By Thomas O'Callaghan
Sligo have gotten their Nicky Rackard Cup campaign off to an impressive start, recording wins over Louth and Tyrone in their opening two matches.
Faced by the challenging of competing at this level for the first time since 2014, the 2018 Lory Meagher cup champions looked to Galway native Colum O'Meara, a Killimor club-man, to help them bridge the gap.
Sligo have won 6 out of their 7 competitive outings so far in 2019 with their only loss coming in the Allianz Hurling league division 3B Final against Longford, ironically the team O’Meara was involved with last year.
O’Meara, who co-managed Galway side Ahascragh-Fohenagh with the late Tony Keady in 2017, admitted he didn’t know a lot about Sligo hurling before coming on-board at the start of the year.
“No, I didn't know too much now I must admit," said O'Meara. "I heard of Keith Raymond a few times and I've been keeping an eye on results in the lower tiers in the paper and knew that they won the Lory Meagher with the last puck of the ball last year but other than that I wouldn't have known too much at all about the hurling scene in Sligo."
The Galway man was delighted to get the call last December to come in and train the Sligo hurlers, but he was also surprised to get the call in the first place. Like with any member of a management team who’s not living within the County they’re involved with, many personal factors were considered when making the decision.
"Yeah, Daithí Hand [Sligo hurling manager] rang me one Friday night when I was going to a players' meeting in Roscommon, I was over a team down there.
“To be honest, I was surprised but delighted at the same time. I had a good chat with my wife because it's a massive commitment coming to Sligo with 4 kids and with work and it's over 2 hours driving up and then the same back down again so I had to really think about it but I was delighted.
“Anytime you're approached by a club, nevermind a County, to help out then it's a great achievement for yourself. Hurling is a huge part of my life and I'm grateful for getting the opportunity to come in and work with Sligo."
The commute to Sligo involves leaving Killimor in east Galway every Tuesday evening, Friday evening and Sunday morning for training. When there’s a game scheduled on the Saturday, he sometimes stays in Sligo on the Friday night. O’Meara doesn’t mind the journey though; he even broke up his holiday in France to make it back for a game once.
"It's just the love of the game! I was on holidays 2 years ago with my wife and 3 kids at the time and I hopped on the plane in France and came home to play a senior match with Tremane in Roscommon and flew back to France then the next morning - that's how much I love hurling.
“Preparation is key - if there’s training in Sligo at half eight then I'm here at half seven setting up, you know? I've my plan in place and when I know what's going on, it's very easy to train a team but if you're behind time, training won't be the same.”
It’s fair to say that Sligo had that extra bit of work to do in order to step up from Lory Meagher level to Rackard level and adapt to the higher standard of hurling. O’Meara admits that the improvement since the first training session has been incredible, and continues to see development in every session.
“There's been an unbelievable improvement, and I do mean that. Player development is a major part of my coaching and to get everyone to try and do their best. If they come to training we will improve them. To be honest, attendance at training has been very good but just to get to the next level you can't have anyone miss training, this is the key.
“If you're playing senior club below in Galway and you miss a training session you won't be getting a jersey the next day. Up here, people are working on shifts, people going to college and it's not easy but if you want to be successful at a high level you have to go training when training is scheduled, you have to put hurling next to work, avoid the parties, and if a match clashes with a wedding or something then you have to make that decision.
“For this group of players though, they're really buying into the setup and if they can stay together, there's a massive future for Sligo hurling, with more young lads due to come in next year from the minor squad this year."
O’Meara wasn’t the only Galway man that has entered the Sligo dressing room this year- He has brought with him former Galway great Joe Connolly, who visited the panel on numerous occasions to share his words of wisdom. O’Meara feels more icons of the game from traditional hurling counties can help developing counties like Sligo.
“It definitely helps! If you're a young lad from Sligo and you’re lucky enough to meet one of the Limerick players from last year then you'd be delighted.
“With Joe Connolly, just to listen to the man speak, the privilege to sit in the car with him and drive up to the venue, again, you learn so much from him. With the players, I could see the boys when Joe's talking that they're just in awe of the man. The way he spoke and, the big thing with Joe, the bond and friendships you make in the dressing room; remembering the lad you're togging out with beside you in the dressing room, he's a friend for the rest of your life no matter what club he's with. Down the road ye could be hopping off each other in the club scene but you'll always remember the day you're wearing the county jersey. It's people like Joe and that calibre, it’s a pleasure to be in their company. If any player got just one thing out of what he said then it's a bonus."
A recurring message delivered to the Sligo players from O’Meara is the concept of ‘stepping up the ladder’ – a metaphor in what Sligo has to do to get up another tier to Christy Ring standard. O’Meara admitted he is enjoying his time with Sligo and wants to help them achieve that goal.
“I'm so happy now at the present moment. I'm not thinking about anything else but Sligo and wanting to help improve them. I enjoy every second I spend on the field here in the Yeats County, I'm still learning too which is powerful.
“It’s a pleasure working with Daithí and the rest of the lads, they have a really great set up and hopefully we can push on now and get up the ladder even more; it’s something I’d love to see happen with this group.”
O’Meara knows what it takes to be successful at Rackard level. He was involved with the London set up in 2005 as a player/trainer when they lifted the Nicky Rackard Cup in its inaugural year. Sligo’s opening 2 games in the Nicky Rackard for this year could not have gone better. An away win against Louth in the opening round was important for Sligo, but it was the emphatic victory over a strong Tyrone outfit that has raised the stakes for the Yeats men. Next up for Sligo is Mayo this Saturday, a team operating in Division 2A of the league, 3 divisions above Sligo, but O’Meara doesn’t think league standings matter when it comes to Championship.
"No, I wouldn't say so, the league is the league. When you look at our league team and the team we have now for the championship, we've brought in 7 more players which makes a massive difference.
“We're just focused on Mayo next. We have our plan in place, we’ll keep it under wraps, every player knows what's going on - whether you're a sub or a player starting. No matter how things go we’ll play to the plan in place and things will come our way. I'm quietly confident, not overly confident, but definitely confident because we have the players. We just need to make sure everyone's hurling is up to spec."