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John Divilly celebrates with supporters after Galway's victory over Kildare in the 1998 All-Ireland SFC Final. 
John Divilly celebrates with supporters after Galway's victory over Kildare in the 1998 All-Ireland SFC Final. 

GAA Legends - John Divilly


The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of Croke Park with John Divilly takes place on Sunday July 29 at 10am. For ticket details click here.

By John Harrington

John Divilly will have one of those moments on Saturday morning when your senses are jarred by a reminder of how much time has flown by in the blink of an eye.

It’s now 20 years since he played a key role in Galway’s dramatic All-Ireland win in 1998, and he’ll have little choice but to confront that stark fact when he hosts the latest Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of Croke Park.

Divilly was one of Galway’s boys of summer that year, a group of extraordinarily talented young footballers who helped bring the Tribesmen from the doldrums to an All-Ireland title in their very first season of senior inter-county football.

The memories of that year remain as undimmed as ever for Divilly which is good news for those who will join him on the Legends tour, but that makes it even more difficult for the man himself to accept that two decades have passed in the interim.

“No, it doesn't seem like 20 years ago at all,” he told GAA.ie “We had a great reunion in April where we had 29 out of the 30 players and all the management and people who helped in the background at the time.

“It was a wonderful day because you'd forget everything that goes into to preparing not just for a final, but for the whole season.

“The whole season nearly came from nowhere for a lot of us. We got on a run. There are a few things you need to win an All-Ireland. You need great players and we had some great players.

“And you need a good management and we had that. And then you just need a little bit of luck along the way and we had that too.

“Even now, it doesn't feel at all like 20 years have passed. You kind of grew up with them guys and they don't look 20 years older. To me anyway!”

In the current era of the game it’s hard to imagine a county coming from nowhere to win the All-Ireland title to the extent that Galway did in 1998.

They’d only won the Connacht Championship once in the previous 10 years, hadn’t reached an All-Ireland Final for 15 years, or won one in 32 years.

But in 1998 the appointment of John O’Mahony as manager and the emergence of young players like Padraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Derek Savage, Tomás Meehan, Paul Clancy, Declan Meehan, and Divilly himself transformed Galway.

The spine of a good team was already there with stalwarts like Kevin Walsh, Ja Fallon, Tomas Mannion, Gary Fahey, and Niall Finnegan, but it was the injection of youth that really turbo-charged the group.

The 1998 All-Ireland winning Galway football team. 
The 1998 All-Ireland winning Galway football team. 

Normally it takes young players a year or two to find their feet at the highest level, but most of Galway’s rookies had played together at both underage level for Galway and on the Hogan Cup winning St. Jarlath’s team in 1994, so they already had an innate understanding to go with their ability which made the transition that bit easier.

“The St. Jarlath's thing was massive,” said Divilly. “We had played together, we had won a Hogan Cup, and were so used to playing together.

“I knew what Michael Donnellan and Padraic Joyce were going to do. They knew what we were going to do. We knew what Derek Savage was going to do because we played with him from in the minors.

“Seven or eight of us knew each other inside out from a very early age so we didn't need that much coaching, for want of a better word. We just needed to be let at it, as such.

“Obviously Johnno (John O'Mahony) would always give you the information on who you were playing and their strengths and weaknesses and set up little game-plans, but our game-plan was fairly basic, it was win primary possession and move it up the field to your scorers. That was it.”

The instinctive understanding of one another’s style of play was best exemplified in the All-Ireland Final against Kildare by the goal early in the second-half that set Galway on their way to victory.

Divilly’s nickname was ‘Delivery’ because of his ability to scud accurate long-range passes into the Galway forwards who knew to make a run as soon as they saw their centre-back win possession.

After Divilly won a free on his own ’45 yard line he took it quickly and fired it long to Michael Donnellan. The flying wing-forward popped a perfectly timed hand-pass to Padraic Joyce who, cool as a cucumber, rounded Kildare goalkeeper Christy Byrne before booting the ball to the back of the net.

Galway's John Divilly in action against Kildare's Willie McCreery in the 1998 All-Ireland SFC Final. 
Galway's John Divilly in action against Kildare's Willie McCreery in the 1998 All-Ireland SFC Final. 

That score gave Galway the impetus to go on and win the game, and it remains one of the truly iconic goals scored in an All-Ireland Final.

“It was a special moment and when you think about it now, it was nice to have the Jarlath's and the Galway minor through to senior connection together,” says Divilly.

“We would have been friends anyways and we still are good friends. Mikey Donnellan would slag me sometimes that he knew where I was kicking it but I didn't know where I was kicking it, it would be good banter.

“Padraic and Mikey had had a good chat the night before when they were watching Match of the Day and I think Alan Shearer went around the goalie and scored or didn't go around the goalie and score.

“Anyway, the two boys said to each other that if a chance like that came around tomorrow, be sure to go around the goalie. And Padraic did, then.

“Yeah, a special moment in a big game and thankfully now the boys are back to the top table. We're in Division 1 and an All-Ireland semi-final and we would have taken that at the start of the year, no question.

“Every Galway supporter would have taken where we are at the start of the year.”

Divilly’s generation would go on to win another All-Ireland in 2001 to frank their greatness, but he’d love nothing more than for the current group of players to take the baton from them and win the county’s first All-Ireland title since then.

To do so they’ll have to somehow overcome the three-in-a-row champions Dublin in Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final, a task that Divilly knows all too well is a hugely difficult one.

UCD manager John Divilly gives his team a pep-talk before the 2016 Sigerson Cup Final against DCU.
UCD manager John Divilly gives his team a pep-talk before the 2016 Sigerson Cup Final against DCU.

He’s coached a good chunk of the current Dublin panel in UCD where he’s masterminded Sigerson Cup wins this year and in 2016, and has nothing but the utmost respect for their character as well as ability.

“I was looking through it and I'd say I've had 10 or 11 of those Dublin players through my hands in the last few years,” says Divilly.

“Mick Fitzsimsons, Davy Byrne, Eoin Murchan, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Paul Mannion, Colm Basquel, Con O'Callaghan, Cillian O'Shea...there's a lot of them there.

“And, to a man, there was no airs and graces or dictating. When they came into a UCD dressing-room they were just one of the lads and got on and played the football we asked them to play.

“Just really solid guys who were always looking to learn and do what's best for the team. They never went off on solo-runs here and there.

“When you see Paul Mannion being one of Dublin's best tacklers and sacrificing his game as a corner-forward to track back all the way against Tyrone on two or three occasions. That just shows you the level that they want to get to.

“I don't think there's many other players after winning three, four, or five All-Ireland medals like these Dublin players have who would still have the hunger to do that. When you just take that alone, you can see how good they are.

“They're a seriously quality football team. They're very skilled guys. People at the moment are jumping on the bandwagon and saying they're a very defensive team and that.

“Look, they'll do whatever it takes and they'll play whatever is put in front of them. If Galway decide to go 15 on 15, Dublin will do that and have a great, great chance of success. If Galway go defensive then Dublin will still have the same chance of success.

“They're a quality bunch of players with a really good manager and that's what Galway and other teams like Galway are striving to get to. A good quality panel of players and a good management. We're getting there, there's no doubt about it that Galway are getting there.

“Is Saturday too soon for us? Possibly. I just hope the boys give a good account of themselves because you just don't want to finish on a big dampener after having such a great season so far in the League and Championship.”

John Divilly believes Galway supporters will have to show patience with current manager Kevin Walsh and his promising young team. 
John Divilly believes Galway supporters will have to show patience with current manager Kevin Walsh and his promising young team. 

Whatever happens on Saturday, Divilly hopes that Galway supporters will continue to keep faith with this young football team because he’s convinced they have the ability to do great things.

Very few teams come from nowhere like the Tribesmen did in 1998 to win an All-Ireland title, usually the road the glory is longer and takes a few more twists and turns along the way.

“When we're winning and they're playing well, everything is great,” he says.

“Then when there's a bad performance we're all too quick to criticise. It's just a natural thing with every GAA person. ‘Why didn't you do this?’ ‘He was no good today’.

“But we have to remember they're very, very young and there is a lot of football left in these guys.

“Sometimes you'd have to lose one or two to win one. We've just made massive progress and that’s not lost on real knowledgeable GAA people, but it can get lost on normal supporters sometimes that if you have a bad end to the season they forget all the good stuff that happened during the year.

“To me it's been a great year so far and you just want them to finish well.

“We're always looking to pass the baton on and hopefully that day is coming soon.”

The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour of Croke Park with John Divilly takes place on Sunday July 29 at 10am. For ticket details click here.

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