I was often referred to as a ‘Buff’ as a young lad.
Mark Breheny: There’s too much negativity in the GAA
I was often referred to as a ‘Buff’ as a young lad. That’s what you were called if you were seen going around Sligo Town with an O’Neill’s. It’s a garrison town, a hotbed of soccer with League of Ireland side Sligo Rovers, and here was this Buff: which is a sort of a country lad playing GAA. Back then, you couldn’t even get a county GAA jersey in the town, which was a very different experience to what we have now.
I recall Les Ferdinand and Ian Rush coming to the Showgrounds and that was a huge deal at the time. Sligo Rovers won the FAI Cup in 1994, whereas our Gaelic footballers were out after one game that summer — with Mayo handing them a 16-point beating. So that’s where football has come from in Sligo, and the journey in the twenty-odd years since has been huge.
Firstly, the restructuring of the league was huge because it meant we had glamour ties against the likes of Dublin, who we beat in the latter part of the 90s with a late goal. Then, we went down to Tralee and overcame Kerry too, all of which was a huge kick-start to football in the county. Then the qualifiers re-energised the sport even more so.
We’d lost the Connacht final to Galway in 2002 and, normally, that would have been the end of the year. But with the advent of the back-door system a season earlier, we had another bite at the cherry. A month later, we were knocking out Tyrone, who would go on to lift Sam Maguire in 2003, and pushing Armagh to a replay en route to their September triumph. I’d love to have played in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals at Croke Park but, coming from where Sligo were, we had some great days over the course of my career and punched above our weight many times.
We won Connacht in 2007, our only title since 1975, and that was incredible. I can remember the bonfires being lit as we made our way back into the renowned soccer town of Sligo. The place was thronged, and I often wonder how nuts the place might go if we actually won an All-Ireland.
Not every season was positive, that goes without saying. We left the provincial title behind us in 2010, losing to Roscommon after the hard work was done against Mayo and Galway. Whether it was complacency from players or management or both, it was complacency that cost us against the Rossies that day. Our eyes weren’t open to the challenge coming.
My abiding memory of the final whistle was nearly being knocked down by Roscommon fans, and just so badly wanting to get off the field. We went from expectancy to massive disappointment, after a 70-minute ambush. It was nice to get one over on them in 2015 then, the year when John Evans was over them and saying the huge potential his side had. Talk of All-Irelands down the line. So it was sweet to ambush them back.
2012 was another let-down. We’d beaten Galway by five and felt we had a good chance against Mayo but ended up on the wrong side of a two-point loss. You can say what you want but I don’t see the point in blaming this person or that person for any shortcomings we had down the years, because I don’t think it’s fair or proportionate to pinpoint it all in one place. It’s not a road I would be comfortable going down.
In fact, I think there’s too much negativity in the GAA in general. There’s a huge amount of divisiveness when you look at all the doom and gloom and bickering by columnists every week, and then with the GPA and the CPA issues and so on. But we have come on a long way in the past 20 years. As I’ve described earlier, just look at the explosion of Gaelic football in Sligo.
Now it’s about where we go from here. It’s hard to avoid the importance of structures, and I think the Super 8s do provide something for counties such as mine to aspire to. We’re a Division 3 side now but the tier above isn’t much different, and maybe only the top five or six sides are out in front. So there’s something to work for there, to push for that top eight.
But we, as an association, need to move it on again. What I’d like to see is the league scrapped, the provinces played earlier, and then the finalists of those seeded in a Champions League group scenario. The top 16 teams go through to the Sam Maguire competition, and the bottom 16 play for another title. The finals to be played on the same day. Everyone has something to play for that way, and everyone starts with the same chance of lifting Sam.
This could only lead to the GAA gaining even more of a foothold across the country. I left the inter-county scene after 17 years with a great degree of satisfaction, so the job now is to ensure we create a model that moves it on again.
I’ll finish with a little anecdote from 2007. On the morning of the Connacht final, my mum and dad were down in the local hotel in Roscommon not far from the stadium.
My mum, on returning from the toilet, thought she was re-entering the bar area of the hotel. So on she walked, unaware of her surroundings, until suddenly she looked up and realised she was standing in the middle of the Galway team meeting.
Padraic Joyce was closest to her, and thankfully he guided her in the right direction. The story went that my brother Tommy, the manager, left nothing to chance. He even had his mother briefed to keep an eye on the Galway boys.
Then on day two of the celebrations, we were down in a pub in Sligo town, and we were all in flying form. The jukebox was on full blast but then, out of nowhere, a local character called for silence so he could make a toast. We all lent him our ears, and he said: "I just want to say a big congrats to everybody involved, and I want to wish ye all the very best of luck in the second leg!”
It’s the craic, the dressing-room banter, the chats on the back of the bus, the stories, slagging, the great impersonations of the backroom staff, and all the memories of playing that I’ll cherish forever.