It’s one thing starring on the pitch and leading your club to a league and championship double, but it’s another achievement altogether when the responsibilities of a player are combined with duties as co-chairpersons in the boardroom.
That was the position which Sligo stars Paddy O’Connor and Eamonn Kilgannon, both just 23 at the time, amazingly found themselves in with St Farnan’s last year as a Division 2 title was secured along with a coveted Sligo IFC title during an extraordinary season.
The idea of running as co-chairs was floated “for the craic” more than anything else, but a seed was sown and the childhood friends set about re-energising the west Sligo club amid Covid.
For two of the club’s best and brightest to show such leadership is an inspiration for others to do likewise, with O’Connor, who was man-of-the-match in the county final, kicking 0-7, revealing the newfound appreciation that he has for those who put in the hard yards behind the scenes.
“There was a turnover, the club were looking for new lads to step in, so we said we’d fill the void. We said we’d step in while we were at home and it was a real eye-opener,” O’Connor said.
“I wouldn’t have realised how much work other people do in clubs and counties and it’s only when you do it that it makes you so thankful for their work. You have even more of a sense of what the club is about as a player and it adds to your performance again.
“We were lucky we had a successful year and we’d a great committee around us. We’d a few young lads on the committee as well and it was funny after the final getting the committee picture with five of us in the jerseys.”
With inter-county action kicking back into gear this year, the pair stepped back somewhat, with O’Connor taking over as vice-chairperson from his Dublin base, while Kilgannon is now the players’ rep as more attention needed to be focused on Sligo.
As a result of Covid, the Yeats County men only played one championship game in two seasons before this year, but they are flying high in 2022 with a quartet of summer games already under their belt before Sunday’s Tailteann Cup semi-final against Cavan is even taken into account.
For O’Connor, development can only come through games and he insists that it’s “exciting times” for the Connacht men, given their progress at senior level under Tony McEntee, as well as provincial success for their U-20s.
“The guts of us are below 24, so that’s why these extra games are so important for us in terms of development and letting lads see what the level is out there and letting them adjust to it,” he said.
“We’ve a young panel who are dying for championship action and need that experience, so to only get one game in two years is really tough, but we’ve been crying out for competitive games during the summer period, so this is just what the doctor ordered.”
Only a handful of the Sligo squad have played in Croke Park before, so O’Connor, a Bank of Ireland employee, can’t wait to make his debut in GAA HQ, having been part of the squad in darker times and captain during a tough 2020.
“I suppose just the love of Gaelic and competing is the main thing,” O’Connor said when asked why he plays for his county. “I know you’d often have some doubts, but then I had Covid for ten days, and on the fifth day, I was dying to get back training already.
“It’s love-hate, you can’t live without it and it’s hard to live with it at times. But you love competing and you’re in it for the love of it. The grass is always greener on the other side, we all love it and we’ve a great group, so there’s that social side to it as well.
“There’s five of us here from west Sligo who have been on the team since we were on U-14 development squads and we’ve been driving to training together three times a week since then. You build great friendships for life through that.”
O’Connor hopes more memories can be created against Cavan, but ace attacker Niall Murphy is “touch and go” after missing their epic victory over Leitrim, following penalties, with a hamstring injury.
He cites Cavan’s famous Ulster SFC success in 2020 as a source of optimism, as well as the examples of All-Ireland quarter-finalists Derry and Clare, and the 24-year-old attacker is confident that Sligo are on the right road.
“It just shows you that if you keep plugging along and you keep developing year on year, you can make that jump quite quickly once you do get over the hump,” O’Connor said.
“If we can keep everyone in place in management and in the backroom, we’ll be in a really good spot because they’ve really taken a long-term approach with this looking forward to the next two or three years and the players we have coming through, so we are excited about both this Sunday and the years coming.”