Friday 23 March 2018

Mcguire calls it a day after 15 years of service to Sligo

Marking the end of a long and distinguished playing career

LEO GRAY Sports Editor

NOEL MCGUIRE, the captain of the Sligo team which won the Connacht Championship in 2007, has decided to call it a day with the senior squad.

As Sligo begin the Allianz Football League campaign against Roscommon at Hyde Park on Sunday, it will be the first time in fifteen years that McGuire won't be involved.

During a distinguished career with the county, he played under seven different managers (eight if you count the brief Murphy Cup campaign in 2004), lined out at corner-back, full-back, wing back, centre-back and midfield and won a Hastings Cup under 21 medal, Connacht senior and junior medals and two National League promotions.

"I had fifteen great years with Sligo", he says. "I was fortunate enough to captain the Connacht Championship winning team in 2007 and made a lot of lifelong friends. I have many wonderful memories and that's a lot to be thankful for"

McGuire made his senior debut for Sligo in a League game against Dublin at Markievicz Park in 1997. The occasion sticks in the memory for two reasons - the game itself and the manner in which he discovered that his boyhood dream of playing for the county was about to be realised. He was a student in UCD at the time and a fellow passenger on the bus home to Sligo had a copy of the Irish Independent. Peeping a look over his shoulder, McGuire saw his named listed in the Sligo team for the week-end game against the Dubs. Welcome on board, Noel.

He was eighteen-years-old and grabbed his chance with the seniors with such enthusiasm that manager, Mickey Moran, handed him his Championship debut at centre-back against London in Ruislip in the 1998 Connacht Championship.

He had been called in to the senior squad for the previous year's Connacht final just a few weeks before the bigf game and was actually togged out on the day. Sligo lost to Mayo at Hyde Park but McGuire was delighted to be part of the group and the promise he showed at minor and under 21 level was about to blossom with the seniors.

Mickey Moran brought organisation and discipline to Sligo and Peter Forde broadened the team's sense of ambition when he took over in 2000.

Sligo reached the Connacht final in 2002, losing to Galway in a rainsoaked McHale Park. McGuire wasn't in the team that day but was recalled for the Qualifiers and was outstanding at corner back as Sligo registered a memorable win over Tyrone at Croke Park before losing to eventual All-Ireland champions, Armagh, after a replay in Navan.

"We were close to being genuine AllIreland contenders that year", he recalls.

"We were desperately unlucky to lose to Armagh at Navan and I remember being at the All-Ireland final that year and thinking what might have been"

The promise of that wonderful campaign didn't quite materialise over the coming seasons and controversy over Sligo's participation in the Murphy Cup in 2004 threatened to tear the squad apart.

Some players opted not to take part in the competition but McGuire was one of those who soldiered on, helping the county to beat Antrim in the semi-final before losing to Clare in the decider at Croke Park.

"It was an unfortunate development", he reflects.

"Everybody had their own views on it. I felt we had trained very hard that year and should see out the season. That's why I decided to stay on.

"Looking back on it now, the whole thing was probably blown out of all proportion but there wasn't too much ill-feeling afterwards. When we came back for training the following year, it had all been forgotten about"

Sligo was embroiled in further controversy in 2005, when Dom Corrigan was sacked in abrupt circumstances during a training session.

Ironically, Corrigan had appointed McGuire as captain for the first time for a League match against Waterford at Lemybrien just days earlier. Sligo lost by a point and that signalled the end of Corrigan's reign.

"Morale wasn't great at the time. There was a lot of uncertainty and nobody knew what the future held", he says.

Tommy Breheny eventually agreed to take over as manager on a full-time basis and was quite happy for McGuire to continue as captain. The two formed a solid working relationship and the team's fortunes improved dramatically.

They put up an encouraging performance when losing to Galway at Salthill in the 2006 Championship and by the time the 2007 campaign came around they were primed for a serious crack at the Championship.

A trip to New York for the first round helped the squad to develop as a tight unit, on and off the pitch, and the notion that it could be Sligo's year was given further credence when they toppled Roscommon at Hyde Park in the semi-final. "Oddly enough, I was more nervous on the day of the semi-final than the final", McGuire points out.

"Maybe it was because I knew we were good enough to win the Connacht title if we could get over Roscommon.

"We were five points down at one stage but we never stopped believing we could win"

Despite their great victory over Roscommon, Sligo were still regarded as the underdogs for the final against Galway.

"I remember doing some media interviews in the build-up to the game and it was clear that very few people gave us a chance.

"But we were quite confident ourselves. We had run Galway pretty close thirteen months previously and we knew we had improved a lot in the meantime.

"Also we were back at Hyde Park where we had played very well against Roscommon.

"Nothing was left to chance in the preparations and we were in great shape going out for the final.

"It was a very close affair all through. Eamon O'Hara got a great goal in the first half which gave us the edge and we managed to stay in front to the end.

"Galway had a few chances in the closing minutes but we weren't going to be denied"

The full-time whistle generated an overwhelming surge of emotion, for players and supporters alike. "It was unbelievable", says McGuire. "I was on my way to congratulate our keeper, Philip Greene, but before I knew what was happening I was swamped by our fans.

"The emotion was just incredible. Eventually, I made my way to lift the Nestor Cup and it was a very special moment.

"I didn't have a victory speech prepared but I managed to get out the appropriate words and then the whole place just went crazy"

In the celebrations which followed, one occasion stands out in McGuire's memory - it was the occasion the team brought the Cup to his native, Easkey.

Twelve months later, Sligo lost to London in the Murphy Cup at Ruislip - one of the low points of McGuire's career.

Another disappointment was the defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland Qualifiers at Tralee in 2009.

"We were brilliant on the day but just couldn't get over the line. It would have been a great scalp to claim. It was the definitely the one that got away", says the Easkey man.

The Connacht final defeat to Roscommon in 2010 after high profile wins over Mayo and Galway is also a bitter memory.

"Maybe we underestimated Roscommon and paid the ultimate price", reasons McGuire. "They had strengths which we didn't identify. It was a game we could have won but they were the better side ont heday, there's no doubt about that"

McGuire played his last game for Sligo in the 2012 Championship against New York. He was disappointed that he didn't get a run in subsequent games but there's no bitterness. He could have stayed on this year but the prospect of sitting on the bench for large parts of the season didn't appeal to him.

Looking back on a distinguished career, he nominates Galway's Padraic Joyce as his toughest opponent.