Derry manager Rory Gallagher is happy with players' commitment. (Pic: Mary K Burke)
Assured. Measured. Decisive. Three words that could spring to mind after a conversation with Rory Gallagher.
The Derry boss rarely uses the word maybe when chatting about football outcomes. It is black or white. Yes or no. And on the eve of his second Ulster championship at the helm, the tone of his voice would fall into the contentment bracket.
Just 10 days out from getting his championship game face on, every word coming down the phone-line is coated with a calm confidence.
Before a ball was kicked in the league, the former Donegal and Fermanagh boss spoke about how Derry would relish their championship build-up, should they tick the promotion box.
Nothing has changed, as he lets his guard down on how he perceived Derry's league campaign. With the right application and with the quality of players at his disposal, getting out of Division Three was 'a basic requirement'.
“The main goal for us is to become a much better championship team, we want to become a force in Ulster and climbing the divisions helps that,” Gallagher points out.
Of the last 30 games in the Ulster championship, stretching back to the turn of the millennium, Derry have won nine, drawn one (against Tyrone in Mickey Harte's first game) and lost the rest. Eight of the games were against Tyrone, with another eight against Sunday's opponents.
You have to go back to 2008 for a last win over Donegal, ironically in Ballybofey. The bookies' odds would suggest Derry are wasting their time.
While Donegal were beating Tyrone, drawing with Monaghan and Armagh in Division One, Derry were seeing off Limerick and Offaly, a full two Divisions below.
Will the gulf in class of opponent leave Derry off the pitch of what will be required on Sunday afternoon? Rory Gallagher doesn't believe it would, though he'd have preferred his troops to be oxtering their way among the big boys in Division One.
“I feel myself and the management team know how to prepare at the right intensity level that a top Division One team would do,” he stresses.
“That's all we can focus on now, working really, really hard and smart at training to prepare ourselves for that level. I am fairly confident we can be at it. If you don't have the quality of players, it is a big jump,” he added, stressing that Derry do have the tools and attitude to punch at a level above.
“We have to go out and prove it, but I believe we'll be at a very good level and a level that I believe we can get to.”
From his vantage point in Páirc Esler, neither Donegal's win nor the margin of victory over Down surprised the Derry boss.
“I think Down, by their own admission, are struggling to have all the best players in the county playing,” he said. “Donegal were impressive and played well, but it was very much as we expected.”
Gallagher feels Donegal's three league group games in a mini Ulster championship are more of an 'accurate yardstick' to their standard. It's there he has discovered some new elements to their play from the league.
“It more about imposing your own way of playing without the ball, that's the key for us and what we are going to try and do,” he suggests.
Gallagher feels there is pressure on every team in championship football. Derry striving to pick up a win in Ulster for the first time in six seasons is no different. He believes there is a 'huge expectancy' on Donegal to deliver and it will turn up the heat them,.
“The league is the league, you want to make your name as a team and as individuals in the Ulster championship,” Gallagher stresses.
“The feel good factor of winning Ulster championship matches is immeasurable and that's something we are desperate to have.
“I am really pleased to get out of Division Three, but we want to win championship matches and we want to join the big boys in Ulster, that's the only show in town when you become an inter-county footballer, to be successful at inter-county level.”
That's where Derry need to get to. The fact they are in the shape of their lives is an advantage and having consistent team selection has laid a foundation.
During the league, Danny Tallon opted out of the panel to get club football after not seeing any game time. Ruairi Mooney and Patrick Kearney have since joined him. Ten others that played at least one game in 2020, for a variety of reasons, didn't make it to the 2021 roster.
Gallagher believes in a close knit camp. Ronan McFaul's first call this weekend will be Friday's U20 game against Monaghan and he is still in his plans.
The Derry boss has no interest in adding anyone to the squad that currently sits at 29. When the current U20 and minor campaigns end, he will reassess who joins. He gives the impression that he'll be adding to the mix from the underage production line. But, going into Sunday, it is all about those inside the circle.
All through the league, Gallagher has used the term 'commit to each other' in nearly every post game interview, like a rallying call of what is required.
What does it really mean? Where did it come from?
He begins to explain. It covers a wide range of aspects, all centred on togetherness and sticking together.
There is the 'easy' statement of Derry players being more interested in their clubs. He saw, when he arrived initially as manager, their 100 percent commitment to their club during the club season and still being committed to Derry.
“But, it was not in the right manner in my opinion,” he begins. “You have to commit to each other at all times and put the team first, whether you are in the team or out of the team. Whether you play well or not play well. When you commit to something like that, you can start off on the way to making progress.”
He sensed that, yes, people were committing to Derry, but 'on their own terms'.
“There is a big difference in that. Right up until the Armagh (Ulster championship) game last year, it wasn't up to the level I'd have liked.
“I really believe the group we have now, that they are really committing to each other for Derry's best interest.
“It would be more about how we are committing to how we play in each situation, to how we prepare in each situation for a game, committing to putting the team first...whether that is with the ball or defending.”
“If you commit to the team in the right ways, it may not work out in the first play, or in the second play, but over the course of a season or during games it will help you get results.”
Now, as the Derry manager's 10-day lead in time has reduced to fine-tuning, the same three words will come into play again. This time inside the circle. Assured. Measured. Decisive. The latter will be the most important. Derry's championship tradition needs to change.
Ballybofey is the greatest Ulster battleground Derry could be negotiating this weekend. But there is a sense that it's one Rory Gallagher is relishing most of all. A place where, as he sees it, him, his squad and the 2021 season will be truly measured.
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