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James Weir is hoping for back-to-back success as Sligo hurlers return to Croke Park

Sligo hurling captain, James Weir, at Croke Park ahead of this weekend's Nicky Rackard Cup Final.

Sligo hurling captain, James Weir, at Croke Park ahead of this weekend's Nicky Rackard Cup Final.

By Michael Devlin

Leaving Croke Park in the wake of Sligo’s Lory Meagher Cup triumph last summer, James Weir wondered, ‘Will we ever get to play here again?’

It would have been an understandable enough thought for a Sligo hurler. Finalists in the Meagher in 2015 and 2016, Croke Park glory was finally achieved after a classic shoot-out against Lancashire. It was a pulsating contest that went right down to the wire before a brilliant solo goal from full forward Kevin Gilmartin won it for the Yeatsmen at the death.

Up in the Nicky Rackard Cup competition this season, the 2019 plan for Weir and his teammates was simply to consolidate their status in inter-county hurling’s fourth tier, and take things from there.

“I suppose, we set out our stall last December of what we wanted to achieve from this year, it was to stay safe in the Nicky Rackard and then push on and see how far we get. We put a lot of work in and trained a lot. Thankfully a year later we are here again, trying to win another final.”

They take on an Armagh side who are following on from a tense semi-final victory over Tyrone. Sligo had impressively beaten the Red Hands by 11 points in the group stage and that result, coupled with Tyrone’s victory over the pre-tournament favourites Mayo on match day one, turned the group on its head.

“Mayo losing the first game to Tyrone, that probably opened things up for everyone, gave everyone belief that Mayo are beatable,” says Weir, the team captain. “We knew the Tyrone game would be a challenge. Thankfully we beat them and hung on against Mayo to get the draw which put us through as group winners.”

That dramatic draw with their Connacht at Scarden ensured their passage to the semi-finals as Group two table-toppers. Ahead by 11 at halftime, Mayo stormed back into the game and even had a free to clinch victory in added time, but it was sent wide, and so the draw eliminated Mayo from the competition.

“To be honest I didn’t pass much heed, but I think the mother and everyone on the sideline were getting a bit nervous that we’d throw it away! Looking at it we were probably a bit too far ahead at halftime, everyone probably took the pedal and kind of relaxed thinking, we have them here, we’re through’.

Weir and his team-mates will be sure not to let complacency creep into their heads this Saturday against Armagh. Like Sligo, they topped their own group with victories over Monaghan and Longford and a draw with Warwickshire, and Weir asserts that the Orchard County men have very much merited their place in Saturday’s final. “Armagh are a good side. You’re in a final, they got there for a reason, we got there for a reason, so it’ll be a tight game.”

Gary Cadden, left, and James Weir of Sligo celebrate following the 2018 Lory Meagher Cup at Croke Park.

Gary Cadden, left, and James Weir of Sligo celebrate following the 2018 Lory Meagher Cup at Croke Park.

The reality is that Sligo, who missed out on moving up from Division 3B in the league this year, are 70 minutes from earning back-to-back Championship promotions and playing Christy Ring Cup hurling in 2020. It would be a remarkable feat considering the opponents they would face there, most notably Offaly, who suffered relegation from this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup.

 “That’ll be a big boost for Sligo. We wouldn’t be known for our hurling, so if we went into Christy Ring it would be a big achievement to get to that in two years back-to-back promotions. Look at the teams there, the likes of Offaly who’ve come down from Joe McDonagh, they won the All-Ireland 20 years ago. Imagine bringing them down to Sligo, they probably never thought of that.”

A player’s mind 48 hours before a big game can be scrambled with thoughts of the grand occasion. Potential match situations will play out mentally, the premonitions and ‘what-if’ moments, and then there’s the visualising of the moments before that first whistle - the bus coming through the Croke Park tunnel, pulling on the Sligo jersey, running out onto the grass.

“This time last year we were a bit nervous,” says Weir. “This year, we know what to expect, how to control our emotions and focus on playing the game out in Croke Park.”

The St Farnan’s man’s release will be his day job, working as a builder with his father and uncles, and the environment acts as the perfect therapy to ease his mind-set going into Saturday’s game. In the evening he might go for a puck with a few club mates, and that’ll be it before the Sligo squad hit the road on Friday, bound for Dublin.

“I’ll just chat away to the boys at work and have the craic. You’re away for the day, they all have huge interest in sport so they’d be talking it. But it does keep your mind off things, gets you out in the fresh air and clears your head.

“The father is from Mayo, he’d have been to a lot of the All-Ireland football finals here. Last year was the first time he’s seen his team win! We are getting there with him. He’s still a Mayo man through and through, but he’d always be supporting us whenever we play, so it’ll be good for him to see us lifting the cup here on Saturday hopefully.”