, Matt rates Dermot McNicholl and Anthony Tohill as particularly dangerous.
Now fully recovered from troublesome knee cartilage damage sustained over the years, Matt is in no doubt but that Derry earned the right to be at Clones this coming Sunday. "Derry were the best team on the day against Down, there's no doubt about that. They performed in a very professional manner, knew how to approach the task and stuck to their game plan"
Son of the late Tommy Gallagher, Matt's mother Mary Joe is a member of the famous Masterson footballing clan which included the late greats, Joe and Eddie Masterson. The pedigree's there alright and Matt Gallagher is nothing but ambitious to win the greatest prize in the game, that which is only ever presented within the confines of Jones's Road. Memories of Matt's 1990 provincial championship medal winning achievement with his county will not sustain such a combatitive and committed player whose talents deserve at least a showing on All Ireland final day.
A foot injury which interrupted his training schedule earlier in the year has thankfully cleared up for the 1992 Railway Cup star. He along with Tony Boyle and Martin McHugh will be Donegal's quota of Ulster representatives in action this Sunday and in a sense, Matt admits that he can understand the feelings of supporters who believe that "it's now or never" for this year's Donegal squad. The squad are at their peak, many argue. Matt Gallagher is displaying peak form, others concur.
With inside information, the Drumholm parishioner is better placed than most to asses the need for Donegal to overcome their own greatest weakness if Derry and the Connacht champions are to be overcome and so carve for the current side a place in Donegal G.A.A. history. "We've got to show the killer instinct that we've failed to show on different occasions over the years. That goes for the whole team from number one right to the last named substitute"
Taken from Hogan Stand - 17-07-92
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