Friday 23 February 2018

Pain game a constant for Connacht's forgotten men

History and status are against Sligo but their football has won them admirers, says Eamonn Sweeney

Exclusive Excerpt from 'Fifty Shades of GAA' by SL Igoe.

She looked up at him, standing there masterfully in his red and green crepe paper hat, and whispered, "I want you to give me a right good flogging."

"What makes you think I'll do that, Miss Yeats?" asked Mr Mayo.

"Because you did it before, in 1981, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1994 and 2008, among other times."

"Hmmm," he said, twiddling the ends of his Willie Joe mullet provocatively, "Maybe you should go to Mister Galway, he's inflicted plenty of pain on you in the past."

"He's lost his touch," she gasped, "and anyway it always seems to hurt more with you."

"Alright," he growled like the cruel beast he was, "meet me on Sunday afternoon in Roscommon. And just to make it even more humiliating I'll be inviting along a few friends to watch."

Well, why not? After all, Sligo and Mayo enjoy Ireland's longest running S&M relationship. The only problem from a Sligoman's view is that most of the time Mayo supply the S and we're stuck with the M. Paddy Power have Mayo at 7/2 on to continue the story in the same vein today. That's the problem with sequels, they get a bit predictable after a while.

It does hurt more when it's Mayo. That's because in Sligo's traditional football heartland in the south of the county you're never more than a few miles away from a Mayoman. In border villages like Gurteen and Curry, Mayo was where you went on a Saturday night for chips, a disco and a row, not always in that order.

The proximity of that border would have given an extra frisson to championship clashes between the counties for Sligo greats of the past like Nace O'Dowd, Paul Taylor, John Stenson, Paddy Henry and the seven legendary Colleran brothers from Curry, two of whom, Luke and Paddy, starred when Sligo won their first Connacht title in 1928, defeating Mayo in the process.

Of today's team, Adrian Marren, Paul McGovern, Brendan Egan, Ross Donovan and Tony Taylor can probably, if the wind is right, hear Mayomen discussing where they'll go after winning this afternoon's game. I sometimes think that up in Sligo town they suspect the South Sligoman of actually being some breed of Mayoman in the same way that Niall Tóibín once dismissed West Corkmen as being Kerrymen with shoes.

There is no sweeter victory for a Sligo follower than a victory over Mayo. This derby is in many ways our mini All-Ireland. Unfortunately, we do not loom quite so large in the psyche of our neighbours. I remember once broaching the subject of Sligo's rivalry with Mayo with John O'Mahony who, not unkindly, remarked that it's not really a rivalry if one county always beats the other. And last week I read, on the excellent Mayo-centric sports blog An Spailpín Fánach, Sligo's great 1975 Connacht final replay victory over the old enemy described as "Mayo's Guernica -- the greatest horror among a long catalog of horrors." Alright, alright, I get it.

There is an enormous disparity between the counties. Mayo bemoan the fact that they haven't added to their three All-Ireland titles. Sligo have learned to be grateful for their three Connacht titles. Three titles in over 100 years in a province with only five counties tells a pretty sorry story and there have been times when Sligo have really plumbed the depths of footballing impoverishment most notably from 1976 to 1996 when the county appeared in just one provincial final which they lost miserably. To Mayo.

But since 1997, when a Sligo team which was tipped to get beaten out the gap by Mayo lost by a single point, the Yeats County has enjoyed something of a golden age. A golden age by our standards anyway. Because I'd contend that in the past 15 years Sligo have been a serious football team and had the championship been divided into two divisions would have deserved to be in the top 16 pretty much constantly.

There may have been only one Connacht title, in 2007, but there has also been an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance in 2002 when Sligo took eventual champions Armagh to a replay which we were unlucky to lose, qualifier victories over Tyrone, Kildare and Down and league triumphs against Kerry, Dublin and Meath when the latter were All-Ireland champions. Two years ago, Kevin Walsh's team produced thrilling displays to defeat Mayo and Galway before coming up short agonisingly in the Connacht final against Roscommon.

This golden age probably passed you by but it represented dramatic progress for a county which spent the entire 1980s and much of the '90s down among the dead men. Today Sligo play their third Connacht final in six years. The likes of this has only happened once before, when we made three deciders in five years, in 1928, 1930 and 1932. We won the first and lost the other two. Our opponents on each occasion? You guessed it.

This kind of thing may seem like pretty thin gruel to the likes of Kerry or Cork, or indeed Mayo but it represents terrific management by the likes of Peter Ford, Tom Brehony and now Kevin Walsh as well as a two fingers to history by their players. Walsh's achievement has perhaps been the greatest as he has eschewed

the easy option of trying to frustrate more powerful opposition, instead championing a singularly attractive brand of football which

has left Sligo fans in the unaccustomed and extremely pleasant position of hearing their team being complimented by neutrals. The likes of Charlie Harrison, Ross Donovan, Adrian Marren, David Kelly and Paul McGovern would add to almost any team in the championship.

Which is not to say that the pundits who will unanimously predict a Mayo victory this afternoon have got things wrong. James Horan's team are improving all the time and have legitimate All-Ireland ambitions. Today they will aspire to producing something in the vein of the clinical semi-final demolition of Leitrim which made sobering viewing for Sligo supporters. Their defeat by the underdogs two years ago should entirely prevent any danger of over-confidence in their ranks.

It will be an uphill battle for Sligo. Then again, it's always been an uphill battle for Sligo. This is a county which hasn't won a Connacht minor title since 1968, has never won a provincial under 21 championship (even Leitrim has two) and hasn't won a Connacht club title since 1983 when the victorious St Mary's team had several players from other counties in its ranks. Sligo has 24 adult clubs which makes it smaller than two of Cork's eight divisions, the same size as one and barely bigger than another three of them. Yet Sligo, like Longford and Leitrim and Westmeath and Fermanagh, persist against the apparently insurmountable odds imposed by population and copper-fastened by tradition.

Today, travelling to the Hyde, we will believe. We might be mad to do so. But then again we might not be.

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