GAA hitting the headlines in soccer-mad Sligo
The rhythm of sport in Sligo is dictated by the fortunes of Sligo Rovers FC.
More than a quarter of the county’s population of 69,819 live in Sligo town. Many of them would regard the Showgrounds, rather than Markievicz Park, as their spiritual sporting home.
This sets Sligo apart from virtually every other predominantly rural county in the Republic of Ireland. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in terms of success, Sligo GAA has always existed on the fringes.
Last year at club level they had 304 registered teams in all grades of hurling and football. Only Carlow, Fermanagh, Longford and Leitrim had lower figures.
But some counties can still achieve success despite being handicapped by a scarcity in numbers.
According to the most recent census, there were only 76 more people residing in Roscommon than Sligo in 2022.
Roscommon have won two senior, two U-21 and four minor All-Ireland titles, as well as one National League. They have also won 22 Connacht senior titles, ten U-20/21 and 15 at minor level.
Sligo has never won a national title at senior, U-20/21 or minor level. They have contested one All-Ireland final – the 1968 minor decider, in which they were beaten by Cork.
At provincial level they have three senior titles (1928, 1975 and 2007).
Up until two seasons ago, they had won two provincial minor titles (1949 and 1968) – and until last season had never won a Connacht title at U-20/21 level.
In terms of tradition Sligo never could rely on past glories, whereas, even now, the exploits of Jimmy Murray and his colleagues in the 1940s are still revered in Roscommon.
There has been the occasional oasis in the midst of mostly barren decades.
Micheál Kearns was one of the standout forwards in Gaelic football for a decade a half.
But by the time he finally secured a Connacht championship medal, in 1975, he was past his best.
History is rarely kind to the underdog. Sligo were singularly unlucky to lose by a point to Galway after extra time in the 1971 Connacht final. Galway went on to contest three of the next four All-Ireland finals.
Granted, Galway failed to win any of those All-Ireland deciders. Perhaps if Sligo had won Connacht in 1971, they might have got over the line in Croke Park.
The nearest they came to achieving a breakthrough since was in the 2002 All-Ireland series, when after dumping Tyrone out of the All-Ireland they almost did the same to eventual All-Ireland winners Armagh in the quarter-final.
Joe Kernan’s side held on for a draw and won the replay, though Sligo fans will claim to this day they should have been awarded a penalty at a crucial juncture.
Sligo’s current manager Tony McEntee featured on that Armagh team two decades ago.
In 2009 a missed penalty in the dying minutes of an All-Ireland qualifier cost them a famous victory over Kerry in Tralee, and the Kingdom went on to win the All-Ireland.
There have been more miserable days though, none more so than in 2013 when Sligo became the first county to lose to London in Ruislip in a Connacht championship tie.
The recently crowned Division 4 champions face another potential banana skin tomorrow afternoon, when they host New York, surprise winners over Leitrim, in the provincial semi-final.
A victory will give secure Sligo a Connacht final spot for just the 19th time – and will also give them a place in the Sam Maguire series.
But it is the progress being made by Sligo’s under-age teams which offers real hope for the future.
In an epic contest in Tuam on Wednesday evening Dillon Walsh celebrated his 18th birthday by fisting the winning point – via the crossbar – in the last play of the Connacht U-20 final. It was first time a Sligo team retained a provincial title.
Unlike last season, when a fluky late goal against Mayo in the final secured the win on a 4-4 to 1-12 scoreline, the 2023 success was hard-earned. Sligo beat Roscommon, Mayo and Galway – all away from home.
They now await the winners of the Munster final between Cork and Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.
In 2021 the Sligo minor team beat Roscommon by eight points to win their first provincial title in the grade since 1968.
Earlier this year Summerhill College reached the All-Ireland Colleges’ Hogan Cup final for the first time since 1985. St Attracta’s College from Tubbercurry won the B title before losing out on penalties in the All-Ireland semi-final.
By any standard this is a solid block of achievement in the last two years. Of course, it doesn’t guarantee anything at senior level.
Sligo will never become a Gaelic football powerhouse at national level.
But just a year after the tragic death of one of county’s most prominent young footballers Red Og Murphy the future could be a bit of black and white.
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