By Mark Jones
Sligo 1-14, Tyrone 0-12
Tyrone’s earlier loss in the Ulster championship was widely regarded as just a blip. After all, hadn’t Galway won last year’s All-Ireland after losing in Connacht? And Tyrone, with all their class, were still real live candidates for Gaelic football’s ultimate prize. Croke Park, against unfancied Sligo in Round Four of the qualifiers, no contest, boy.
No contest alright. No contest for Sligo, who produced the shock of the summer with a stunning victory which now carries them triumphantly into the All-Ireland quarterfinals.
But how, against all the odds? “Well, we’re as fit and we train as hard as any other team,” reflected manager Peter Forde. “I know John O’Mahony and am well aware of the kind of effort teams like Galway put in. We’re no different. And this was a good win, but it’s not the same as last year. The same excitement won’t be there. We’re in the last eight now, but we’ll have to see if we can keep it going.”
That result last year against Kildare had been Sligo’s high point for the best part of 25 years, but now they have to prove they can mix it with the elite. They certainly went some way towards that goal Sunday when, after a nervous start, they ran Tyrone ragged with an infectious mix of skill and physique.
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This is the same Sligo team that saw off a stiff New York Challenge, 1-19 to 1-11 on May 5 in Gaelic Park in the Bronx.
On Sunday, the favorites’ fast, short-passing game broke down alarmingly, and once Sligo got a grip on proceedings, they were utterly dominant.
“We hit the ground running, but pretty soon the wheels started to come off,” admitted Tyrone’s co-manager, Art McRory. “Some players didn’t really perform and after the backlash of this defeat, we’ll try to work it out.”
Several of the Tyrone players were probably already thinking about the quarterfinals when they led by 0-9 to 0-3 after 25 minutes. With Peter Canavan in sublime form, and with is brother Pascal and Stephen O’Neill seemingly scoring at will, Sligo must have been wondering if the journey from the west was worth all the bother.
To their credit, it was down more to Sligo’s determination than to any complacency on Tyrone’s part that the balance of the game suddenly shifted. Inspired by the magnificent Eamonn O’Hara, the underdogs surged back into contention. O’Hara himself, Mark Brehony, Dara McGarty and Kieran Quinn all scored points to leave Sligo trailing by just two at the break.
Their relentless progress continued, and showing absolutely no respect for Tyrone’s reputation, they drew level before Dessie Sloyan grabbed the all-important goal. After Gerry McGowan’s attempt at a point came back off the post, Sloyan was perfectly positioned to blast the ball home.
Tyrone, meanwhile, could add only one more point from play in the second half as Sligo kept up the pressure. With Cormac McAnallen and Declan McCrossan anonymous, the Ulster county never looked likely to stage a revival
“We were very relaxed going into the match,” Forde said, “but we seemed to stand back and watch them do it for a while. We took our time, but we eventually got it right.” No doubt there.
Donegal 1-13, Meath 0-14
Croke Park was still reeling from Sligo’s shock win by the time the second game in Round Four of the All-Ireland qualifiers got under way, and there were even more surprises in store as Donegal sent Sean Boylan’s Meath tumbling out of the championship.
If Meath, not surprisingly, refused a quick execution with their traditional stubbornness, they were outclassed in the end by a Donegal side that was full of invention and attacking flair.
While Meath’s Ollie Murphy and Graham Geraghty had their moments, it was another pair of scorers, Adrian Sweeney and Brendan Devenney, who really caught the eye. Donegal’s sharpshooters hit nine points between them and they had vital support from the promising newcomer Christy Toye, who was responsible for a vital 1-1.
Donegal clearly set out not to be intimidated by Meath’s customary physical approach, and so the game turned out to be a foul-ridden affair with frequent minor skirmishes. A total of 11 players were booked — eight from Meath — and it wasn’t a productive afternoon for referee Michael Collins who had trouble keeping a hold on proceedings.
Despite trailing by 5 points going into the closing stages, Meath battled back with Trevor Giles’s relocation at center-back improving the flow of ball into the forwards, and Donal Curtis almost snatched the game at the death when his flick drifted inches wide.
However, a Meath victory would have been a travesty as Boylan acknowledged. “When Donegal got on top near the end, they started to play around with the ball and that was it,” he said. “They did what they had to do to win and I’m sure they’re delighted to be up there having a cut at the All Ireland.”
Meath were leading 0-6 to 0-5 after half an hour when defender made a mistake that was capitalized on by Toye for the game’s only goal. Donegal pushed their lead to 5 during the second half as Michael Hegarty, Paul McGonigle and Brian Roper came more into the contest.
“We approached this with no fuss, no big speeches, no big things planned, very quiet the whole weekend,” said manager Mickey Moran. “We went out very calm but very controlled, and if we’re not world beaters, please give us a wee bit of credit for winning this one.”
So, definitely, credit where credit’s due. Donegal march on.