Seven months into the job the Belleek native was wondering had he made the biggest mistake of his managerial career.
He had been approached the previous autumn by the Derry County Board, having finished a stint managing his native Fermanagh.
Gallagher did his own research. He felt Derry could be a top-eight county again, with the potential to get into the top four. This kind of challenge appealed to him.
But it was Tyrone native Ciaran Meenagh, who had been the Derry coach in the previous management team – and still fills that role – who ultimately sold him the Derry project.
“Later on, I thought he had sold me a pup,” said Gallagher.
It took two late points to secure Derry a flattering home draw against Leitrim in the first round of the 2020 league. By then, Gallagher knew the magnitude of the challenge. On one level, there was what he describes as ‘massive potential’.
“I had seen Paudie McGrogan, Conor Doherty, Emmet Bradley and Niall Loughlin. I had seen Chrissy McKaigue, albeit only for a week. I hadn’t seen Paul Cassidy or Ethan Doherty at that stage. But I had also seen a lot of dysfunction.”
There were commitment issues, according to Gallagher.
“People were saying one thing and doing another. There was a lack of respect to put the team first, a lot of individual ego that thought they could do what they wished, at a cost to the team.
“It is not about doing what the team management want. It is what is best for the team.
“There was a level of indiscipline at training, in attendance at training and the way they went about their business. It wasn’t enjoyable.”
By the time Covid-19 struck, this culture had only improved slightly. The enforced break give Gallagher a chance to recharge his batteries – refocus and in his own words, ‘try and put simple things in place that could turn the corner, and personnel was a bit part of it’.
Between 2008 and 2019 Derry had used 107 players in the championship.
Gallagher and selectors Meenagh and former Derry player Enda Muldoon initiated one final clear-out.
“A lot of personnel (players) that had played a lot of times for Derry in the previous four or five years went out the door. They are all good lads in their own right – but, to me, they weren’t putting this team first.”
Eight of the players who started against Leitrim form the core of a slimmed-down squad, which has only lost three games since they returned to action in the autumn of 2020.
Of the four teams left in the race for Sam, Derry have, by far, the smallest squad – just 29, including five who are under 19 and one under 20.
“The management team, the Co Board and football people in the county believe they are the best players in the county. We want to invest in them, rather than have people on the panel just for numbers.”
No county has been more consistent in terms of team selection either.
Not only have they started the same 15 players in their championships wins over Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal and Clare, they have used four substitutes Emmet Bradley, Lachlan Murray, Ben McCarron and Paul McNeil in all games – and they have all been introduced in the same order.
Only three other players, Oisín McWilliams, Paudie Cassidy and Declan Cassidy have had game time in the championship.
“It is just the way we went about it and we got a lot of luck as well, because we had very few injuries. It is also down to the players’ hard work, but we have been fortunate – and, please God, that continues for another couple of weeks.”
Two crucial breaks fell their way as well. In September 2020, Conor Glass returned to Derry, having spent four and a half years with AFL club Hawthorns. It took him a couple of months to settle, but he has been hugely influential.
Meanwhile, Gareth McKinless had a change of heart in late 2020 and rejoined the squad.
Given McKinless’ priceless contribution since it is not surprising that Gallagher bent his own rules in order to accommodate him. The Ballinderry man occasionally reminds Gallagher of his vow not to allow him kick a ball for Derry again while he was manager.
“I probably did say that, but I would also be compassionate and understanding. I know from my own playing days that players can, and do, make wrong decisions from time to time. At the end of the day, the Derry team is for anyone who wants it, and is committed.”
Gallagher and Galway manager Pádraic Joyce worked with the same recruitment company in Dublin for a number of years; they have remained friends ever since.
Galway derailed Derry’s promotion ambitions earlier this season, when they hammered them in the penultimate round of the league.
The Derry Co Board had already booked an overnight stay in Cavan for the squad ahead of last league game against Meath.
“We went down to Cavan and discussed and analysed it (the Galway defeat) very clearly. Then after we beat Meath we drove back in our cars to Magherafelt, where we had a couple of drinks together.”
“While Tyrone was the short-term objective, the way we were playing and the way we wanted to improve wasn’t designed just to beat Tyrone – it was designed to win the Ulster championship.”
Gallagher attention to detail and his knowledge of opponents set him apart. He scoffs at the notion that he has a long list of contacts. “I have never been down that road. But it is my business to know other team’s business”
Gallagher credits his father Gerry and Fermanagh All-Star Peter McGinnity – who managed him at St Michael’s College in Enniskillen – for giving him an initially interest and grounding in coaching.
But he has had some journey since.