BY CHRIS MCNULTY
Jim McGuinness emerged off the stage at The Diamond in Donegal town on Sunday and peered through the throngs of euphoric Donegal fans who wedged in to cheer home their heroes. A figure emerged from the crowd and embraced McGuinness, congratulating him on a ‘mighty win’ and ‘a great occasion’.
The smiling Donegal fan was none other than Damian Diver.
The Ardara man is one of the true legends of Donegal GAA. He made his Championship debut in 1996 against Down and he played in his last Championship match in the green and gold ten years later, as a sub in the Ulster final defeat to Armagh at Croke Park.
Diver made 36 Championship appearances for Donegal and played in four Ulster finals – coming out on the wrong side of them all, in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006.
The tough-tackling defender is still idolised around Tir Chonaill and he’ll always get a mention alongside the other greats to have donned the Donegal shirt. But Diver’s career ended without a senior winners medal with Donegal – he retired before the National League Division 1 triumph in 2007.
Diver’s tale is one that many fine Donegal players can relate to. Since the men of ‘92 broke the barrier to land Sam, Donegal endured 19 long summers without success.
During that period, though, some great servants passed through – and their efforts shouldn’t be forgotten this week.
In a little corner of the Abbey Hotel on Sunday night, the talk turned to some of the men that gave a lifetime of service without reward and this writer was asked for the best fifteen since 1992. So, excluding the men who were in the panel in 1992 and leaving aside the next bunch of Ulster Kings, the batch of 2011 who last Sunday beat Derry to reach the Promised Land, here is a team that could surely rival any:
Tony Blake – This was perhaps the easiest position to fill. Since Gary Walsh played his last Championship game for Donegal in 1996, just four men have stood between the sticks for the county in Championship football. Two of them – Paul Durcan and Michael Boyle – were on the squad last week, while the other – Paul Callaghan – was Walsh’s understudy in ‘92. That leaves Tony Blake, who manned the nets for Ulster finals in 1998 and 2002, All Ireland quarter finals in 2002 and 2003 as well as the semi-final of ‘03.
Shane Carr – The Four Masters man made his debut against Antrim in 1998 and was on the panel in ‘98 and ‘99. He returned in 2001 and remained there until he called it a day in the spring of 2006. A no-nonsense defender, Shane is still playing with Four Masters.
Raymond Sweeney – Perhaps one of the great injustices in Donegal football was Ray’s sending off in the All Ireland semi-final of 2003. Sweeney was dismissed early in the second-half as he was adjudged by ref’ Michael Monaghan to have taken down Oisin McConville. Quite what would have unfolded had Sweeney stayed on is anyone’s guess, but we’ll never know.
Noel McGinley – The Naomh Columba man is remembered as being on the receiving end of a barge from Derry’s Geoffrey McGonagle in the build-up to Joe Brolly’s winning goal in the Ulster final of ‘98. Also played in the 2002 Ulster final and the All Ireland quarter final against Dublin that year.
Damian Diver – The Ardara man, who continues to play with his home town club, made his Championship debut in 1996 against Down and he played in his last Championship match in the green and gold ten years later, as a sub in the Ulster final defeat to Armagh at Croke Park. Diver made 36 Championship appearances for Donegal and played in four Ulster finals – coming out on the wrong side of them all, in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006.
Barry Monaghan – The Four Masters man arrived on the Championship stage in 2001 and was there right up to the defeat to Down last year. A serious leg injury ended his year – and ultimately his intercounty career. A former county captain, Monaghan was one of the mainstays of the Donegal team during his time on the scene.
Barry Dunnion – Only he has been hampered by injury for the last couple of years, Barry Dunnion would surely have been in Jim McGuinness’ panel this year. The once flying Four Masters wing-back was an All Star nominee in 2006, the year his club colleague Karl Lacey won one for the first time.
Brendan Boyle – It seems hard to believe that it’s nine years – the Ulster final of 2002 – since the young kid from Ardara was sprung into Championship action for the first time. Boyle’s career has been hampered by injury and Donegal never really got to see the best of Brendan Boyle. Is still playing for Ardara, and but for his injuries would surely be a fixture in the county squad.
John Gildea – First appeared in the Championship as a sub against Down in 1995, the Glenties man returned for the 1998 campaign and played until 2004. A powerful midfielder, Gildea was the driving force for some of Donegal’s big days out during his time with the county.
Brian Roper – A real fans’ favourite, Roper played from 1996 until 2009 when he featured in the All Ireland quarter final hammering to Cork. The Aodh Ruadh man was a real terrier and his effort in the Donegal jersey never waned over the years. Has won the NFL Division 1 title, but Championship success escaped him too.
Conall Dunne – His Championship debut was in the All Ireland quarter final defeat to Dublin in 2002, but it would be another three years before Dunne would appear again for Donegal in the Championship. Scored a goal against Down last year, but has missed out this year. Is a likely candidate to reappear on the county panel, however.
Stephen McDermott – Played a lot of his football for Donegal at midfield, but is equally at home in the forward division. The Glenfin man’s debut season was in 2003 and he quickly became the partner in crime for Gildea, playing in the All Ireland semi final defeat in the engine room. Came agonisingly close to an equalising goal in the ‘06 Ulster final against Armagh.
Adrian Sweeney – An All Star winner in 2003 as Donegal went to the All Ireland semi-finals, Adrian Sweeney is regarded as one of the finest forwards in the game of his time. Played from 1997 until 2007 and while he had many dark days in a Tir Chonaill shirt, he did at least enjoy the NFL triumph in 2007.
Brendan Devenney – The mercurial Devenney was handed his Championship debut by Declan Bonner in 1998. He played in the Championship until 2005 and returned again in 2007. Flirted with glory, but like the others on this list the Anglo Celt eluded him. At the peak of his powers, formed a lethal partnership with Sweeney.
John Duffy – Playing for Civil Service, Ballyshannon man John Duffy came onto the scene in 1993 as a sub in the Ulster semi final against Armagh. He played in the drenching defeat to Derry that year and, five years later, he played on the team that lost the decider, again to the Oak Leaf.
The video below is a montage put together by Brendan O’Donnell of Jacksons Media – at the end, you can see the delight on the face of Damian Diver as he embraces Jim McGuinness at the homecoming in Donegal town.