Mark Breheny still dreaming the dream with Sligo

Fifteen years on he returns to New York again to face the hosts in the championship

Mark Breheny: “This wasn’t something I set out to do. But I still enjoy it. I am striving to win a second Connacht medal.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mark Breheny: “This wasn’t something I set out to do. But I still enjoy it. I am striving to win a second Connacht medal.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Why do it? Why give the best years of your life to Sligo football?

It’s not ever a question that Mark Breheny (whose 15th championship season begins in the Bronx tomorrow, confirming his standing as the longest-serving county player in the game) has stopped to consider much beyond the obvious and honest response. Why not?

“Why I am at it?” he smiles.

“This wasn’t something I set out to do. But I still enjoy it. I am striving to win a second Connacht medal. No other Sligo player has two. There is a group there from 2007 still hunting for that – Ross [Donovan] and Charlie [Harrison], Brendan, David Kelly, meself. That was the starting five from that final. Searching for an All-Star, if I can get it, it would be brilliant. Still haven’t ruled that out. Things like that are still on the top of my agenda in terms of targets.”

Mark Breheny doesn’t fit that mugshot at all. At 35, he has the build of a hi-tech racing bike

It’s a deceptive term, “longest serving player”, conjuring up the fabled stereotype of the veteran who cannot let go; a thickening parody of a footballer, slowing, swamped by cynicism and permanently bandaged.

Mark Breheny doesn’t fit that mugshot at all. At 35, he has the build of a hi-tech racing bike; strong and light as titanium and he is as sunny as the sky at Rosses Point on a heaven-sent Bank Holiday Monday.

He still has the bubbly energy of a debutant. Some 15 years ago, he was part of the first team to travel to JFK as part of New York’s integration to the Connacht championship. Now, his nephew Cian will travel with him. The decade and a half in between those two journeys can be measured in light years.

Unless you are from Sligo, you’ve probably heard Mark Breheny’s name more often than you’ve seen him play. You’ve heard his name on those drizzly winter Sunday radio bulletins, having posted a game-high tally from frees or contributed a late goal from one of the Division Two or Division Three outposts in games that never feature on the television highlights show as Sligo battle on.

Sligo, the hardy winter plant of west of Ireland GAA, always striving, always proud, ever in the shadow of Galway and Mayo. 1975. 2007. Sligo’s most extravagant triumphs can be summed up in those two years.

Breheny wasn’t alive for the first but starred in the second, when his brother Tommy managed the county to that famous Connacht championship win. That, of course, was the highlight: an insanely joyful affirmation of everything that Sligo football people felt and knew about themselves. They could play ball! They could win!

Sligo captain Noel Maguire lifts the Nestor Trophy in 2007.
Sligo captain Noel Maguire lifts the Nestor Trophy in 2007.

And it brought into the Breheny home place the most delightful of all the GAA contradictions. What’s seldom is miraculous. Sligo got to enjoy that provincial win in a way that Galway or Mayo never do.

“I don’t know how much different the celebrations could have been had we won the All-Ireland,” he says. “I’d say very few counties have enjoyed a provincial title like that – the bonfires and coming out of the bus with the cup in Sligo town and the crowds and the streets full. It was fabulous to be part of that.”

That has never been the summit. Make no mistake: every year Mark Breheny has absolutely believed Sligo could win the All-Ireland championship. If that seems like delusion to you, then that’s your prerogative. He knows he has been around some serious football talent.

Eamon O’Hara goes supernova and inspires his team and all of a sudden Sligo are in full revolt

Revolving around that lunar year of 2007 is a series of tantalising what-if scenarios. There have been several seasons when Breheny played on Sligo football teams that he could feel brushing against something monumental and historic.

Go back to 2002, for instance. Sligo, wearing the wonderfully menacing all-black jerseys, are in Croke Park – a treat in itself – taking an expecting trimming from a highly fancied Tyrone team.

Then Eamon O’Hara goes supernova and inspires his team and all of a sudden Sligo are in full revolt. They win and play Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter final, again in Croke Park.

Sligo's Dara McGarty with Paul McGrane of Armagh
Sligo's Dara McGarty with Paul McGrane of Armagh

Darragh McGarty is through on goal late on and elects to pop a point to take the teams to a replay: 22,000 people in Páirc Tailteann in Navan for a match that goes to extra time. Armagh win out 1-16 to 0-17. That is August 18th. Just over a month later, Armagh are crowned All-Ireland champions for the first time in the history of the GAA.

Few remember how edgy and close that Sligo series was – except, of course, for the players. One year later, Tyrone become All-Ireland champions for the first time. Breheny was out there, in the thick of those games. He could see the Ulster boys feeling the Sligo heat. He knew they were right there.

Sliding doors Flash forward to a decade later. Division Two on the opening weekend of the league season: it’s Donegal and Sligo on a humdrum Saturday night in the northwest. Nobody outside the counties gives much of a toss and interest isn’t too hectic inside of them either.

Sligo race into an eight-point lead. Karl Lacey turns to Adrian Marren and says: “Jesus, we are gone here. And we have to go to Tyrone next”.

Donegal scramble a goal from Neil McGee, the putative fullback, and escape with a draw.

“They leave the field delighted and we are despondent. Then they finish the league getting promoted and we are relegated with a last-second point. The sliding doors of football, you know.”

That September, Breheny watched the same Donegal team beating Mayo in the All-Ireland final. In that year’s Connacht championship, Sligo had led Mayo by two points with 65 minutes gone. They had the beating of a team that went to the All-Ireland final, in other words. He could feel his in his bones that his county weren’t that far away. But you can’t really explain that to people because it sounds like wishful thinking. Right then, in September, they belonged on a different planet.

It comes down to belief. For 15 years, he has played on Sligo teams which believed they could compete with Mayo and Galway. They frequently did. But then, it was as if Sligo were supposed to bounce off a glass season. Mark Breheny’s logic has always been clear here: if Mayo and Galway entertained All-Ireland ambitions, then why not Sligo? Why not?

He’s a true towny in a classic river town oozing an attitude that drifts between defensive and welcoming. There’s always a lot going on in Sligo town and the GAA is just one of many voices. That’s part of the attraction of the place and also, maybe, a reason why Sligo has so many ‘what if’ moments. He produces a match programme of the 1997 Sligo minor club final in which he played right half forward for St Mary’s.

It was a derby contest against St John’s. It’s also a vivid snapshot of the choices facing the group of kids he ran with then, 20 fast years ago. That game was the last they all played together, for a variety of reasons.

Kian Egan, wearing No 20 for St Mary’s that day, became part of a band called Westlife along with St John’s corner forward, Shane Filan

Scholarship He races through their names and futures now past. Conor O’Grady went on to play for Sligo Rovers and was later player of the year with Cork City. Ciaran Martyn, the other wing forward played for Derry City from 2002 until 2009.

Michael Bree, the centre half forward, had already taken up a basketball scholarship with Davidson College in North Carolina, where he would precede one Steph Curry as point guard.

“Michael would have played underage with us the whole way up and I remember him just catching balls with one hand. He was fantastic.”

Aubrey Dolan, a midfielder, went on to play with Sligo Rovers and Galway United. Kian Egan, wearing No 20 for St Mary’s that day, became part of a band called Westlife along with St John’s corner forward, Shane Filan.

Ian Rossiter, the corner forward from Cranmore, would play on Brian Kerr’s U-16 Republic of Ireland team. Mark Scanlon, a class mate of Breheny’s, was on his way to becoming the world youth cycling champion.

Mark Rossiter
Mark Rossiter

Alan Cawley had been signed by Leeds. Mark Rossiter went to Sunderland. He can instance others who had already been lost to music, to surfing, to the good life. His point is that Sligo is too small to absorb the diffusion of talent. Playing in the Showgrounds is the natural draw on the imagination of most youngsters. Markievicz Park is a vaguer dream.

“Every town has their stories of fellas drifting away but if we had Conor O’Grady and Ciaran Martyn and Michael Bree still playing Gaelic for Sligo . . . You hear of Pearce Hanley leaving Mayo and they just replace him. That is what we are always fighting. South Sligo is a stronghold of Gaelic football, in fairness. But the more fellas from the town we can keep, the better.”

* * * * *

Fifteen years is a lot of training sessions. Eight Sligo managers have come and gone since Mark Breheny got his first start. For the record, it was up in Meath, when the first round of the leagues were held in autumn. Mark O’Reilly stood waiting for him in the corner, diminutive and watchful, the Kepak shirt trailing outside the shorts, ready to eat anything that moved without salt.

Breheny did well enough to get a recall and it began to roll. He wanted to play for Sligo because Tommy, his older brother by 14 years, had been there first. That was it. When Mark started watching the team, it was on sombre Sundays in Division Four when nothing would stir. There were years when Sligo seemed like a ghost team. You could hear the conversations on the field; on the terrace; in the press box.

Then someone in the control tower of the GAA decided to restructure the league for 1997 and Sligo got a jolt and ended up beating Kerry down in Tralee and beating Dublin. And the crowds began to turn up.

Mickey Moran was working with Sligo and there was a sense of energy about the squad when Breheny was called in. Peter Ford was his first manager: a fighter and an evangelist. It was always a bittersweet thing that Ford was Galway manager when Sligo won that 2007 Connacht final, one of those quirks.

But Ford had contributed to what Sligo had become. They all knew that. And that day wasn’t about beating Galway: it was about beating away the decades of demonology and doubt which had afflicted too many Sligo teams on too many big days. His brother Tommy was the right man at the right time.

The final whistle just seemed to end all the agonising defeats of the previous 27 years

Caretaker capacity “Tommy came in in a caretaker capacity. In 2007 Michael McNamara was the captain of Sligo Rovers the year before. And Tommy knew he needed him back. And he needed Kieran Quinn back as well. And Michael scored the winning point in the Connacht final while Kieran was practically man of the match. Tommy was a control freak for detail. Even video analysis he did himself because he wanted it done a certain way. He was huge into stats.

“I remember when he took over we were turning the ball over 27 or 28 times in our own half. And that dropped to maybe two times per game. He replicated high-intensity ball drills and tackling and our skill levels started rising all the time and we became more confident taking the ball into the tackle.

“So our attitude that day was: what’s another defeat? Like the last minor title was in 1968, so none of us had any provincial medal. Just go for it. We went to New York that year as well and I felt leaving there that we had something. We scored 0-9 in a row to beat Roscommon by two points. And the final whistle just seemed to end all the agonising defeats of the previous 27 years. Like, Tommy would have suffered some heavy defeats as a player. So yeah, I was delighted for him to get something back from it.”

* * * * *

He started playing senior for St Mary’s at 17 and has only missed one championship match – he was on the bench for that one, recovering from injury. He has never been away for a summer.

He met Caroline when he was 19 and she was 17. She didn’t know anything about Sligo football then. That has changed. He says there is no way he could still be doing this but for her. Their boy Noah turned three this year. Some day, when this is all done, they hope to book a summer holiday somewhere hot. Some place fixture-free.

* * * * *

On that first year he played in the Bronx, the city was still in mourning and the day was hazy hot and he was marked by Niall McCready, a tidy and close marking corner-back who excelled over several summers with Donegal. New York scored a goal from the throw-in and for a small while, he was worried but then he himself sent in a long ball.

“It was still the old grass field then. There is a kind of a shadow at one end of the goals and Dessie Sloyan went for it and it bounced over him and the goalkeeper. And that settled us.”

The afternoon relaxed into the peculiar cross between championship encounter and nostalgic barbecue which defines the annual exodus to New York.

* * * * *

Mark Breheny has played in All-Ireland quarter finals but never a semi-final. With Sligo he has beaten every Connacht team in the championship twice – apart from Mayo, who he has beaten once.

He played in that championship match in Tralee when Sligo had a penalty kick that would have knocked Kerry out of the championship (It didn’t. Kerry survived. Kerry won the All-Ireland. Nobody remembered Sligo). He has seen a new centre of excellence opened. He is lighter now than when he first started out playing. He has never played Dublin. That’s a small itch he’d love to scratch.

* * * * *

Decades before that Sligo-New York game of 2002, on a summer’s day in the late 1960s, Mary O’Meara, a young Kerry woman, headed up to Gaelic Park for the Sunday afternoon match. There was usually a dance on afterwards. It was there she met a Sligo man, Tommy Breheny.

They married and had six children and lived in the Bronx for 19 years. Valentine Avenue. Saturday football with Fordham Shamrocks.

When their sixth child came along, they felt the apartment was becoming too tight for them all.

Tommy suggested moving further out into the suburbs but Mary wasn’t so sure. Eventually, they decided on the boldest move.

They uprooted, leaving the life they had built and struck out for Sligo Town.

Not long after the family had settled in, Tommy junior wandered down to St Mary’s, the local GAA club and when his younger brother was old enough, he followed him down the street.

That was it.

He was hooked, Sligo through and through.

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