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Paddy Tierney

Kerry vs Galway: Former Antrim ace Owen Gallagher plotting All-Ireland success with Tribesmen

All-Ireland SFC final: Kerry v Galway (Sunday, Croke Park, 3.30pm, live on RTÉ and Sky)

It is almost two years to the day when a Gardaí patrol van pulled up alongside Owen Gallagher in Galway City centre.

A familiar voice from the passenger side window assured the Antrim native he wasn’t in any trouble. Quite the opposite.

Don Connellan, Gallagher’s former coach at NUIG, was now the manager of Moycullen and wanted to see if Gallagher fancied attending training.

Read more : Ex-Antrim star Owen Gallagher loving life in Galway

That brief conversation led to a change of club and county allegiances for Gallagher and, on Sunday afternoon, he’ll wear the maroon of Galway as Pádraic Joyce’s men attempt to defeat Kerry in the All-Ireland SFC final in Croke Park.

Gallagher, having studied medicine at NUIG, was working as a junior doctor in 2020 and had often made a seven-hour bus journey to Galway from his home in Glenavy in Co Antrim.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns changed things for Gallagher. The travel restrictions meant he was forced to spend a lot more time in Galway.

Connellan had previously mooted the idea of Gallagher playing with Moycullen when he took over the reins at the Gaeltacht club.

A fiercely passionate Antrim Gael, Gallagher politely declined the invitation at first, but he knew the day would come when the arduous journey north would become too much. Covid forced a rethink for Gallagher.

Glenavy and Antrim’s loss would prove to be Moycullen and Galway’s gain.

“The decision to transfer wouldn’t have been a decision he came to lightly. I did speak to him when I became manager of Moycullen, five or six years ago,” said Connellan.

“I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember bouncing the idea off him. My advice to him was to stay at home for as long as you can until it becomes almost impossible with work and travel commitments.

“Things changed when Covid hit, because there were restrictions with travel and it made the decision a bit easier.”

He added: “He joined Moycullen late in 2020. I was at work one day and I was driving down Dominick Street in Galway and I came across him. I was chatting to him for a few minutes out through the window of a patrol van.

“I asked if he’d fancy training with Moycullen. . . I wasn’t sure if I was going to see him or not, but he turned up.

“He knew a lot of the lads, Seán Kelly and those lads from NUIG. The rest, as they say, is history - two years later he is togging out for Galway in an All-Ireland final.”

In his first season with his adopted club, Gallagher played a key role in helping Moycullen clinch their first ever Galway Senior Football Championship with a 2-12 to 1-11 win over Mountbellew-Moylough at Pearse Stadium.

Owen Gallagher in action for Moycullen in the 2020 Galway SFC final win over Mountbellew-Moylough in Pearse Stadium. (©INPHO/James Crombie)

He scored two sublime points from play and a stunning solo run helped set up Moycullen’s second goal, which was scored by Conor Bohan.

That was enough to secure his status as a club legend with Moycullen, but it was around that time that he started appearing on Pádraic Joyce’s radar as well.

“He is just a great lad, the sort of lad that people are attracted to - he is a very positive fella. He is always smiling and he has a great way about him,” stated Connellan

“He is a gentleman. In Moycullen, they think the world of him - they’ve taken him in as one of their own. That’s both on and off the pitch - they’ve great time for him.

“He was an integral part of the team that won a first senior Championship. He brought so much to the team and he’ll go down as a legend in the Moycullen club as will everyone who was involved with that team.

“He had a huge impact for us when he came in back in 2020. We started him in the quarter-final and he just lit it up. It was the same in the semi-final and he was phenomenal in the final. I’d say he came on Galway’s radar from that.”

Should the Tribesmen prevail in Sunday’s decider, Owen Gallagher would become only the second Antrim native ever to win a senior inter-county football Championship medal.

Stephen Mulvenna, who originally hailed from St Paul’s in west Belfast, transferred to Faughanvale and was part of Derry’s 1993 All-Ireland winning team.

Gallagher’s emergence on the Galway squad comes as no surprise to the man who coached him as a county minor, U21 and senior player.

Frank Fitzsimmons says Gallagher’s talent was obvious from his time at minor, prompting Liam Bradley to call him to the senior squad when he was still 18.

“I had him at minor and U21 as well as senior and you could tell he was going to be a good player,” said Fitzsimons.

“You could tell as far back as minor that he was the real deal. He was almost like a professional, he was very sport-orientated.”

Owen Gallagher, Paddy McBride and manager Frank Fitzsimons celebrate Antrim's 2015 Qualifier win over Laois. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

Fitzsimmons says he didn’t put Gallagher under any pressure when he was Antrim manager, but he always knew the day would come when the journey would take its toll.

“To be fair to Owen, he did everything he could to try and stay with Antrim. Travelling down was just too hard,” stressed Fitzsimmons, who is currently in charge of Down Intermediate side Liatroim Fontenoys.

“I left the decision up to him, but Belfast to Dublin was fine, but Belfast to Galway via Dublin is some slog.

“You couldn’t expect that from any player. He was studying to be a doctor and that’s a totally different commitment.

“I went down to watch him earlier in the season when Galway played Down in Páirc Esler and he was fantastic that night. I’m a little bit surprised he isn’t starting and making their Championship team. He is a useful player to bring on anyway.

“To make that panel, with the players Galway have coming through at underage level, is an achievement in itself. Not many from Antrim could have gone down there and did what Owen has done.”

The Glenavy man made his senior Championship debut for the Saffrons in the 2012 Ulster Championship loss to Monaghan in Clones.

As fate would have it, he never got to play directly against his current inter-county manager Pádraic Joyce when Antrim pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Qualifiers to defeat the Tribesmen 0-11 to 0-10 in Casement Park later that summer.

Gallagher started at midfield alongside Mick McCann that day, but was replaced midway through the second half with Joyce making his final appearance for Galway with a 10-minute cameo at the end of the game.

He capped off his underage career with Antrim U21s by scoring a remarkable individual goal against Armagh in 2014 as the Saffrons salvaged an unlikely draw in the Athletic Grounds before losing the replay.

In 2015, he was again to the fore as Antrim recorded a brilliant victory over Laois in O’Moore Park having trailed by eight points early in the second half.

His last Championship appearance for Antrim was their 2017 Qualifier loss to Sligo in Markievicz Park in 2017.

His brother Paddy had established himself as Antrim’s first-choice full-back by then. The brothers only managed to make a handful of appearances together for the Saffrons.

Thankfully for the Gallagher family and Glenavy, Owen’s studies in Galway didn’t prevent him from lining out for his club during their 2015 Championship season when they returned to the senior ranks by clinching Intermediate honours.

As St James’ put Dunloy to the sword in Creggan, four of the seven Gallagher brothers featured in the final - namely Owen, Paddy, Charles and James, who is now playing inter-county football for London.

“We probably put him under pressure to come back to Glenavy when he was a student in Galway because we needed him. Once he started working, the travelling became impossible,” reflected Paddy Gallagher.

“In 2015, he played county football for Antrim when we won the Intermediate Championship with Glenavy. He was travelling to Galway for that Intermediate run.

“We’d a semi-final on Wednesday night against Rasharkin and he came up the road for that.

“He didn’t have a car so he was on the bus most of the time. It was seven hours on the bus. He’d have to get the bus from Belfast to Dublin then from Dublin to Galway.”

Paddy Gallagher in action for Antrim against Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly in the Ulster SFC in the Athletic Grounds in 2019. (©INPHO/Tommy Dickson)

While the Gallagher siblings often dreamed about playing for Antrim, there was a time when Owen seemed more likely to feature for Ulster Rugby than the Saffrons.

“We all talked about wanting to play for Antrim and Owen always wanted to play for Antrim,” added Paddy.

“Owen was always very talented, even when he was playing for the school. He has a great style and I think rugby was a big factor in that.

“He played a bit of rugby for Ulster at youth level and he played against Robbie Henshaw at U18 level.

“That side-step he does was probably coached on the rugby pitch. We lived in France for a year and Owen played rugby there and loved it. When he came back from France, he started played for Lisburn and then Banbridge and he would have trained along with the likes of Rory Best at Banbridge.

“When he got the call up from ‘Baker’ (Liam Bradley) to join the Antrim seniors in 2012, that was the end of the rugby.”

While Paddy hasn’t totally given up hope of donning the Antrim jersey again now that Andy McEntee has taken the reins, his focus for the moment is trying to help Glenavy regain the Intermediate title and cheering on his brother in Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Kerry in Croke Park.

Having four brothers on Glenavy’s Championship winning side in 2015 was a proud day for the Gallagher household.

It will be surpassed should Owen climb the steps of the Hogan Stand on Sunday and become only the second Antrim man to collect a Celtic Cross medal.

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