Thursday 23 November 2017

Sligo draw on their defiant streak

All-Ireland finalists and Connacht holders Galway stand between Carew's men and provincial decider

Sligo boss Niall Carew addresses his players after their victory over New York earlier this month Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sligo boss Niall Carew addresses his players after their victory over New York earlier this month Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

How fair is this? Having had to travel 3,000 miles for their first Connacht game, Sligo are 'away' again in the Connacht quarter-final at a venue where they have beaten Mayo only once in championship history.

If they pull off an unlikely win in Castlebar tomorrow, they will be on their travels again for the semi-final, this time to Pearse Stadium to play Galway on June 11.

If they won there, they would play Roscommon, Leitrim or London in the final and since Markievicz Park doesn't have the capacity for the Connacht showpiece, Sligo would be back on the road.

Okay, so the venue rotation system between Connacht counties is working against Sligo this time but there's also the bizarre situation where they could have played three games a week before Roscommon have their first outing on June 18. All this in a province with seven contenders.

From the night the 2017 championship draws were made last autumn, Sligo knew that it was going to be an incredibly difficult provincial campaign, with tomorrow as the most likely exit point.

There's always a risk that a tough championship draw can influence the mood in a county, including in the dressing-room where players know the odds are stacked against them. Conversely, a good draw can boost spirits, even if things are not going particularly well.

Favourable

That's very much the case in Roscommon, who were relegated from Division 1 in April after losing six of seven games.

It wasn't exactly the best send-off for the summer but the draw presents them with a great chance of reaching the Connacht final (and, by extension, a minimum top 12 finish in the All-Ireland championship) as they got a bye into the semi-final where, they will play Leitrim or London.

And if that wasn't favourable enough, the game will be played in Dr Hyde Park. While Roscommon were blessed by the draw, Sligo faced up to a schedule that even Dublin and Kerry would hate.

Dublin can reach the Leinster final with wins over Carlow or Wexford and Offaly or Westmeath, three of whom were in Division 4 this year, with the other in Division 3, while Kerry can reach the Munster decider with a win over Clare or Limerick.

How would Dublin or Kerry fancy travelling to MacHale Park to play Mayo, with Galway waiting for the winners in Pearse Stadium? And if they survived all that, they wouldn't be best pleased at not having any chance of a home venue for the final.

"We got a tough draw alright, I doubt if many counties would fancy it," said Sligo manager Niall Carew, in what has to be a prime contender for understatement of the year.

"We're up against Mayo, who have been so close to winning the All-Ireland over the last five years, with the reigning Connacht champions (Galway) waiting for the winners. It doesn't get much harder than that, I suppose," he said.

Despite the mountainous odds piled up against Sligo, the attitude and application of the squad has, according to the Kildare man, been first class.

"We didn't look at the championship draw as a whole but on a match-to-match basis. There were plenty who thought we wouldn't even get out of Gaelic Park with a win. We had to focus totally on the New York game before we could start thinking of anything else.

"We won there and then we turned to the Mayo game, which was coming up very quickly.

"It's a massive challenge for us - there's no doubt about that. They are an elite team who have been operating at the highest level for a long time. The only thing missing from those years was Sam Maguire," said Carew.

Sligo felt the full impact of Mayo's mighty force in the 2015 Connacht final, losing by 6-25 to 2-11.

With Aidan O'Shea scoring 3-4, Cillian O'Connor and Diarmuid O'Connor contributing 1-11 between them, it was the ultimate wipe-out for Sligo, who were hit for three goals in the first quarter and trailed by 12 points at half-time

"We were gone after 15 minutes. Mayo overpowered us from the start and we couldn't lay a hand on them. It was just one of those days.

"I'd like to think we've learned from that. Mayo are more advanced in terms of strength than we are but then they have been together for much longer than we have. We can't worry about that. Instead, we need to get our own game as right as we can and work from there," said Carew, who takes Sligo into the championship for a third season.

Encouraging

They finished 15 places (4th Div ision 3) behind Mayo (5th Division 1) in this year's League, underlining the gulf between the counties.

Nonetheless, Sligo produced some encouraging performances, including a draw with Armagh in the first round and a second-round win over Tipperary, who reached last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

However, a defeat by Antrim rattled Sligo and they later lost to Longford and Offaly while beating Laois and Louth, who were already on their way to Division 2.

Sligo conceded an average of just over 16 points per game in the League, which isn't exactly encouraging as they head into a clash with such a powerful force as Mayo.

Despite that, Carew says that they won't be 'putting up a wall and staying behind it' tomorrow.

He wants his team to believe in themselves and, even more importantly, not to be overawed by Mayo or the bad memories of two years ago.

"That's in the past. The pressure is all on Mayo. No one gives us a chance, which is understandable. We've got to ignore that, make sure we get the best out of ourselves and see where it takes us.

"This is the type of game that tells you everything about yourself. The championship is always the barometer for where you are. We've got to believe in ourselves and what we can do," he said.

Sligo will be without Cian Breheny, who has a hamstring injury and will start with nine of the team that experienced the Connacht final mauling two years ago.

Mayo will have 11 of the 2015 starting team but, if the announced line-out is to be believed, Sligo will not be facing Aidan O'Shea, initially at least.

"We'd play him if we had him," joked Carew.

Irish Independent

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