Gallant Wicklow can’t hold superb Sligo surge in Division 4 decider in Croke Park

Attention quickly turns to visit of Carlow in Leinster championship next weekend

Eoin Murtagh of Wicklow and Cian Lally of Sligo contest a high ball during the Allianz Football League Division 4 Final match between Sligo and Wicklow at Croke Park in Dublin.

Brendan LawrenceWicklow People

Sligo 2-10

Wicklow 0-14

The sting of losing out to Sligo in the Allianz NFL Division 4 final in Croke Park on Saturday evening will be quickly forgotten by Wicklow footballers and supporters providing they can use the encounter in a positive way leading into the Leinster championship clash with Carlow this Sunday in Echelon Park Aughrim.

Oisin McConville and his soldiers will have little time to dwell on the defeat to Tony McEntee’s side in front of a vocal Garden County support at headquarters where missed chances, a poor third quarter and late charge that fell short proved the undoing of a Wicklow side already promoted out of the basement division.

So little time to dwell, in fact, that players and management took part in a meet and greet session with supporters at Echelon Park Aughrim on Monday evening before knuckling down to face Carlow in what will be just the second time the neighbours have lined out in the county grounds for provincial championship action, the last time being 2000 where the home side came out on the winning side of a low-scoring affair in pleasant sunshine.

Having went into the dressing rooms to a resounding round of applause and the cheers of the hundreds of Wicklow supporters who had enjoyed their dynamic first-half showing that saw them lead the Yeats men by 0-8 to 1-3, and despite pushing three clear following an Eoin D’Arcy free won by Darragh Fitzgerald not long after the restart, Wicklow couldn’t match their opponents in that third quarter as Sligo grabbed a damaging 1-4 on the trot to lead by four after 12 minutes, their second goal a rocket from the boot of Paul Kilcoyne after seven.

Having impressed so hugely in the second halves of their last three games, it looked as if tiredness caught up with some Wicklow players over the course of that second half, but the manner in which they clawed their way back into contention and were still bravely searching for a match-winning goal after 74 minutes of energy-sapping football speaks volumes about the heart and ambition of this side.

Wicklow will look back on numerous elements of this game in the brief window they have before the Carlow game. Goals were massive in this game, and Wicklow didn’t score any, with Daniel Lyons saving from D’Arcy in the first half, D’Arcy being blocked at the end of the opening 30 and Kevin Quinn hitting the upright late on. Sligo bagged two majors, the first after Wicklow lost possession on the attack, and were boosted sufficiently all over the field.

The return of Kevin Quinn to the starting 15 was a major plus ahead of throw-in, with the Blessington man taking the place of Cian O’Sullivan who was named at corner-forward in the match programme. There were no starting spots for Craig Maguire or Karl Furlong who were also both named, with Darragh Fitzgerald and Tom Maher introduced, with Fitzgerald bringing lots of energy to the cause and Maher being used for his man-marking ability.

Wicklow enjoyed an amazing start to the game. The roar of the crowd when Mark Kenny drifted over a stunning effort off his left after two minutes suggested a rare joyous day in Croke Park for this side. It was the first time since 2012 (Division 4 league final against Fermanagh) that a Garden County side had appeared at headquarters and only two players, Dean Healy and Kevin Quinn, had played at the venue before, with Healy the only surviving member of that 2012 team and Quinn lining out of Naas CBS in the All-Reland Senior ‘A’ colleges final a few years ago.

Wicklow pushed 0-4 to 0-0 ahead as Sligo looked heavy and unsure and McConville’s men sniped and attacked and carried well in those early stages.

Kevin Quinn pointed a free for Wicklow’s second, JP Hurley fisted over the third and good work by Eoin D’Arcy, Quinn, Dean Healy and Cillian McDonald who had a very productive first half out on the wing. Wicklow’s fourth score came from the boot of Kevin Quinn and arrived at the end of 31 consecutive passes with eight minutes on the clock.

It took McEntee’s side 15 minutes to open their account, leaving behind two wides and two shots dropped short in the opening quarter, their score coming from man of the match Niall Murphy, although half-back Luke Towey was also a hugely significant player for the Yeats men in this game.

Pressure from the excellent Mark Kenny prevented Sligo from registering a second point after 18 and when Mark Jackson drifted over a beauty from a free won by JP Hurley, Wicklow were 0-5 to 0-1 to the good with 20 on the clock.

Wicklow coughed up possession for Sligo’s second score, losing the ball to the impressive Seán Carrabine who helped move the ball to Murphy who obliged in front of the posts, but two points from Kevin Quinn, the first directly after Daniel Lyons had saved from Eoin D’Arcy, either side of Sligo losing full-back Eddie McGuinness to a black card left the score at 0-7 to 0-2 and Wicklow a man to the good for 10 minutes.

Niall Murphy was showing his class at this stage and he gathered a long ball from Keelan Cawley to claim and mark and subsequently fire over Mark Jackson’s crossbar and then a monster score in the context of the game and the conditions arrived when Sligo transitioned rapidly after an unforced error up the field, working the ball through Cawley, Cian Lally, Nathan Mullen and Luke Towey before Murphy flicked cleverly beyond Jackson to the back of the Wicklow net.

It was abundantly clear that Sligo were finding their feet now, the speed of their breaks impressive and threatening, but Wicklow could have taken a commanding lead but for a late goal-saving block on Eoin D’’Arcy at the expense of a 45 which Mark Jackson pointed superbly, sending McConville’s men in leading 0-8 to 1-3.

D’Arcy’s early free in the second half promised more of the same to the buoyant Wicklow supporters in the Hogan Stand but Sligo moved up through the gears, Cian Lally blazing over a fine point when he should probably have backed himself with only Jackson to beat.

Another 1-3, the points from Carrabine, Towey and Pat Spillane and the goal from Kilcoyne, left Wicklow struggling for air on the big pitch in Croke Park.

Wicklow were seeking an isolated Kevin Quinn with long ball at this stage, but nothing was sticking for the Garden County men as the returned Eddie McGuinness along with Nathan Mullen and Evan Lyons were breaking and mopping up the deliveries.

Mark Jackson prevented the game from being over as a contest at the end of the third quarter when he saved from Patrick O’Connor and a superb pair of points, the first a cracker off the outside of his right from Dean Healy, the second a pointed mark from Kevin Quinn, lifted the Wicklow players and supporters with 17 gone and Sligo leading by 2-7 to 0-11.

Carrabine and Eoin D’Arcy swapped frees as the hour mark approached, but Sligo were proving savagely hungry at this stage, putting huge pressure on Wicklow players and breaking at speed up the field and they added two points from Nathan Mullen and that man Murphy to leave it 2-10 to 0-12.

Another sweetly struck 45 from Mark Jackson kept Wicklow in touch and a superbly struck Cian O’Sullivan free left just two between the sides at the end of normal time shortly after Kevin Quinn had struck the outside of the Sligo post with a fine effort.

With four minutes of added time announced, Wicklow came hunting for goals but despite their best efforts, they failed to breach the Yeats County’s rearguard and the final whistle brought relief and joy to McEntee’s men in what was a fairytale end to their league campaign with a victory they dedicated to the late Red Óg Murphy.

Not to be for this gallant Wicklow side but the ultimate prize of promotion was the one that mattered most, and while the league title would have been oh so sweet, attention must now turn to Carlow this weekend where a win in the Leinster championship would be the perfect response.

Wicklow had fine showings from Eoin Murtagh, Cillian McDonald, Malachy Stone, Dean Healy, Podge O’Toole, Darragh Fitzgerald, Kevin Quinn, Mark Kenny and Eoin D’Arcy.

Wicklow: Mark Jackson (0-3, 1f,21 45); Malachy Stone, Eoin Murtagh, Jacques McCall; Tom Maher, Paddy O’Keane, Cillian McDonald; Dean Healy (0-1), Podge O’Toole; Andy Maher, JP Hurley (0-1), Darragh Fitzgerald; Kevin Quinn (0-5, 2f, 1m), Mark Kenny (0-1), Eoin D’Arcy (0-2, 2f). Subs: Karl Furlong for J McCall (52), Zach Cullen for A Maher (53), Cian O’Sullivan (0-1, f) for D Fitzgerald (56), Fintan O’Shea for T Maher (60), Johnny Keogh for M Kenny (70).

Sligo: Daniel Lyons; Nathan Mullen (0-1), Eddie McGuinness, Evan Lyons; Luke Towey (0-1), Brian Cox, Paul McNamara; Paul Kilcoyne (1-0), Cian Lally (0-1); Keelan Cawley, Seán Carrabine (0-2, 1f), Finnian Cawley; Pat Spillane (0-1), Patrick O’Connor, Niall Murphy (1-4, 1f, 1m.) Subs: Mikey Gordon for D Quinn (39), Alan Reilly for P O’Connor (57), Gerard Kelly Lynch for K Cawley (62), Mark Walsh for P Spillane (64).

Referee: Paul Faloon (Down)