McDonnell: Mayo showed us the levels we have to get to
The 2015 Connacht final was one to forget for Sligo but defender Kevin McDonnell remembers it now as a harsh but necessary eye-opener.
Mayo tore the Yeats men apart that day in Dr Hyde Park, with the game effectively over after six minutes when they grabbed their second goal. Aidan O'Shea ran riot, hitting 3-4 from play. There were 26 points between the teams by the time Mayo officially secured their fifth consecutive Connacht title and made a little piece of history.
Niall Carew had just taken charge for that campaign and McDonnell admits that hard lessons were learned about the fitness work they would have to do to give themselves a chance against the big teams.
"He has made it more professional," McDonnell said of Carew. "A couple of years ago in the Connacht final when we came up against Mayo, their fitness, their physicality was way beyond ours.
"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."
Sligo face Mayo in Castlebar on Sunday, fresh from their win over New York. McDonnell didn't travel to the Big Apple, staying behind to finish his final year physics exams in NUI, Galway; he listened to the game on the radio.
New York had been tipped to go close and their price with the bookmakers was trimmed all week in the build-up. But even as the Exiles went a point up coming down the home straight, McDonnell insists he "wasn't too worried".
"I was kind of confident," he said. "We have gone behind a good few times this year, we finished a few games strong so I was confident enough we'd come back at least, and the boys finished strong."
With their passage safely secured, Sligo stayed on for a few days afterwards for a training camp ahead of the trip to Castlebar. And with New York fielding genuinely competitive sides, McDonnell reckons the trip Stateside is much more valuable now than it has been in the past.
"It is a useful game now. With the training camp it makes the whole experience more beneficial. Definitely we weren't going there for a holiday, we were going there for a Championship (game)," he said.
"The boys showed they were ready for that by finishing out the game.
"I will have to try to catch up to earn my spot back. It is going to be difficult - there is good competition for places. Everyone is fighting with each other which is a good way to be."
Five of the side that won the Connacht title in 2007 remain in harness. McDonnell was just 12 when he watched his now team-mates Charlie Harrison, Ross Donovan, Mark Breheny, Brendan Egan and David Kelly secure only the county's third provincial crown.
"It was unbelievable. That is why I'm here, that was my big moment which inspired me to really push on to get involved with Sligo GAA," he said. "I was involved with other sports, but I focused on GAA after that."
Carew's men are out to make a new set of memories and McDonnell believes there will be no hangover from the 2015 mauling. And he insists that playing against the big teams brings the best out in his side.
"For big games we seem to motivate ourselves better and approach the games better, which is a fault of ours," he said.
"It is a positive too that we can mix it with teams that are perceived to be better than us. We are confident going into games, but maybe not over-rating ourselves is something we have to work on.
"We are complete underdogs going into these games, which suits Sligo generally, so we are happy that way.
"Looking back at that (2015) game, when we diagnosed it, a lot of things went wrong. Mayo were exceptional that day, 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."
"(A win) 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."
The Castleconnor man pointed to the example set by Tipperary last year as a reason why Sligo can approach the summer with optimism.
"I think the gaps are closing. Tipperary had a great run, even Galway last year were very good in Connacht," he said.
"We beat Tipperary this year, we felt we were on their level. We want to push on, to get a few scalps like they did with a few good results.
"To be the best, you have to beat the best teams in Connacht.
"We are looking forward to the challenge; it is going to be awfully difficult to win Connacht, but it would make it all the sweeter."