FOLLOWING the fourth round of the qualifiers draw, Sligo are preparing for a trip to Portlaoise on Saturday to take on the defeated Munster finalists. Cork. This is a unique meeting between these counties, who have rarely met at senior level over the years.
In fact my greatest memory of a Sligo v Cork clash was the All-Ireland Minor final of 1968, when a talented Sligo team lost by just a point in Croke Park. That particularly team went on to provide the basis of our senior team for more than the following decade. It was a heart-breaking 3-5 to 1-10 defeat for this young Sligo team, whose sporting gesture to the Cork team in carrying their victorious captain, Donal Ahearne, shoulder high off the pitch after the final whistle has not to my knowledge been repeated since.
Several of that magnificent team, under the guidance of Brother Sebastian, Colm Mullarkey and the late Tom Carroll, RIP, went on to become household names in Sligo football and beyond. Players such as the great John Brennan, Robert Lipsett, Jimmy Kilgallen, John Gilmartin, Dessie Kearins, Hughie Quinn and Peadair Kearins all made their mark in the years that followed. Indeed players such as Tommie Cummins, John Brennan and Dessie Kearins were members of the Sligo senior team which won our last Connacht title in 1975.
But, while it's nice to reminisce about golden moments from the past, we must now look to the immediate future and the challenge facing Sligo in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise on Saturday. Make no mistake about it; this Cork team present a formidable challenge.
They had All-Ireland champion, Kerry under considerable pressure for much of the Munster final in Pairc Ui Caoimh on July 10th and were considered by many unlucky to lose on a 1-11 to 0-11 scoreline. A touch of Kerry magic from Colm Cooper, with a superb crossfield pass set up Declan O'sullivan for the decisive goal of the game.
An inspirational defensive display from Tomas O'Shea, decorated with two splendid points, was another reason why Billy Morgan's men failed to regain the Munster crown. They appeared to lack the necessary penetration to regularly breech the Kingdom's defence. But we must remember that this Kerry defence is a proven unit against any set of forwards.
The Cork defence is probably their strongest sector with former All-Stars Graham Canty and Anthony Lynch holding the central positions with authority. Kevin O'Dwyer is a reliable goalkeeper, while Niall Geary and Eoin Sexton are capable defenders.
Sligo forwards will need to be at their best to outwit them. At midfield Cork have a strong partnership in Nicholas Murphy and Dan Kavanagh. Their attack, which stuttered against the Kerry defence, contains a number of dangerous forwards. Kevin O'Sullivan, Michael O Cronin and Brendan Ger O'Sullivan are all capable of taking scores.
Philip Clifford made a major impact when introduced in the Munster final and is likely to start against Sligo provided his leg injury has cleared up. Alan Cronin and James Masters are other big name players who will be pushing hard for a place in the Rebels lineout. It is clear that Cork will present us with our stiffest challenge to date.
Sligo have continued to show improvement in every game in the qualifiers and at this stage our team fear nobody. They have shown that even without Eamon O'Hara they can rise to the occasion. Players seem to have come through relatively unscathed from the opening round of the senior championship on Sunday.
The biggest worry for our management is the niggling back injury which has hampered Dara McGarty in recent weeks. What ever team is selected will travel to Portlaoise with the confidence gained from three well merited victories in the qualifiers. There are no easy games from here on in. If we do not show the Leesiders too much respect and play to our own strengths we are well capable of advancing to meet Galway. That in itself is a great incentive.
It is worth remembering what Fermanagh did to Cork this time last year. I still believe that this is a much better Cork team. Who is to say that Sligo cannot take over the mantle so proudly worn by Fermanagh last year and record another historic victory?
Supporters are reminded that this is not an all-ticket game. Cash will be taken at the turnstiles. It is very important that good support make the journey to Portlaoise on Saturday and give the team every encouragement. The support has been building steadily in recent games and it is important to keep the momentum going. The game throws in at 4.00 and supporters are reminded to leave themselves plenty of time for the trip and arrive safely. It is wonderful to be still involved in the race for Sam in late July. We would all love to see Sligo take another big scalp.
Sligo junior team put in a good performance in St. Brendan's Park, Birr on Friday evening and were unlucky to lose by 0-10 to 0-7 to Cork in the All-Ireland Junior semi-final. The Sligo line-out was significantly different to that which won the Connacht title in May.
Six players including Dermot McTernan, Michael Munds, John McPartland, Tony Taylor, Karol O'Neill and Kenneth Sweeney were all ineligible to play, having since played with our senior team. However, their replacements showed no inhibitions and took the game to their opponents at every opportunity. The deciding factor was a dominant ten minute spell before the interval in which Cork scored three points without reply to lead by 0-7 to 0-4 at the interval.
When Sligo were awarded a penalty midway through the second half, we looked to have a real chance of victory. However, Cork goalkeeper, Alan Quirke pulled off a good save from Fergus Horan's penalty kick. Sligo tried all they knew from then to the final whistle but Cork held out for a place in the All-Ireland final against Meath.
Well done to the junior team, who through force of circumstances had not played as a team together before. Well done also to our small band of supporters who travelled to Birr and made their presence felt in the stand.
CO. BOARD DEVELOPMENT DRAW:
Tickets for the Co. Board Development Draw are going well at present as Sligo football experiences the 'feel good' factor. Tickets are available from any of ten teams of sellers throughout the county, each of which has a Co. Board Officer as captain. There are a total of eighteen prizes in the draw which is now scheduled to be held on August 20th.
The prizes include a Star prize of a '5 Series BMW', which is on display at Wine Street car park at the weekend. It is essential that we reach our target in this draw, the proceeds of which go towards the development of new Co. training facilities at Ransboro, further work in Markievicz Park and the preparation of Co. Development under-age panels.
We look forward to good support for our once-off draw.
Sympathy is extended to Eastern Harps official, Joe Drury and family, on the death of his mother, Mary, last weekend. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.