Former Tribe star believes Galway are poised to end barren spell
Last Sunday Galway and Roscommon played out the first draw in a Connacht final since 1998, and the memories came flooding back for John Divilly.
In their first season under John O'Mahony, Galway went on to defeat Roscommon after extra-time in the replayed provincial final. They beat Derry in the All-Ireland semi-final, and Kildare in the decider at Croke Park 18 years ago.
That team was backboned by inspirational leaders like current manager Kevin Walsh, and others such as Ja Fallon, Tomás Mannion and Niall Finnegan. But it was the incision of youth that ultimately made the difference, and goals from Michael Donnellan and Pádraic Joyce helped them to landmark victories along the way.
Divilly, who later donned the Kildare jersey, was part of the new wave of Galway footballer back then. He was 21 and in his first campaign at senior level, and the Kilkerrin-Clonberne defender would become a mainstay in the team.
Now he watches on as fellow clubman Shane Walsh, the mercurial talent of this side, looks to help Galway to their first Connacht title since 2008.
It had been a barren spell for the Tribesmen: prior to their semi-final victory over Mayo in Castlebar on June 18, Galway had not defeated their greatest rivals in eight years in the Connacht championship. The holders had reeled off five Connacht titles in a row while Galway produced two U-21 All-Ireland-winning teams but could not make the breakthrough.
Back in the 1990s, Divilly won a Tedd Webb Cup in 1993, a Hogan Cup with St Jarlath's the following year and two Connacht minor titles before Galway became a force.
"We won the FBD League in 1998, that was our first bit of silverware with John O'Mahony. We happened to be lucky, we had a good group of footballers coming up in the colleges between St Jarlath's, St Mary's and St Pat's at the time. There were good underage teams coming up in Galway, as there is now.
"After Val Daly went post-1997, John O'Mahony brought five or six of the U-21s in, guys like Pádraic Joyce, Derek Savage, and Richie Fahy. And we just took it from there.
"We were underdogs going to Castlebar to play Mayo in the quarter-final, as were the current squad and we both got big wins. We had Leitrim after that and this year they had Roscommon in the Connacht final.
"Roscommon are tough, they always have been, and they always like playing Galway. Traditionally Galway tend to struggle against them. But Galway were unlucky the last day, they were probably the better team over the 70 minutes, and now they have another go at it. Hopefully weather conditions will be better, the guys will get more scores and not let Roscommon in for any soft goals," he said.
Divilly, who lives in Dublin and works with Pádraic Joyce in PJ Personnel, won two All-Irelands with Galway and he knew the value of that extra game in 1998.
After their surprise victory over Mayo in the first round, Galway defeated Leitrim in the last four and drew 0-11 to 0-11 with Roscommon in the first final.
"It was bad conditions for football, but there was a massive crowd in Tuam Stadium. We had a lot of chances, but it was Roscommon that took the lead late on in the game.
"Then Martin McNamara took a quick kick-out to Gary Fahy and Gary put it long into the half-forward line. We won a free and Niall Finnegan was ice-cool from those, he put it over the bar.
"The replay was two weeks later. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and there was a massive crowd in Dr Hyde Park, the hype had built in the two weeks.
"There was a big Galway support there and it was just a good game of football. I got concussed early, so I went off after about 15 minutes of the first half and Damien Mitchell took my place.
"It was tit for tat but we got lucky in extra-time. A ball dropped short from Ja Fallon, Shay Walsh put pressure on their goalkeeper Derek Thompson, and robbed the ball off him. Thankfully, it fell nicely to Michael Donnellan to kick it into the net. That drove us on to win."
Galway have not lifted the Nestor Cup since goals from Pádraic Joyce and Fiachra Breathnach saw them defeat Mayo 2-12 to 1-14 in 2008. There have been missed chances since, most notably the following year against Mayo, but Divilly believes a replay victory over Roscommon could give them massive momentum going to Croke Park for a potential quarter-final with a Round 4A qualifier winner.
"For us it built character, we had to get a harder edge to ourselves. It made us take every opportunity because you mightn't be there the next day. It focuses the minds. If you don't win you're gone, there's no second chance, it's do or die here.
"Once we had won the replay it was an extra game going into Derry, and it just gave us confidence. That's what winning games does, the more games the better.
"If Galway win on Sunday, they will have beaten two Division 1 teams in championship football. That would be huge going into an All-Ireland series. It's bonus territory after that, anything can happen.
"But it would be nice to get a Connacht title. Three or four of them have Connacht medals but the rest don't. They will be very hungry to change that."
Divilly won his second All-Ireland in 2001, he finished up with his native county two years later, played for Kildare in 2006 and subsequently went into club and colleges' management.
He believes there are no such things as shocks in the GAA anymore. And he thinks Kildare can beat Mayo when they clash at MacHale Park in their second ever meeting in the championship, in Round 3B of the qualifiers this evening.
"At the end of the day I wouldn't be getting hung up on if you are Division 1 or Division 4. It's 15 against 15, it's championship football. People are getting carried away with name tags too often these days.
"With Kildare, you have to look how they are playing at the moment not what they did six months ago. They are playing well as of last week. Mayo were quite sluggish against Fermanagh and need to improve. They can do it, but if they don't they will be beaten.
"Like Monaghan and Longford. Longford were fresh and in good form going up to Clones last weekend. Monaghan were disappointed after the last day and that's what happens: it's knockout football in the qualifiers.
"No more than Longford, Clare had a fantastic win against Laois. People would have said Laois were the stronger team on paper. Derry and Meath, a lot of people would have thought that after playing Dublin, Meath would have been ready, but they lost that one too.
"These games are on the day and that's the beauty of knockout football, there can be no surprises. Most counties have 11 or 12 top footballers, and if they play well they can win.
"Kildare have a good midfield, they have two really good half-backs in Eoin Doyle and Emmet Bolton. David Hyland and Ollie Lyons are top players in the full-back line. They have a good goalie, and they have forwards that can score. That's enough to win any game if the other guys can keep it steady.
"It wouldn't be a surprise to see Kildare win. But if you are asking me who I think should win, it should be Mayo if they turn up."