Gallagher not fazed by senior shirt

Eoghan Ban Gallagher is a dodger!

Having spent the entire NFL avoiding journalists and giving them the runaround, it was surprising indeed to see the Killybegs man front and centre for media duties at the recent Donegal press afternoon in Ballybofey.

Every good Starsky needs a trusty Hutch. Fintra sidekick Hugh McFadden would usually be the one causing the distraction by stopping for a yarn, and that's when Gallagher often ghosted past on the blind side in and onto the bus.

Finally pined down in the Finn Suite at Jackson’s Hotel, we'd got our man. He along with the likes of Jason McGee and Ciaran Thompson are the ones from the new breed that have shone brightest to date for their county's senior footballers.

Like Thompson, Donegal boss Gallagher has made Eoghan Ban bide his time. The manager resisted the temptation to throw the stylish defender in at the deep end last term and that patience has been rewarded with both men in sublime form to date.

The player isn't taking anything from granted at the weekend. Or at least he wasn't giving anything away when pressed on whether or not he'll be in from the off against the Saffrons. Elusive on and off the pitch, Gallagher's poker-face in front of the dictaphone is also impressive.

So, this will be your first championship outing from the off at senior level?

“This will be my first championship start if I start,” was the reply to that cute enough feeler of an opener. “I made my debut from the bench last year so hopefully I will make my first start on Sunday.

“It has been my most enjoyable year to date playing football. There has been a lot of games, it's thick and fast. It's what you train for. It's been brilliant – really enjoyable. You want to be playing games rather than training.”

Ban – captain of the Tir Chonaill U21 Ulster championship winning side – admits that defeat to Kerry first time out in the League left a lot of doubters wondering if Donegal had taken more than a step back with the departure and retirements of some seriously decorated players.

He's adamant though that the loss to the Kingdom didn't dent their enthusiasm to prove their detractors wrong.

“It went okay for me,” he said on Kerry in Letterkenny. “Every day you go out you want to improve on your previous game. It was a tough lesson. But I've done a lot a learning over the last few years. We all have.

“I have been in the squad a few seasons now and every day you go out you learn something that will ultimately help you improve. We took the learnings from every game. You look at the Kerry game, the very first day, we were a little to open, our tackling wasn’t great.

“We took the learnings from that game and we seemed to improve every day we played after. We were happy the way the league went overall. There was a chance to make a (league) final. When the opportunity was there we didn’t take it. Obviously we were disappointed.”

Serving an apprenticeship of any description can be a frustrating process. It often involves limited tasks or roles that you feel you are already more than capable of carrying out. A good apprentice with potential might also feel that he's able to do one of the big jobs better than its current incumbent.

Gallagher though insists that he was happy to take a back seat and soak up as much knowledge as he could over the last two seasons.

“It depends on the person,” he said on having to kick his heels on the bench and in the stands initially. “I have enjoyed being in the background watching other players and how they apply themselves.

“I watch how Karl (Lacey), Paddy McGrath and Michael (Murphy) push themselves at training every night. And they have been around for years. So I take a leaf out of their book.

“I think that is part of it nowadays – settling in first. There is a good few of the lads up from when I was minor. And I have played with them over the last few years with the U21s.

“We are well used to playing together for a good few years now and it is a matter of blending in with Ryan McHugh and Michael (Murphy) and the rest of the senior players. It suited me and Ciaran Thompson, but again it probably depends on the person. Jason McGee has come in this year and he has gone straight into the team.

“But everybody knows that championship is what it is all about at the end of the year. Nobody is going to look back and say 'he had a good league campaign'.”

Gallagher's dynamic and directness means he's probably one of those that responds well to the hard yards that Donegal no doubt have put in ever since their NFL season wrapped in McHale Park back in April

He reveals that the workload has certainly increased but that the recent bout of sunshine has made it enjoyable.

“It definitely have (increased),” he added. “We got back into training when the boys got back from New York. We got down to it and we’ve had a few enjoyable weeks.”

Having the instant distraction of the senior side's Ulster SFC plotting allowed Gallagher to immediately park the disappointment from the U21's All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dublin.

“We had a few days break after we lost to the Dubs. We had a few days to think about it. Personally, I was happy to be back training and having something to focus on rather than sitting around and thinking of what might have been. It was so good to get back training so soon afterwards.”

Donegal will open as big favourites at the weekend but Gallagher insists that he certainly can't afford to look beyond the immediate 70 or so minutes in front of him. Again, if he is, as expected, named in the starting XV, part of his responsibility as well as helping secure the win is to do enough to hold onto his jersey.

“The focus is on how we can improve our game and to work hard and to make sure we are the best we can be on the day. Nobody in our camp is looking beyond Antrim. This is a massive game. It's huge for a lot of us who maybe wouldn't have the same experience as the older lads. Again, it's that thing, learning as you go.”

Sitting at the table adjacent to Gallagher is Donegal skipper Michael Murphy. Murphy is explaining how the current underage graduates stepping off the Tir Chonaill conveyor belt already possess the required physical spec to make an immediate dent in the senior ranks.

That wasn't always the case. Rory Kavanagh explains in his excellent autobiography that he, in his late 20s, had to bulk up at an accelerated rate after Jim McGuinness explained that he'd need extra muscle mass to cut it around the middle for his new Donegal.

Gallagher, like a lot of his younger teammates, has followed that impressive lead as the county's various youth set-ups embraced strength and conditioning and the benefits of that training approach.

It's par for the course now, even in club football. Gallagher admits that the dizzy heights of 2012 and watching Donegal land Ulster and All-Ireland crowns whetted his appetite to aspire to make the grade.

He said: “Whenever I was 16, in 2012, Donegal got to the All-Ireland final that year. I was in Croke Park for every game and saw the buzz that was in the county when Donegal were doing well. It definitely drove me on to do well. I wanted to be the next Karl Lacey or whoever. They were great times. These are still great times. It's such a great set-up now. The foundations have been laid for us all to be the best that we can be.”

The Killybegs man's versatility means that he offers the side an option in both attack and defence. He agrees that flexibility could be key to securing game-time and being afforded the opportunity to make a real contribution in this championship campaign this summer.

Gallagher knows that the way football continues to evolve, that unless you change and adapt with it you won't improve. An added dimension to your game makes it harder for the opposition to negate your efforts and the manager to ignore your hand when its up.

“I have adapted my game over the years,” he said. “Donegal have been playing a certain style for a few years, it's changing all the time. It's a case of changing your game to suit the style the different managers wanted you to play. I think it helps your game long term to be flexible.

“I’m happy to play anywhere at all as long as I’m getting game time. I honestly don't mind. I'll play wherever the manager feels is best for the team.”

Gallagher has already experienced provincial glory as captain with both the minors and U21s. He wouldn't dare look past Sunday but does admit that adding a senior medal to round off that collection is definitely the ambition.

He says on 2014's minor win: “Ulster final day, when you are playing in front of all them Donegal supporters and with the seniors in the final as well; it's unbelievable. There was a huge build-up to the  All-Ireland final then as well. I remember all people were talking about was the All-Ireland final. It was a massive  experience for us though as well.”

Gallagher is a second year accountancy student at Sligo IT. He'll be back at his desk Monday morning at 9am to sit his latest exam. Testing times on a variety of levels but he's not complaining.

“You just get on with it. It's a big couple of days but you just have to give it your best. It'll be a lot easier going up the road if we're sitting in an Ulster semi-final.”

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