Divided loyalties for Mayo hero with one foot in the Sligo camp
Sitting beside TJ Kilgallon at tomorrow's Connacht final should make for interesting viewing. Regarded as one of Mayo's finest midfielders of all time, an All Star winner in 1992 and six-time Connacht medallist, Kilgallon's fingerprints are all over this Sligo team.
The Balla native has resided in Sligo for 33 years now, and throughout that time he has been involved in Sligo town club St Mary's, training underage and senior teams.
He currently manages St Mary's minors, and three of his players are likely to feature for the Sligo minor team as they seek a first Connacht title since 1968.
He lives two doors down from former Sligo manager Tommy Breheny, who led the county to their last Connacht crown in 2007, while his son Dylan and Tommy's son Cian - who will start at midfield for the Yeats men tomorrow - are best mates.
Under Peter Ford's management, Kilgallon was a Sligo selector from 2001 to '03; he handed another Mary's man -and current county captain Mark Breheny, his debut during his first season.
It's fair to say after 33 years, a certain Sligo sympathy exists in the Kilgallon household, but he still knows what side his bread is buttered.
"Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see Mark Breheny lifting the cup on Sunday and bring it back to the club for a bit of a celebration on Sunday evening. But behind all of that I am still a Mayo man," says Kilgallon.
"It was a good move by the manager to make Mark captain, a brave move in a way because a lot of people said he was nearly gone. He is 34 now, he is on the scene a long time.
"We brought him in in 2001 and he took a year to find his feet, but he's been ever-present since and he doesn't always get the credit I feel he deserves in Sligo.
"He a very good footballer and above all a lovely lad. He's very good to young lads in the club."
Kilgallon will kick every ball with the St Mary's lads on Sunday, but he'll boot plenty back past them too rooting for Mayo. The love of the home turf is hard to shake.
He went through the wringer during his 14 Championship seasons: he lost the 1989 All-Ireland final alongside current Mayo joint-manager Pat Holmes and selector Michael Collins, while on five other occasions Kilgallon and his fellow Mayo panellists fell short at the semi-final stage.
His county career never overlapped with Noel Connelly's, but Kilgallon is confident the co-managers have the winning mentality required to drive Mayo closer to the ultimate prize.
"They work well together in partnership, but there is other guys there too," he says.
"You have another old team-mate of mine, Michael Collins, he is the quiet spoken, doesn't say much man behind the scenes.
"They had a good run, they won four Connachts in a row when they were together at U-21 level. They took an All-Ireland there and they have a lot of that team still involved.
"Pat Holmes was the last manager to bring a national title to Mayo when they won the National League in 2001 when he managed them previously. And he did a good job with Castlebar, taking them all the way to an All-Ireland club final.
"But the pressure is on Mayo. They won't know an awful lot about Sligo: they don't meet each other in the League or even at underage, but the element of surprise is kind of gone from Sligo now.
"Roscommon didn't know anything about Sligo either and they got caught out on the day. Mayo would have viewed that match now, try and get into the Sligo system.
"They would be viewed as odds-on favourites, but at the back of their minds they would have expected to be facing Roscommon rather than Sligo. I give Sligo a chance, even though I would expect Mayo to win the match."
While the Yeats men are not given much of a hope in most circles this week, in days gone by there was even less chance of a Sligo win over Mayo.
When the neighbours met in the championship it invariably meant a win for the Green and Red. Sligo's reward for beating Mayo in the 1975 final was defeat in the next eight Championship meetings, and Kilgallon's perfect six against the Yeats men came during that streak.
That losing sequence was broken in 2000, the year before Kilgallon linked up as Sligo selector, but in typical Sligo fashion, they followed it up with a 0-22 to 0-4 defeat to Galway in the next round. Times are different now, he says.
"I never lost to Sligo in the Championship - I think once in Castlebar they ran us to a few points, but it was a good time in Mayo's history. I work with Tommy Breheny here with the seniors, and he remembers a few bad hammerings against us in the mid-80s," he recalls.
"But that is the past and things change. There are a lot more structures in place now, a lot more organisations and above all a lot more belief that they can compete with the bigger counties and that is what you need.
"If you don't have belief you are going nowhere.
"I think Sligo will be trying to get fast ball into dangerous full-forward line, who can all score.
"Maybe there will be a bit of a nervousness from a Mayo point of view; that will be the ploy and will they be able to deal with it.
"But the one thing Mayo have a big advantage on is the experience they have built up over the past year. They're on a bit of a mission, but that won't go on forever either so if they don't make hay soon I am sure they might slip down the pecking order.
"I do expect Mayo to win it - I think that they are just more experienced on the big occasion. I don't think complacency in any shape or form will come into it.
"They want to take the shortest route to Croke Park for August really, which is where it gets very serious."