Sligo U-20 footballers grounded by perspective
By John Harrington
Perspective will come easily for the Sligo players and management as they prepare for the game of their lives against Kildare in Saturday’s EirGrid All-Ireland U-20 Football Final.
As high as the stakes may be, they were given a recent reminder that it’s still just a game when team-member Dillon Walsh had a serious health scare.
Walsh was the hero of the Connacht Final win when he scored the winner against Galway on his 18th birthday, but a few short days later he was rushed to hospital with meningitis.
“He was bought in at 3.30 am and he was very critical at the time,” says Sligo manager Paul Henry.
“It definitely shook the whole group, it kind of showed them at the end of the day this is football and how things can change so drastically, so quickly.
“From a huge high after winning the Galway game, one of our group, one of our close friends is in a critical condition and our hearts and minds were with the family and also we have to thank Sligo General Hospital for the work they did with Dillon.
“The day of the Connacht final was his 18th birthday, he was lifted on people’s shoulders and carried around in our homecoming and on the pitch above in Tuam. And then when you realise that a young man who is so fit and so healthy and then, all of a sudden, that health is taken away from you and you really don’t know what is going to happen then.
“Behind it all it is just football and we are very lucky to have it and to be able to enjoy it, but life is life and I am very thankful that Dillon is on the mend.”
Not only is Walsh on the mend, he was even able to join in for a little bit of Sligo’s team training session on Wednesday evening.
There’s no chance he’ll play any part in Saturday’s Final, it was more of a morale boosting exercise for both him and his team-mates.
“He is a warrior, this guy is as tough as nails and thankfully he came out the other side of it and he is getting stronger every day,” says Henry of Walsh.
“It was a huge lift for the lads last night to see him. He put on his shorts, he was out running around the pitch, he did a few of the warm-ups with the lads and he is gradually starting to come back to himself, but it will take a bit of time and I am trying to explain that to him as well.
“He does not need to overpush himself at the minute, he is a great young lad, a very talented footballer and he will get his day again.”
Walsh isn’t the only player Sligo must do without on Saturday.
Team captain Canice Mulligan, the EirGrid U20 Player of the Connacht Championship, is ruled out with a shoulder injury he sustained against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.
How will Sligo be able to replace a player who has been such an inspirational leader for them all year?
“I suppose it's a case of we have to, to be honest, we don't have a choice,” says Henry.
“It's a case of the lads dealt with it the last day against Kerry when Canice got injured and it's something they know now they can deal with and they have to go on now and play a game without him this weekend.
“It's part of football, people get injured and you have to move on and put your best foot forward and make sure you're competitive and that.
“Brian Byrne is our vice-captain. Brian came on the last day and ended up straight away when he came on winning a ball at midfield and he ended up getting a vital point in the second-half so I suppose the way these lads work there's no standout leaders, they each lead by the way of their actions and what they do on the field.
“Yeah, definitely, Canice is a huge, huge loss to us and we'd love to have Canice out there but the last day in the semi-final, when Canice went off, the lads got down to it and worked really hard and got straight back into the game with a goal and a point in the few minutes after Canice's injury.
“They'll just deal with whatever situation arises, they don't seem to panic and I suppose hopefully we'll continue that this weekend.”
Henry has full faith in his team to cope without Mulligan because he knows they’re made of the right stuff.
They’ve obviously got talent to burn, but it’s their character and will to win that most consistently impresses him.
"I definitely think most of it is a good group that came together at one time and ended up having a good work ethic. They are great for pushing each other and making sure that they make each other accountable for what they are doing.
“I suppose that all really has to be down to them and making sure that if someone is not towing the line they pull him back in. It is about getting a good cohesive group that really bonds together and are really good friends at the end of it.
“I suppose the other thing is that there are no egos in them. They just get on with what has to happen. There's no-one there that ends up feeling that they're any better than anybody else in the team and they just work as a team. I suppose it's trying to make sure that we can end up continuing that and getting the lads to fight for each other and help each other out.”
Regardless of whether they win or not on Saturday, Henry is confident Sligo football has a very bright future.
They’ve won two Connacht U-20 titles in a row, a Connacht minor title two years ago, and schools like Summerhill and St. Attracta’s are consistently successful.
Sligo are steadily building a Gaelic football culture that should stand them in good stead for years to come.
“Definitely, that's the plan, that's the idea behind all of this,” says Henry.
“That if we can get some level of a culture and a belief in the younger lads coming up that they'll all want to continue on to senior level and play for the county at that level. And also the younger kids in Sligo seeing that, knowing that if they do tog out for Sligo GAA in the future that they'll have an opportunity to get to Connacht Finals or get to All-Ireland semi-finals or finals.
“I suppose it's trying to make sure that there's a level of a belief there that it's worth their while to go in and play for Sligo as opposed to deciding at a younger age that, oh, we'll end up just staying with our club or we may end up going for Sligo Rovers or go play rugby in Sligo.
“We have to make sure that we get as many good, young footballers into a Sligo jersey and that that will hopefully bring a little bit of silverware along the way.”