AS a young county player with Donegal, Damian Diver was asked to take part in trials to play on the Irish International Rules team against Australia. It was an honour but also a challenge.
“I would have been light enough. I knew that I was light, but if you wanted to compete with them bucks you needed strength,” he said.
“There was a man home from Liverpool and he was playing football for us over the summer. He was a big strong fella who played Rugby League for St Helen’s.
“So I said to him, ‘would you think about putting together a weights programme for me?’ I explained that there were trials coming up, and I needed to get stronger.
“He used to travel to Enniskillen to do strength work to stay in shape for the rugby. He played for St Helen’s.
“He said ‘no bother’. We used to travel to the Forum in Enniskillen. We used to do weights and travel up and down.”
Now, Diver didn’t make any headlines playing International Rules, and he will not be remembered as a player who won a lot.
What he should be remembered for though is his fiercely competitive streak, and his dedication to fitness and training.
Cajoling a man to take him training every week in the pursuit of greater fitness illustrates what sort of man he is, someone who loves not only training, but who dearly wants to compete.
Diver said: “I have a driven nature. There is a wild competitive instinct in me. I am driven not to lose. That helped me to stay fitter. I was only happy if I was the fittest at training. I tried to be the best that I could be.
“That helped me throughout my career. I wasn’t happy to be beat to the ball or to have a bad game. I did not like feeling that I didn’t do the best for my team.
“It doesn’t matter who I am playing with, even if it is the wee fella, I don’t like getting beat. It is not a nice thing to have.”
So dedicated to trying to be the best, Diver organised his life around training. He would go out at lunch time during his shifts working in the family shop to do his training.
“I always loved going to training. I had my dinner set out at a certain time because you had training. You would head away early, to be down there early, to be on the field early. So you had your own wee schedule.”
He kept travelling to Fermanagh to do his Olympic weights sessions until he had enough of the commute, and decided that he needed a new plan.
“Would you believe it that there was no proper weights gym in Donegal in them days. There were no Olympic weights in Donegal.
“I ended up taking a measuring tape with me and a pen and paper and measuring everything they had there (in the Forum in Enniskillen), then my cousin’s husband welded them for me. They were the best of the best.
“Also there was a man from Garvagh, he was a welder by trade, he went into gym equipment. He made me a leg extension leg curl machine for free weights. He made me a lat pull-down rowing machine for free weights. I had a full gym here in the house.
“I was building a house at the time and there was nothing in it but the gym equipment. Myself and my cousin would come down and train and we had to carry the single bulb around, it had to be plugged in to a single socket with the emergency power line. We carried the bulb from one room to the other.”
The young Diver was clearly a driven man, but where did he get that foundation in football?
His football career began early. As a child he enjoyed being cajoled by his father and grandfather to play
“My Granda used to come in and throw me the ball when I was sitting on the couch. I would solo the ball in to him. Every evening my father would throw me a ball and I would catch it.
“I can remember watching the All-Ireland final with the curtain closed. Then I would go out and solo the ball and try to be Jack O’Shea.”
The garden games soon moved to the football field in Ardara. But as an underage player, he and his team mates struggled to compete.
He started at u-10s with Ardara.
“We had nice enough footballers but we lacked size.
“Killybegs were very strong at that time. We got beat, and when I say we got beat I mean we got battered off the field.
“They beat us by 40 points. It was cricket score stuff. We might not have got past the halfway line.
“They had Declan Boyle, Mark Boyle his brother, Paul Callaghan. They had a lot of good players. They were phenomenal. They were a lot bigger than us.
“That was the guts of that great Killybegs team that did well in the ‘90s, along with the likes of Barry McGowan and John Rasta, Barry Cunningham.”
But the Ardara boys didn’t give up.
“The local manager was an uncle of mine. We had the same manager right through, John D Earley. He always had wild belief in us. We started to grow and we got a bit of confidence.
“When we got to u-16 level, two teams came out of the division. Before that we would have got to the final and Killybegs hammered us. Then they went on to win the county title. That year two teams came out, and then we went on to meet them in the county final. We got a goal in the last minute from Stephen McGinley to beat them by a point. That was the start of it. They never beat us after that.
“Our u-16 championship was a fairytale. Six or seven came through to that senior team.”
Diver believes that that u-16 result was the making of the Ardara team, and it laid the foundation for their two Senior Championship successes in 2000 and 2004.
Two years later the clubs won the minor, and they followed that up with a couple of u-21 titles.
The same management, Johnny D and Pat O’Donnell, took that team the whole way up. The secret to that team’s success was the bond that they had.
“No matter what happened we just kept playing football. We were a gang of footballers. We had no big men, we just had fast, young fellas who loved to play football.
“When we won that game at u-16, we had a team of winners and we knew no different. We went to win everything. Same at Senior. We had a team that knew how to win. We had no baggage. We enjoyed our football and we trained hard.
“Johnny D made everyone feel important, which was difficult to do.”
Diver actually believes that the long period of losing from u-10s to u-16s was important.
“It was lovely to start winning. What helped us was that we were so late winning. If you are winning u-10s, right up then you are nearly fed up with it. It came late to us so we appreciated it more.”
What helped them in the long term was that they stuck together.
“We had a team coming through that important age; u-16, minor and u-21. If you take a team through that important age, then you will have them for life.
“Clubs need to know how to take players through that era. We stayed together during that period.”
The team was blessed with talent everywhere.
“We had phenomenal leaders. Eamon Doherty was our full-back, an unbelievable talker. He played for the county. You had Brendan Boyle, a county man, he was in back line with Shaun White. Up front you had Don Early and Jonathan Boyle. There were leaders all over the field.
“Francis Diver was an unsung hero. He got through a mountain of work. He was just brilliant. We all played off him round the middle. Jonathan Boyle kept the scoreboard ticking over.”
Diver said that the lessons he learned back then was to keep learning.
“I came onto the senior team when I was 16. It was big, but I took it in my stride.
“In them days it was ‘watch yourself’. They told us not to take our eye off the game as some boys would take your head off. It was different in them days but nowadays it is not that bad.”
But he admits that he was far from the finished article. He had the fitness, but not the experience.
“I always had a good engine. I was a good runner, and had good legs and a good engine.”
But a good engine is no use unless you know how to use it.
“We were 16, we were very light. We tried to stay out of the middle. We were really just an outlet for the likes of Anthony Molloy. They caught the ball and they threw it out to us. We were only learning our trade.
“It took a while to get up to that level. You might have thought you were at that level. But you weren’t.
“I remember playing Killybegs in a championship match. We’d played MacCumhaill’s the day before and I had had a good game.
“Mark Boyle was playing wing-forward and I was playing wing-back. He marked me and stayed with me. I was non-existent. That was something I had to get used to. He would be pulling you left and right. He was not allowing you that base to attack from.”
The lesson was, that every day he played he had to learn, he had to try to get better, he had to make sure he could compete.
“I was learning the same lesson I always learned no matter what time it was. It was to try and be the best that you can be no matter when you go out – whether it was a club match or a championship match.
“When you got older you might have had a lad who was really on top of you and you had to work out a way to have an impression on the game.
“There was always something to learn. Any footballer who think he has it learnt before a certain time is not at the races.
“I didn’t kick with my left foot till I was 24. I learnt to fist pass with my left hand at the same time.”
It was when he was a student that Diver felt that he really started to learn the physical side of the game, but it was lesson learnt far away from Ireland.
Diver won an Ulster u-21 title with Donegal in 1995, and then went to America after he finished his college exams and played football in New York.
“I just went over in the summer. Exams finished on Friday and I went over in the Saturday morning.
That was a learning curve.
“I came back from America hitting people harder. You had no choice but to do that over there. Gaelic Park is a wee small pitch but if you don’t defend yourself over there then you will be sent packing.
“I learnt a lot of football over there. I was young and flying fit, and the heat didn’t bother me.
“Going over there stood to me. I went there in 1995. The club won the U-21 championship when I came back.”
Diver had dual careers after he returned to America, there was his county career, which was not entirely successful, but his club career saw him win two senior championships.
When he started out with Donegal he had won Ulster Minor and U-21 titles so he was entitled to believe that he would be successful.
Hindsight helps to explain things.
“We had great players in Donegal. But we had no system of play. We came up against phenomenal Tyrone and Armagh teams. We were going up against teams and we were playing ad-hoc football, sometimes our talent and our speed took us through.
“But you were running up against brick walls against Armagh, stripped of the ball, one kick down the field and you were opened up at the back. They had a game plan and we didn’t.”
“My first league game was down in Meath in Navan.
“I remember going to play the game, and I was at college at the time. All these sandwiches came out and it was like manna from heaven.
“So I was eating away because I didn’t think I was going to be playing. Then PJ (McGowan the manager) came up to me at the bar while I was eating all these sandwiches. He said to me ‘Martin Shovlin’s got the flu, will you start at wing-back?’ I went ‘ah Jesus’, and I felt all these sandwiches gathering up in my stomach. I went and started drinking a pile of water.
“That was my baptism. I marked Colm Coyle. His name was ahead of himself. He was deadly. And I enjoyed the match.”
Diver’s first championship game was against Down.
“I was marking James McCartan. I couldn’t believe it. He was a God.”
His first games for his county saw him playing alongside some of the legends of Donegal.
“You just picked up things. John Joe Doherty had a great pair of hands. There was no one better at catching a ball than John Joe Doherty. Matt Gallagher, for his size, competed for every ball. James McHugh took me aside one time, he said ‘when you get the ball, take your four steps, bounce the ball, and then take another four steps and then you will find yourself. You’ll have gone 10 yards and you still have control of the ball’. It is good to come into a squad with people like that.”
The early years with Donegal were good to Diver and he enjoyed them.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie that you have. The meeting up, the hard training, the atmosphere before games and the atmosphere after the games. The people that come up to speak to you when you win will be nowhere near you when you lose.
“There is a short distance between a clap on the back and a kick in the ass. You enjoyed the highs but accepted the lows.”
One of the famous lows was the Ulster final loss to Derry in 1998.
For the majority of the game Donegal felt that they were in control, but a late goal from Joe Brolly delivered defeat.
“If I had closed down one of their half-forwards he wouldn’t have been able to kick the ball in. It allowed the ball to get in to Geoffrey (McGonagle).
“It was one of them things. We had a goal allowed that day too though, John Duffy punched the ball out of his hands and it wasn’t called. Swings and roundabouts.
“If we had got over the line in 1998 we would have won more.”
Five years into his career, things started to get more serious.
“Mickey Moran came in as manager in the 2001 season. Mickey made me captain at the start of the next season.
“Mickey Moran was brilliant. Every man loved him. We had Mickey Moran for one year and then John Morrison came in in the next year. Everybody just loved the training.
“Poor Mickey got the raw end of the stick.
“I think the players loved him. The football we played that year was unbelievable. We were beat by Dublin that year, in the quarter-final after a replay.
“The ball was an extension of your arm. Everything was done with the ball. John Morrison was ahead of himself with ladders and movement.
“After that Mickey Moran was voted out. That was frustrating.”
Donegal lost three Ulster finals, in 2002, 2004 and 2006, all to Armagh.
The Orchard county was very much Donegal and Diver’s nemesis during that time.
“Armagh’s strength was better, and their game-plan. Every time they got the ball they knew where it was going. We didn’t. They had their diagonal balls to (Ronan) Clarke. It was hard to mark.
“When we drew with Galway and beat them in Castlebar, we went on to play Armagh in Croke Park (2003). A high ball came in and Steven McDonnell put the ball in the net. We had the beating of them that day. That was the closest that we were ever of beating them.
“Donegal never went at it the way we should have went at it. The way the likes of Armagh did it.
“We couldn’t compete at that level. We weren’t that way inclined, and our structures weren’t there to do that. I think we suffered at the hands of Armagh because of that.”
Of course there are regrets.
“I did enjoy it. Sometimes you think the older players should have said something or called a halt to it. We let things roll. My regret is that we didn’t do something about it.”
Yet while Diver suffered at the hands of Armagh during the ‘noughties’, with his club he enjoyed far greater success.
He was at the peak of his fitness, and the Ardara team were flying. They won an All-Ireland Gaeltachta Championship in 1998. That set them up for success the following year.
“Club titles are hard to come by. It wasn’t till that group got a bit fitter and hardier that we won the Senior championshIp in 2000.
“We lost our first round match to St Naul’s. Then we beat them in Ardara and we beat them in Glenties. We didn’t lose after that. And we beat St Eunan’s in the final.
“We were voted 11 to 1 to win that game. Manus Boyle was the only man that said we might win. It was total underdogs. St Eunan’s were the big team.”
Diver remembers the day of the match.
“I met PJ McGowan going in. He was county board chairman. I was driving in, I said to him through the window, ‘how are you going?’
“He says, ‘I know how youse are going to get on but I will ask you anyway’.
“I said: ‘I think we are going to win by four points’. He smiled. As much to say, ‘good enough’.
“That was the confidence that we had. We were underdogs and there was no way we should have been thinking that.
“On the steps up to receive the cup and I said to PJ ‘Sorry, PJ, I meant five points. I got it wrong.’”
It seems odd that the Ardara team felt that they were destined to win.
Diver said: “The key was the belief.
“You don’t understand the belief that Johnny D brought to that team. He was like a second father to us all.
“The way he spoke to us. And what he said. He would have the hairs standing on your neck.
We met in Doherty’s bar before that and there was no way we were getting beat.”
They had the belief but they also had the right preparations.
“Anthony Harkin, he trained that Donegal 1992 team, he was training us. The training was unreal.
“We were never as fit. We could have run all day. We were a running team and we ran the ball.”
They also had the right game-plan.
“St Eunan’s had Brendan Devenney and John Haran and bucks like that.
“Eamon Doherty kept Brendan Devenney curtailed. We all rallied round Eamon.
“It was a tit-for-tat game. We got a goal. We just kept them out.”
Diver explained how important that result was to Ardara.
“It was huge. There wasn’t a Senior Championship since 1981. It was just unbelievable.
“It got every youngster out kicking ball. That’s what it does. It gets young fellas playing football.
“If you win a Senior Championship every so often it really brings the club on.”
For Diver, it was a personal achievement that validated him, that gave him his place in the club.
“It was nice to have a championship medal in your back pocket. Nobody can take that away from you. When you look back that team was a phenomenal team and it was nice to be part of it. It was nice to be with a group of teams that you grew up with.
“When you are at a wedding or something it is something we will always talk about. It is nice to have that in common with a group of bucks who are the same age of you. It’s a nice feeling that you have one and it is yours.”
Four years later, Ardara would win another Senior Championship, Diver’s second and the club’s sixth.
There were a few changes to the team. John McConnell was taking the team, they had added some younger players, and Diver had switched from being the link man from defence to attack, to being the target man at full-forward.
“It was a bit of freedom. You were able to run away from a man instead of chasing him.
“If you had a bit of space you could run out and yell for the ball and then get it and lay it off.”
The competition didn’t start well.
“In 2004 we played Four Masters in the first round. I nearly cost us as I gave a way a free.
“We lost the second game. The third game was in MacCumhaill’s. I pulled a hamstring in a league game and didn’t play.
“We beat Four Masters. Then we played Glenties.
“Then we played St Eunan’s game in the semi-final. We weren’t favourites to win that.
“Then we played MacCumhaill’s in their back yard. It was a terrible game of football. Two nervous teams.
“The turning point was the second half. A high ball in and Jonathan Boyle slipped the ball to the back of the net.”
Winning one championship is good, winning two in four years emphasises that this group of Ardara players were good.
“It would have been a shame if that 2000 team didn’t win another championship.
“We had chances to win in 2003. Four Masters beat us in the semi-final. I don’t know if we would have won in 2004.”
Diver retired from county football in 2006, and all football in 2014 after finishing up playing reserve football.
He enjoyed remarkable success with his club, bringing not one but two county titles home.
Yet for the county it was a career marred by frustration, after such great optimism at the start.
“We had good days but never followed them up. We never had any consistency. We won one game, thought it was great, and then got beat the next day.
“All my fondness and highlights were in club football.”
Perhaps if there is a conclusion to be made is that commitment is all important.
“If you don’t have commitment then you have nothing else. Talent and commitment won’t get you by if you don’t work hard.
“If you are going to play county you have to commit as best you can. There are no half measures. If you are going to compete at the highest level it is a lifestyle. You have to give it your all.”
He says that were he to do it again, then he would have worked harder.
“I would have tried to get more commitment from myself to an extent and other bucks. When you look back now you realise what you are up against. You might have tried to get a game-plan.
“You are not going to compete at county football if you aren’t committed.”
It is hard to see how Diver wasn’t committed. He tried to learn at every juncture of his career. He always tried to be better. But when it comes to team sports, it isn’t enough for just one player to commit.
You can build all the fitness equipment you want, but the players have to believe in each other for the team to be successful.
By Ronan Scott