Mayo 3-23 Sligo 0-12
“Yes,” agreed Tony McEntee in pure mid-Ulster flatness when asked if this had been a really disappointing day for Sligo before breaking into a broad grin. “You want me to expand on that, do you?”
The advance billing on this Connacht first round match was that Mayo could not lose and Sligo could not win. Vast gulfs and all of that. So it went.
Sligo were repeatedly ransacked by Mayo's aggressive pressing game in the first half, coughing up 2-2 to Aidan O'Shea, remodelled as a conventional full forward here in a green and red procession that saw debut player Darren McHale fire a nifty 1-5 over the day. As a contest it was over early. The stand was empty and the atmosphere low key.
Eleven summers have slid by since Sligo stormed the big houses in the province, first dumping Mayo and then Galway from the Connacht championship before suffering the blackly comic fate of losing that year’s final to Roscommon by a point.
Markievicz Park was pretty in backdrop only then it was an intimidating place to play. Recreating that atmosphere will be Tony McEntee's ultimate ambition but these things take time.
In a knock-out summer with no crowd and after an unpromising league, this match long had the look of the impossible about it. Sligo made five changes to the named starting team just before throw-in, deepening the sense that they were an unknown quantity even to themselves.
Two years have passed since they last played a championship game after last year’s Covid-related withdrawal. McEntee had all of these reasons to offer as to why his young team couldn’t compete but he batted them away.
“That idea is probably fairly condescending. Not from you but the concept itself because that is the kind of talk that keeps Sligo stuck – Division Four, it is difficult for Sligo and they are put out early. The reality is that they just need to do more work. They need to improve in the winter, need to improve their speed and conditioning and give themselves a chance to be better.
“And I think to be fair – I am talking about us now at this stage – we maybe haven’t done that. But we now have a platform to develop that for next year. We can accept that Sligo are never going to beat Mayo in a Connacht championship or we can actually go and do something about it. That’s the challenge we have to set ourselves.”
This was about 20 minutes after the final whistle and as he spoke, Mayo players Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin waited nearby to say hello to McEntee, a former selector with the county. He has seen both sides of this coin. The match was out of Sligo's control after ten minutes. The afternoon, chilly for late June, was a taste of what life at the very top table is life.
The Mayo work rate and marking was smothering. They were loath to allow the home team an open pass or free look. They were direct in possession, reasonably accurate with the bounty of possession and the pace throughout the lines was formidable.
It could be argued that the Mayo full back line looked a little bit nervy when Sligo rained ball on full forward Niall Murphy and his towering partner in crime Barry Gorman; the pair were unlucky not to concoct at lease one goal. But it was a hugely comfortable day and among the encouraging signs for Mayo was the sight of Lee Keegan dashing from box to box all afternoon.
The second half was a more pedestrian affair and the chief enjoyment for the neutrals was derived in watching Eoghan McLaughlin’s lightning forays up the left wing, from which he grabbed two points and hit the Sligo crossbar.
McLaughlin’s conversion from elite cycling has been well documented but it seems unlikely he could travel any faster up-field even if he was allowed to use the bicycle. Sligo anticipated that Mayo would look to trap them early and often but McEntee agreed that it is difficult to simulate the speed and aggression with which players like McLoughlin, Ryan O’Donoghue and Oisín Mullin go after turnovers.
“It is. Yes. And when they capitalise and get crucial scores. But yes. We can’t replicate what Mayo do in training because we don’t have the athletes they have. We don’t have the pace and power. We talked about it and tried to replicate it but we still expected it. Today in the first half I am not sure we showed up as the team we wanted to be.”
There were glimmers of optimism for Sligo: Niall Murphy gave a classy and brave exhibition at full forward, Sean Carrabine almost single-handedly broke the Mayo press on several occasions and they looked more settled and composed through the second period, when they conceded no goal.
But this is the start of a long-term project for Sligo. Each of Mayo’s years are self-contained adventures. They made light of the absence of Cillian O’Connor here, with Ryan O’Donoghue flawless on free-taking duties. The day marked the 150th appearance in a Mayo shirt of Knockmore’s Kevin McLoughlin, a phenomenal return.
"Yeah 150 and we were slagging him about the few he missed because he very rarely does," said James Horan before the victors headed south.
“He is playing brilliant football, possibly the best of his career so he has a lot more left yet.”
The same could be true of the team.
MAYO: 1 R Hennelly; 2 E Hession, 3 O Mullin, 4 L Keegan; 5 M Plunkett, 6 P Durcan (0-1), 7 E McLaughlin (0-2); 8 M Ruane, 9 C Loftus (0-2); 10 K McLoughlin, 11 D McHale (1-5), 22 J Flynn (0-1); 13 T Conroy (0-2), 14 A O'Shea (2-2), 15 R O'Donoghue (0-5 our frees).
Substitutes: 25 F Boland (0-1) for 22 J Flynn (46 mins), 18 P O'Hora for 4 L Keegan (54 mins), 20 S Coen (0-1) for 6 P Durcan (61 mins), 24 P Towey for 15 R O'Donoghue (64 mins), 26 J Carr (0-1) for 10 K McLoughlin (70 mins).
SLIGO: 1 E Kilgannon; 2 R Feehily, 3 E McGuinness,25 K McKenna; 23 N Mullan, 6 P McNamara, 19 P Laffey; 8 P O'Connor (0-1), 9 P Kilcoyne; 10 D Quinn, 24 L Gaughan (0-1), 12 M Gordon (0-1); 18 B Gorman, 14 N Murphy (0-6, 1 free), 15 S Carrabine (0-2).
Substitutes: 4 E Lyons for 25 K McKenna, 5 K Cawley (0-1) for 24 L Gaughan (31 mins). 17 R Og Murphy for 18 B Gorman (35 mins), 26 C Griffin for 12 M Gordon (53 mins), 11 C Lally for 5 K Cawley (61 mins inj.).
Referee: P Faloon (Down).