Positive progress is all in the game


CONNACHT SFC SEMI-FINAL SLIGO v GALWAY:Hard work and a little playing success are helping to foster football in Sligo, writes SEÁN MORAN

THIS EVENING in the midst of the monsoon season, the footballers of Galway and Sligo line up in Salthill for the first of the season’s provincial semi-finals. Six years ago in similar circumstances they never got as far as the pitch, as Pearse Stadium pulled the plug on the water sports at half-time in the minor match.

Galway manager Alan Mulholland was in charge of the Galway minors and acknowledged at the time that his team was in trouble, leading by only two having played with the full force of the elements behind them.

In keeping with the county’s recent serial frustrations at under-age level, Sligo’s herculean effort in the first half that day counted for nothing and they were swatted aside in the refixture, scoring only three points.

The statistics of misfortune aren’t buried too deeply. Sligo have appeared in seven under-21 provincial finals – three in the past four years – yet remain the only county in Connacht not to have won at least one. For the past three years Summerhill College, the county standard bearers in the colleges A championship, has reached the provincial final only to lose to St Gerard’s Castlebar and twice to St Jarlath’s Tuam.

Summerhill has an unusual dual history as a nursery for both football and soccer. The GAA side of things had fallen into abeyance with the most recent of seven Connacht titles all of 27 years ago but the appointment of Tommy McManus, one of the founders of the St John’s club in the town, as principal of the school and the development work of Liam Óg Gormley and county player Mark Breheny, who is on the teaching staff, have restored the college’s status.

It’s not all unremitting disappointment in the county. In Tubbercurry, St Attracta’s are Connacht B champions and six years ago won the All-Ireland at the same grade.

“Sligo has been progressive and productive in recent years,” says John Tobin, Connacht council games manager, who has also managed both Galway and Roscommon at senior level.

“How do you measure success? I’d say success represents improvement both for the individual and collectively. But the criteria they’re being assessed by, is the same as for Dublin and Kerry.

“Look at the transformation. Under enormous pressure from soccer, Summerhill have progressed to being finalists in Connacht and losing narrowly. The same with the under-21s: the fact that they’re not winning can paint a false picture, disguising the huge amount of work that’s getting done.”

Competition is a constant presence when discussing the GAA’s fortunes in Sligo town, the traditional urban heartland of soccer in the province. The competition for hearts and minds is currently acute with Sligo Rovers on top of the League of Ireland.

Nonetheless Paul Durcan, a current selector who soldiered for more than a decade for the county, believes that, whereas the massive media profile of the global game has an impact, on the ground there is peaceful co-existence.

“The amount of soccer you see on TV with the Premiership, it’s everywhere and it’s gone the same way with rugby which is well marketed. In the town there’d be some playing soccer only but more who play both and in the rural areas it’s mostly GAA and there’s good co-operation.”

He says that Summerhill’s recent emergence proves the value of local profile when developing football.

“Mark Breheny is a county player teaching in Summerhill. It makes it easier to promote the game because the young fellas see the profile he gets and the smallest thing can push them in a particular direction. It’s the same when the under-21s contest a Connacht final.

“Winning Connacht in 2007 would have done no harm. Young fellas like to be seen to be part of a success and I’m sure there were young lads that followed on from that.”

In a way this has been something of a golden age for Sligo. During the past decade the county took significant scalps in the All-Ireland qualifier series, beating Kildare and Tyrone within a year of both being provincial champions and taking Armagh to a quarter-final replay the year the Ulster champions took home Sam Maguire for the first time.

The county added a Connacht title five years ago, which Durcan, who had retired by then, acknowledges as an important, tangible reward for effort expended.

“Looking back,” he says, “people talk about the great games and they were great memories but at the end of the day there was nothing solid to show for it – nothing you can take out of your pocket.”

The framework within which counties like Sligo aspire to great things is by necessity curtailed. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the last time a county, Offaly, won the football All-Ireland without at least a six-digit population – allowing that Northern Ireland demographics are more complicated.

Tobin says that there are around 300 primary schools in Galway and only around 75 in Sligo. The contrasting population base is a problem in an economic downturn with the bigger centres better placed to hang on to players in the face of emigration.

Taken in the context of all the challenges facing the county, what constitutes sustainable ambition for Sligo? “Look through the past,” according to Durcan, “and success comes only once in a while but we’d hope that the senior team at the moment can challenge more consistently. With the schools’ work we’re beginning to get a conveyor belt – I mean two or three players from each minor team coming into senior, which we mightn’t have got in the past. That’s where the work is being done; young lads are being identified.

“With Galway and Mayo there it’s always difficult to get by and we wouldn’t have their silverware but Roscommon have also started winning at under-age. We’ve been getting to finals but not managing to get across the line. Winning things isn’t the be-all and end-all. Producing players and seeing them through to play at senior inter-county level: that’s what it’s all about.”