A Sligo team losing is nothing new. But it is how they lose, now that is compelling. This Electric Ireland GAA Football Connacht Minor Championship semi-final against Mayo had a little bit of everything but, ultimately, Sligo fell short, losing by three points, 1-6 to 0-6, at MacHale Park.
Sligo’s almost successful second-half comeback against the grain – they were six points down at half-time time, 1-4 to 0-1 – nearly made for a fairytale to mask serious first-half deficiencies when Tommy Breheny’s charges only managed a single score, Tourlestrane player Cathal Henry’s sixth minute point.
Mayo’s 23rd minute goal, from team captain Adam Gallagher’s converted penalty, could be viewed as unjust becausde of the way that Shane Hennelly won the spot-kick in the first place.
The winners’ full-forward seemed to wriggle his way into a favourable position but referee Paddy Neiland deemed that the Sligo goalkeeper, Kevin Kelly, impeded the attacker. Kelly, who redeemed himself by making a series of top-class saves at other stages in the opening period, was booked and Gallagher showed confidence for a score that would later separate the teams.
That Mayo, despite having a ‘Player of the Match’ in flying wing-back Michael Plunkett, could only muster two second-half points, one of these from Plunkett, suggests they were as bereft of ideas as their opponents but such was Sligo’s dominance of posession that Mayo’s opportunities were limited.
Putting aside the nine wides, the ‘Hail Mary’ hopeful punts dropped in and around Mayo’s goalmouth, the overcarrying and the first-half sluggishness, the fact that Sligo owned the ball but failed to translate this control onto the scoreboard was the aspect that picked at fans’ minds the most.
Keeping Mayo scoreless for the last 20 minutes was commendable as Sligo landed three points in this period through Criostoir Davey, arguably the losers’ best performer, and Kevin Henry, also excellent.
Colm Egan, Sligo’s team captain and midfielder, played his part, too, and boats a style similar to Pat Hughes, who has broken in the Sligo’s Senior ranks, but Sligo needed a spark (a goal or two to be extact) to dislodge Mayo.
Of the substitutes used, Shamrock Gaels’ Jonathan Quinn brimmed with endeavour, but Sligo appeared to overload with ball winners as opposed to cutting-edge forwards. This would follow their methodical approach of playing the percentage game, believing that sufficient possession will deliver opportunities and scores.
In hindsight, of course, it is easy to select different players and tactics but quicker, zipped ball into the attack might have broken Mayo’s resolve a lot sooner.
After a loss such as this supporters tend to get parochial and there were comments postmatch that either two of one of the O’Connors, Ciaran (St Farnan’s) or Ciaran (Shamrock Gaels), might have refreshed an attack that saw the likes of Conor Kerins, Seamus Cawley and Cian Breheny (three players that helped Summerhill College reach a Connacht Colleges Senior ‘A’ Championship final) finish without scoring.
Sligo did show a better attitude in the second-half, typified by Colm Egan, who pointed within three minutes of the restart and made several surges into Mayo territory. But a few point attempts fell short and there was a rare glimpse of skill from Seamus Cawley, who, like a number of his team-mates, didn’t perform as anticipated.
The first-half, competitive for some, dour for others, saw the scores tied at 0-1 each for the opening 15 minutes. When the penalty came around Mayo were already 0-3 to 0-1 clear and by half-time their lead could have been much greater but for the heroics of Sligo goalkeeper Kevin Kelly.
The teenager, from the CooleraStrandhill School of Goalkeepers that has produced the likes of Aidan Carty, James Curran and Vinnie Cadden, made wonderful stops from Shane Hennelly (twice), Darren Duffy and Kevin Lynch, who ended a 60-metres dash with a shot on target.
During a disjointed first-half some of Sligo’s shooting was hurried and off target but when the ball was moved smoothly there was misfortune, also, as Criostoir Davey and Cian Breheny were so close to guiding the ball between the posts.
For a county that hasn’t won a Connacht Minor Championship since 1968, the small margins must seem like light years.
Sligo: Kevin Kelly, Michael Gordon, Barry Walsh, Stephen Barrett, Cathal Surlis, Kevin McDonnell, Dara Long, Niall O’Rourke, Colm Egan (c) (0-1), Cian Breheny, Criostoir Davey (0-3, 2f), Kevin Henry (0-1), Conor Kerins, Cathal Henry (0-1), Seamus Cawley
Subs used: Conor Byrne for Darren Duffy, 49; James Quinn for Eoghan Lavin, 53
Mayo: Conor O’Malley, David McHale, Sean Moran, Kevin Lynch, Patrick Durcan, Cian Burke, Michael Plunkett (0-1), Brian Mullen, Adam Gallagher (c) (1-2, 1-0 pen, 2f), Eoghan Lavin (0-2), Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Darren Duffy, Shane Hennely, Sean Regan (0-1)
Subs used: Brian Smith for Cathal Henry, 51; Jonathan Quinn for Seamus Cawley, 51; James O’Hehir for Conor Kerins, 57
Referee: Paddy Neiland (Roscommon)