By Peter Nolan
Sligo escaped from New York with a 1-19 to 1-11 victory that was closer than the final tally indicated.
Gaelic Park, the modest little park in the northeast corner of the Bronx that the New York GAA has called home for so many years, was decked out in all its finery for Sunday’s first-round Connacht Championship game. Most notably, the notorious softball diamond had been filled in, a carpet of lush green sod lain over its unsightly brown clay.
The pitch was freshly lined and every stray scrap of paper had been removed. This was the New York GAA’s big occasion, and like an anxious father of the bride, the Association’s officials put on their finest suit of clothes and hoped for the best. Even the weather cooperated, as fans basked in bright, dry 70-degree weather.
Then it was up to the players. The strains of the “Star Spangled Banner” had barely faded when New York shook the Sligo twines. Referee Pat McEneaney called a foul on Sligo after Martin Coll had controlled the throw-in for New York. Coll immediately sent a long ball into full forward Michael Slowey, who slipped inside the Sligo full back Niel Carew and hammered the ball past Sligo keeper James Curran.
The crowd, which would swell to more than 4,000, were still filing in, and New York had sent notice that they were in this match to win. Sligo full forward Dessie Sloyan won a free and duly converted, but the home team had the upper hand at the start.
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Martin Coll and Ken O’Connor held the edge in the middle of the park, as Sligo had a bit of trouble adjusting to the narrow Gaelic Park pitch. Michael Slowey added two more frees, the second from a difficult angle, and the exiles were feeling their oats.
Sligo manager Peter Forde had seen enough. Leaving nothing to chance, which had become a mantra of sorts in the Sligo camp for this match, Forde moved his best player, Eamon O’Hara, to the center of the field. The switch paid instant dividends. Gerry McGowan pointed a free to bring the favorites to within a goal, and Sloyan pointed after O’Hara had earned the free.
Then New York made a crucial error. Mark Brehony launched a speculative lob into the New York square. Sloyan, New York fullback Owen Cummins, and goalkeeper Eunan Doherty converged. The defense seemed to have the situation in hand, but a mixup found the ball in the back of the net and Sligo with their first lead.
New York’s unfortunate lack of match practice was beginning to tell. Sligo seemed that half step quicker, particularly on breaking balls and frees. Tommy Brennan and Gerry McGowan were causing fits in the New York back line and the tide was turning Sligo’s way. In fact, the visitors might have increased the lead if not for an outstanding Doherty stop off the boot of Brehony.
Still, New York didn’t wilt when many thought they would. Center forward Noel McPartland got loose and a goal seemed possible, but full back Neil Carew made a great saving block. McGowan and Brehony kept the Sligo attack percolating and the Yeats county men headed to the break in charge, 1-10 to 1-4.
New York manager Paddy Kearney inserted Donal Breslin at corner forward and Gary Dowd at midfield, dropping Coll to center back, all in an effort to reignite the New York effort. But it was Sligo who got out of the gate first in the second half. Kieran Quinn pointed as New York were caught flatfooted by a fast Sligo free, a problem that plagued the hosts.
Doherty was tested again and the keeper played a captain’s part, parrying Dessie Sloyan’s goal chance over the crossbar. Then New York again showed what they are made of, outscoring Sligo 0-6 to 0-1 to draw to within 0-3, 1-13 to 1-10, with 15 minutes to play.
Gary Dowd, Ken O’Connor and Michael Slowey and brother Martin led the New York come back that culminated in Noel McPartland’s shot banging off the crossbar and over the bar, when a goal would have meant so much for New York.
Now it was Sligo’s chance to show their mettle. Sligo reeled off 0-6 to only 0-1 for New York as the underdogs desperately crashed the Sligo goal mouth. Sean Davey and Brendan Phillips stood out in this good Sligo patch as Sligo pulled away. New York kept fighting, but when Ken O’Connor’s injury-time goal effort was cleared for a 50, New York’s brave effort had fallen short.
The New Yorkers’ skill and competitive spirit was not lost on Sligo.
“The perception back home was that it’s only New York, it will be easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said manager Peter Forde. “New York played good football, they were fit and put us under a lot of pressure. We were glad to get out with a win. We put O’Hara midfield after about 10 minutes because New York were dominating there and Eamon had a great 20 minutes before halftime and brought us back into the game. . . . We’re glad to get over this and when we get home we’ll start thinking about the next match. New York out here are game for anybody. They’re a difficult proposition. No one will be looking forward to coming out to play them.”
Added O’Hara: New York has a place in the Connaght Championship — without a shadow of a doubt. They showed today that they could compete.”
As for the home side, there was obvious disappointment afterward, but also a sense that the future is bright.
“We were in this match, within 3 points with 15 minutes to play, so, yes, we showed we belonged,” said Monty Maloney, the New York GAA president. “Michael Slowey was the best player on the pitch. He played for all 70 minutes. There will come a time when we beat someone, and we’ll see how that’s taken.”
Owen Cummins, the New York fullback, said the players “weren’t interested in putting on a good show,” but, rather, were there to win. New York captain Eunan Doherty echoed that sentiment. “We don’t have our own field to train on, we don’t have locker rooms at Randalls Island, we don’t complain and we do our best, but we agree with what Owen said — we were here to win,” he said.
Men of the Match: Eamon O’Hara for Sligo and Michael Slowey for New York.
Sligo: James Curran, Patrick Naughton, Neil Carew, Mark Cosgrove, Padraig Doohan, Brendan Phillips, Karl O’Neill, Paul Durkin, Kieran Quinn (0-1), Mark Brehony (1-3), Eamon O’Hara (captain), Sean Davey (0-1), Tommy Brennan (0-3), Dessie Sloyan (0-3), Gerry McGowan (0-7). Subs: Nigel Clancy, David Durkin, John McPartland (0-1).
New York: Eunan Doherty (captain), Pa Murphy, Owen Cummins, Niall McCready, Martin Slowey, Johnny O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connor, Martin Coll, Kenny O’Connor, Jamie O’Driscoll, Noel McPartland (0-1), Bingo O’Driscoll, Kevin Lilly (0-4), Michael Slowey (1-5), Paddy O’Connor. Subs: Gary Dowd (0-1), Darren Rocks, Donal Breslin, Paul Higgins, Kieran Walsh.
Referee Pat McEneaney, Monaghan.