GAA Football

Where are they now? Former Donegal midfielder John Gildea takes a trip down memory lane...

Former Donegal midfielder John Gildea feels the group of players he soldiered alongside could have got more out of themselves in the late '90s/early 2000s
Neil Loughran

Age: 46

Club: Naomh Conaill, Glenties

Position: Midfield

When did you play for Donegal? 1993-2004

What do you do nowadays?

I have my own consultancy company, so I do business restructuring and fundraising for companies in the US predominantly. I would be over in the States maybe once a month, normally in New York, that’s where most of the business is done, but sometimes on the west coast as well.

Are you still involved in Gaelic football?

I haven’t been involved in football really since I left the club scene in 2006.

What do you remember about your first game for Donegal?

Now there’s a story. I wasn’t well when I was younger, I had a B12 deficiency, so I didn’t make the ’92 squad and I was kind of floating about.

Then I went to Mass one Sunday and when I came out, my father was sitting outside the chapel in Glenties and said ‘come on, we’re going to Ballyshannon, your boots are in the back there’.

I didn’t know what was going on but - and remember this was long before mobile phones and text messages - it turned out Brian McEniff had got a hold of the local bar man in Glenties that morning, the bar man had got a hold of my father, and then my father had got a hold of me.

A couple of hours later I played my first game for Donegal against Down in the McKenna Cup, 1993. There was nothing glamorous about it. You had no time to be nervous, you were just up the road.

My father wasn’t a good driver at the best of times so you can imagine it was a hairy enough journey, I was just glad to get out the far side. That was the start of very inauspicious inter-county career.

I remember very little about the game itself. The memory was getting there, not the game. Probably the shock kicked in the first time DJ Kane or somebody hit me a box on the side of the head.

Down wouldn’t have been a pleasant team to meet then. They were in their pomp at that stage.

What’s your best memory from your playing days?

The first time we played at Croke Park when it opened up was a memorable experience, playing against the Dubs. Just in terms of the sheer atmosphere and noise, most people wouldn’t be lucky enough to experience that, but when we played Dublin in the 2002 quarter-final, the noise was mind-blowing.

That whole period was enjoyable really, we were competitive. We never got across the line but on any given day we could put it up to anybody. It was a good bunch of players and a good squad that probably under-performed over the duration of that five-year period.

Everybody did the best they could at the time, but organisation ultimately let us down. We had a very talented group of players but the structure wasn’t in place for us.

And then you were coming up against a very good Armagh side that was bringing the game to the next level. They were a machine at the time. We were there or thereabouts but there was always a sense of inevitability that they would grind you down.

And the worst?

My big disappointment is not a specific event, it’s looking at that squad of players in hindsight and, as a collective, not having the kop on to come together, sit down and say ‘guys, listen, this is going to pass us by unless we do something about it’.

And making those mistakes like the bus journey where half the team didn’t come back from Dublin, if things had been 100 per cent right and the team was 100 per cent focused, that type of thing would never have happened.

Biggest character you played with?

Brendan Devenney was always a big character – he was loud and he was brash. Some people maybe misunderstood him but he would always have been a good guy. He was into his DJing then… he was maybe a generation ahead of himself if anything. You had solid character likes Adrian Sweeney and Damien Diver, and then obviously there was a collection of boys who liked to have fun and party.

We’ll just leave them nameless for the time being in the event of any libel issues that may occur.

Glad you played in your era rather than the modern day?

I was caught in a sort of cross-generation era, in that you’d gone from the ‘80s into the early ‘90s where it wasn’t unheard of for guys to go for pints the night before a game. You go from that to, in 2005 with the club, having first hand experience of Jim McGuinness’s methods.

The way the game is played right now, I don’t see much enjoyment in it. The era I played in, I think, had a happy medium – people still wanted to play football and still had a life.

Any regrets?

There was maybe years you could’ve been fitter, could’ve brought it to the next level. As a collective we probably all feel like that. But look, I had a great time, it was good to me. I have bad knees now - that’s my only regret.

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