Sligo stare into another summer of discontent
Black , as part of the Sligo football strip, was a fitting colour scheme for the day that was in it.
Two noble middle-of-the-road football counties who have suffered long and hard over the years in Connacht and Leinster championship football were in sombre mood as Longford strode out in Pearse Park to challenge Sligo in the final round of Division 3 of the league. One or the other was about to be condemned to the backwaters of football for at least one season, because for the first time one of them would not be playing in the All-Ireland qualifiers since the backdoor system started in 2001. This arose from a GAA Congress decision in 2006 which was changed last week but not in time for 2008.
That left Longford, Leitrim, Sligo and Limerick all living on their nerves yesterday as two of those four were for the high-jump with, in all probability, only one game in the entire All-Ireland championship.
The wonder was that over 1,500 people turned up at Pearse Park for what many considered a wake, and in the first half there seemed to be a lot of walking corpses on both sides. Every mistake in the book, every blunder in the tackle and every piece of constructive play was punished as it appeared to many players the whole thing was a futile exercise.
The qualifiers are certainly no panacea for weaker football counties, who are ultimately mere cannon fodder for the strong teams, but the record of Sligo over several seasons and Longford in 2006 definitely gave a whole new impetus to the sterile provincial competition that has usually been the fate of both counties over the past 120 years.
Anybody I met at half-time in Pearse Park had that hang-dog look about them as if wishing the whole thing would go away, but to all our surprises the game perked up dramatically in the second half. It had been level, which was in effect a deficit position for Sligo as they needed to beat Longford by three points to survive the drop.
Sligo suddenly started to turn on the style in a period which reminded us all of their best moments in the recent Connacht final against Galway. Eamon O'Hara again provided a big lift in midfield, but this time the dramatic goal that might have swung the game Sligo's way was absent.
Still, Sligo did score five points without reply in the space of a blistering (and I mean that) six minutes and went into a three-point lead at 12-9. Things were looking good, but as soon as the Sligo flourish started it died a slow, painful death. They only managed a solitary point in the final 25 minutes and that left a revived Longford side, carried on his back by Brian Kavanagh, with plenty of time to ease their way through a goal and three points. It meant that Longford were home and dry and well clear of the Tommy Murphy Cup.
It was hard to escape the belief that Sligo felt they were doomed from an early stage of this Division 3 campaign. New manager Tommy Jordan and his team got off to a bad start and things remained that way despite several very close defeats. Now they will accompany near neighbours Leitrim in Division 4, and while they will beat London they will hardly beat Mayo in Castlebar, so the romance in sport will be thin on the ground in GAA circles in Sligo for the next 12 months.
Longford people will genuinely sympathise with both Sligo and Leitrim. Clearly a massive improvement will be needed by Longford to beat Westmeath in three weeks' time, or even to win a qualifier of note. But all is not lost either.
In a local derby Longford could beat Westmeath in Pearse Park, as they did last year, and then they would move on to face a not overwhelming task against recent Division 4 dwellers Offaly. If they pass that test then it could be Dublin in Croke Park in the semi-final.
Of course, Longford can dream like that -- what else keeps the likes of us going only dreams? For Sligo and Leitrim however, the fans are heading for an extended nightmare. It's not just the top teams in GAA who suffer despair when they lose a major game -- the 20 or so also-ran counties live it as a daily experience.
Kneeing players on ground must be tackled by GAA
GAA people have a great capacity to absorb controversial situations, talk about them for a while, then move on to the next topic of interest and largely forget the past.
I was struck by this on Saturday when watching Kildare's clash with Down in the All-Ireland U21 FC semi-final, because right at the finish of this tight game, there was a 'blast from the past' which most people have forgotten about, but which the Kildare centre-back Gary White most certainly has not.
You can all recall the furore a few years ago in the Ulster final replay between Tyrone and Armagh in Croke Park, when Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin leant his knees into the midriff of an Armagh player who was lying on the ground. It was a dangerous physical attack which should never be called, as happened at the time, a tackle. The Armagh man could have suffered long-term injury because of the nature of the attack but thankfully he recovered.
When this incident happened on live television, there was the usual murmur of disgust and feigned anger from many officials. But, in reality, no one paid much attention.
Similiar incidents have, thankfully, been rare enough, but last Saturday, when White was being knocked to the ground by a couple of opponents on the 13-metre line, the Kildare captain was charged in the throat by an opponent's pair of knees, while he was unprotected. He took a long time to recover, but eventually, he rose to his feet.
There are a couple of things about this affair which should concern all followers of the GAA -- especially leading officials -- if they really care about violence on the field.
The referee, Pat McGovern, was right in the vicinity of this nasty-looking incident, but he did not issue a red card to the culprit, Conor Garvey, who had already been yellow-carded in the first half, nor did he even brandish a second yellow card. It was disappointing that there was no censure for an incident which could have left a talented young player with a serious neck or head injury.
Even more worrying was the fact that the two umpires who were standing less than 20 yards away must not have seen it as they did not alert the ref who also must not have seen it.
This is one of the most dangerous forms of attack in Gaelic football -- using the two knees to inflict injury on the exposed body of an opponent who is lying prone on the ground.
And to add insult to injury, there was actually a yellow card issued, as a result of the incident, but it was shown to the Kildare keeper for protesting at the assault on his colleague. I kid you not !
What this disgraceful incident shows is that the GAA still has a great deal of work to do on the discipline front. God knows, we have a long enough catalogue of dirty incidents in Gaelic football going back all the years. We don't need the introduction of a new one like the double-knee assault, which has the potential to result in very serious injuries.
It will be interesting to observe how the national referees, who hold seminars regularly in Athlone, will deal with the incident in Navan last Saturday -- if they decide to do anything about it at all. We already know what the GAA hierarchy will do -- nothing.