By Cian O’Connell for gaa.ie
There genuinely is a nice cocktail of youth and experience in the Sligo senior football set-up.
Sligo last tasted Connacht Senior Football Championship glory in 2007, six survivors are still wearing the black and white shirt.
Injuries ruled some of them out for a couple of campaigns, but Charlie Harrison, Ross Donovan, Brendan Egan, Mark Breheny, Adrian Marren, and David Kelly’s relevance to the Sligo cause shouldn’t be underestimated.
One of an exciting new crop to emerge in recent years, Kevin McDonnell, certainly acknowledges the role of the established panel members in the north west.
“Yeah, those boys are invaluable to us,” McDonnell admits. “I’m still a young fella as well, they always come talking to you, put the arm around your shoulder if you have a bad game to tell you to pick it up. They are all very positive. It isn’t like they are barking down at you.”
Breheny remains Sligo’s talisman and a source of inspiration. “Definitely, Mark would always be at the top of the runs if we are doing a set,” McDonnell remarks.
“We are looking forward to it, they are obviously one of the top two teams in the country.”
“His drive is unbelievable for a man that has been there so long and that is great to look up to. You feed off that and think I want to have that hunger and desire that he has.”
An impressionable 12 year old when Sligo were perched on the western summit, McDonnell vividly recalls a memorable afternoon at Dr Hyde Park. “Yeah, I was at the game, it was unbelievable,” McDonnell smiles.
“That is why I’m here, that was my big moment which inspired me to really push on to get involved with Sligo GAA. I was involved with other sports, but I focused on GAA after that.”
While exam commitments in NUIG ruled him out of Sligo’s trip to New York, McDonnell was tuned in on radio. The 22 year old wasn’t panicking even when New York hit the front in the second half. “In a way I wasn’t too worried, I was kind of confident,” McDonnell says.
“We have gone behind a good few times this year, we finished a few games strong so I was confident enough we’d comeback at least and the boys finished strong.”
That is what happened ensuring Sligo now make the short journey to Elverys MacHale Park next Sunday for a clash against Mayo. “We are looking forward to it, they are obviously one of the top two teams in the country,” is McDonnell’s assessment.
“These are the games you want to be playing in, you want to aim to try yourself against the best. We are looking forward to that, to the challenge to just see how we get on.”
Mayo’s Connacht Final triumph over Sligo two years ago is a cautionary tale, but McDonnell is adamant the Yeatsmen have developed since that severe beating.
“Looking back at that game when we diagnosed it a lot of things went wrong,” McDonnell acknowledges. “Mayo were exceptional that day as well which helped their cause, but last year with Galway beating them it gives you belief. We feel we are a better team than we were two years ago so we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Sligo had Roscommon in severe bother last summer before being caught by a second half rally. McDonnell accepts that Sligo exited the western race nursing plenty of regrets in 2016. “Definitely, still looking back I’ve a lot of regrets over that game,” McDonnell states.
“Eight points up I think we were at half-time, but we have to move on. We can’t dwell on it too much, we have to look to this year, to the the next game, to try to put right what went wrong.”
“That is one thing that Niall has brought, real professionalism to the outfit.”
That is the challenge for Sligo with McDonnell accepting that optimism exists in the county with a talented Under 21 side narrowly beaten in an absorbing EirGrid Connacht Final. The work being carried out at Post Primary level by St Attracta’s Tubbercurry and Summerhill College demonstrates that footballers are being manufactured in Sligo.
“Yeah, definitely,” McDonnell agrees. ‘There is a lot of work going into underage. We have a new Centre of Excellence which helps, we can bring all the boys and teams together there and we have a good gym. Everything is looking better for Sligo.
“We have a good young squad at the minute, Niall is bringing in the younger boys so they are getting a taste of the action. We had four or five lads last year doing the Leaving Cert on the panel which was great for them, there is a youthful exuberance in the squad. Everybody was looking forward to training and the games.”
Manager Niall Carew has occupied a central role according to McDonnell. “He has made it more professional, particularly a couple of years ago in the Connacht Final when we came up against Mayo that year their fitness, their physicality was way beyond ours,” McDonnell comments.
“We are realising that we need to step up on that. The professionalism the top teams have we are trying to catch up, to bring that to our game. That is one thing that Niall has brought, real professionalism to the outfit.”
So what would a victory over the Green and Red do for Gaelic Football in Sligo? “It would be massive, that is what young guys need: something to aspire to, something to look up to, a big win like that would be massive for us.
“We are a bit starved of success at the minute, we need a big game to push things on, to get boys and young fellas interested in GAA in Sligo.”