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Sligo survive their trip to New York

Sean Rice


Column
Seán Rice

ROSCOMMON’S skirt with disaster in New York last year had Sligo well prepared. In a tense finish in the Bronx, the Rossies – who had just been promoted to Division 1 of the Allianz League – survived the first championship game of the season ... only by a whisker.
It was a salutary lesson in the dangers of complacency. Too often visits to New York and Ruislip were viewed in Connacht as nothing more serious than a light workout, a loosening exhibition put on especially for the expats before the real work of championship commenced.
Almost to his cost, James Horan became acquainted with the hazard of complacency in Ruislip in his first year in charge at Mayo, and last year Kevin McStay’s Roscommon were similarly fortunate to survive a late New York rally which dented their confidence in subsequent games.
It was thus a cautious Sligo that took the pitch at Gaelic Park on Sunday in the first of the Connacht skirmishes. An aura of unprecedented expectation had intensified around the fixture with the home side determined to profit from understrength Sligo.
Interest beyond the norm was widespread in Mayo, not only because we are due to meet the winners in two weeks’ time but also because one of Mayo’s leading defenders of the James Horan era was lining out with the home side.
Tom Cunniffe was one of New York’s prized defenders and he lived up to their expectations with a solid performance that kept the home side’s hopes alive up to the final ten minutes.
In wintry conditions contrasting to the pleasant weather at home, Sligo struggled with the passion of the New Yorkers, and when they trailed by a point in the second half, defeat could not have been far from their minds.
That surely was their spur in the last ten minutes when their collective power and determination finally cracked open the home defence and through which they sailed comfortably for a bag of scores.
It will have been perfect preparation for their battle with Mayo on Sunday week, and outsiders though they are, Sligo will not be without hope of dismantling a machine that has been showing the signs of wear and tear over the last few months.

Ballina win a tight battle
GROUPED as they are together, neither Ballina nor Ballinrobe on the evidence of their rousing battle at Flanagan Park will dread the challenge of Castlebar Mitchels in the next round of the championship.
Indeed, both most likely had the county champions in mind as they grappled with each other in the intense, unexpected heat on Sunday.
Under the blistering sun, there were no restraints. They dug into the game, tackled bravely with little regard for the risk to their limbs and produced a lively and thoroughly enjoyable contest.
At the end, most of the contestants were sprawled on the pitch, spent and drained. Ballina were the happier having scraped through on a margin of two points, but they will remember how tight it was and how close they came to leaving it behind.
The Stephenites have been struggling those past few years. Nothing of significance has stirred in the North Mayo capital since the days when the Bradys ruled the team and the team ruled the country.
Every club experiences temporary declines but Ballina, once the powerhouse of Mayo football, who represented the county in All-Ireland contests at the beginning of the last century, have endured an extended period of mediocrity.
A ray of light was visible following Sunday’s hard-earned win. Granted, it was much more difficult than their victory over the same opposition last season, but Ballinrobe on this occasion were not without hope of reversing that decision.
Maybe something is stirring at last in the old Stephenites, something that brought the likes of former stars John Nealon from Sligo and Seamus O’Dowd and Tommy Knight to Ballinrobe in support.
And having watched Ger Cafferkey’s performance and the work rate of Lorcan Healy, Stephen Mullins, Derek Tansey, Jack Irwin and Ciaran Treacy, they will have returned confident that the quarter-finals are in sight ... and maybe a lot more.
There was an urgency about their performance. They are not the full package, but an occasional excellence that could be prolonged illuminated their play. A fitter Alex Corduff, who has potential to lead a resurgence, could be their motivation.
If Ballinrobe had not run out of steam in the final minutes they would have claimed the first big scalp of the championship. They came close enough to frighten the men who walloped them last year.
Ballina’s goal in the first half was their killer. Even though they recovered to maintain a lead into the second half, that goal was a setback.
Conor Keane was superb in the back line. And Felim Reilly, Eugene O’Malley and Seán Óg Collins made it difficult for Ballina.
But Darren McDonnell’s free-taking was inspiring. And if his quick thinking paid off from a close-in free a decisive goal would have been added to that impressive tally.

Mitchels mean business again
THE merit of Castlebar Mitchels’ win over Crossmolina on Saturday lies not so much in their dominance of a one-sided game as in their ability to reject any tendency towards complacency.
Being favourites to retain the title is a burden they will be forced to brush from their minds before every round of the championship … irrespective of the strength of the opposition.
In the opinion of most observers, they are on course to win that third successive title which has eluded them for more than 50 years. A huge obstacle on that mission is the trapdoor of believing that every game is won before it is played.
No such disrespect was shown to the challenge from Crossmolina. From the beginning Mitchels were on top of their game, defending in numbers, breaking fast, supporting one another, believing.
And they needed to be at their best. Crossmolina, who conceded eight goals in a recent league match with Aghamore, were determined to win back some pride for that humiliation.
Their courage in refusing to submit when Castlebar went 13 points ahead in the second half was rewarded with their goal twelve minutes from the end. It didn’t alter the drift of the game, but it will have provided a flicker of hope in their next outing.
A feature of the outcome was the accuracy of the champions’ David Stenson from frees. Six of his seven points were with the dead ball, scored with both feet, a skill that up to this had been confined to Neil Douglas.
Interestingly, the Mitchels completed the match without making a substitution. The bench is key to their progress.  A host of young pretenders are sitting there tugging at the leash and it’s keeping the regulars on their toes.
County players featured high in the game’s ratings with Paddy Durcan and Danny Kirby excelling for the Mitchels while Conor Loftus was one of Crossmolina’s hardest workers.

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