This time last year Noel McGuire had more important things on his mind than football
BY CLIONA FOLEY
That was a rarity, for few have given Gaelic football greater service than Easkey's totemic fullback who was the last Sligo man to lift the Connacht SFC trophy back in 2007. He last played at Croke Park in a Division Three final in 2010, two seasons before he retired after 15 years in the county senior jersey. He went back subsequently as a Sligo senior selector in 2017 and has also been involved with the county minors.
But not even a man of his GAA devotion expected to be returning to Croker to play in the 2019 AIB All-Ireland Junior football Club Championship final, especially not a year ago when football was unusually low on his priorities.
“Our baby girl was born two months early. She was in hospital for four to five weeks and it was difficult enough,” he reveals. “My wife was in hospital a few weeks before that, so it was seven weeks in all. Thankfully everyone came through well and it was her first birthday last week. “But I missed a bit of training,” he says half-apologetically, even though he is the most unlikely of shirkers.
McGuire turned 40 in December but is still fighting fit and the
defensive lynchpin for Easkey's evocatively named 'Sea Blues'. When
times got tough in recent years he even put his hand up for a dual
role – player/manager – and led them to their 2015 county intermediate
Their pitch overlooks one of Ireland's best surfing beaches but living on those western shores means Easkey tend to be badly hit by migration, a fact reflected by their recent fortunes and team profile. “Age-wise there's myself, Eugene Mullen and Brendan McGrath at one end of the scale and then we've a good number of lads from 18 to 22. We have a generation gap, with very few players in the mid-twenties because people go away to work,” McGuire explains.
“After winning the Intermediate in 2015 we ended up in a relegation dog-fight in 2016. It was a three-game saga, with two periods of extra-time in the second two games. “Unfortunately, we were unlucky and went down. That was a big downer for us. We just didn't get ourselves organised for 2017 and ended up being relegated for a second year in-a-row. It was a massive blow.”
But within weeks their dejected players called a team meeting. Another former county great Dessie Sloyan agreed to take over the reins and his eldest son Dylan is now one of their young guns. The McGuires are also steeped in the club's proud history which includes five Sligo senior titles, the last in 1966.
“My dad played with Easkey in the '60s and he's 81 now and nearly more excited about this than anybody,” McGuire smiles. “My uncle played and my older brother is also heavily involved with the club too. “It was one of the first clubs founded in Sligo, in 1888, and the team that won three senior championships in-a-row in the '30s still has legendary status in Easkey.”
Their modernised crest has a fish and a hurl on it, a reflection of their geography and recent duality which culminated in reaching a county SHC semi-final last year.
But football is still king and Easkey's run to the AIB All-Ireland junior final is truly the stuff of dreams. “There probably wouldn't be much more than a thousand in the parish. Our pitch is right above the beach. It's a beautiful spot but at this time of the year it can be rough enough. We always get slagged by other clubs that they haven't a hope of beating us in Easkey with that sea breeze,” he laughs. They had to get past Mayo champions Balla (managed by Pat Fallon) before surviving a dramatic Connacht final when they were leading Clonbur by nine at half-time. They subsequently failed to score for 30 minutes and had Ryan McKenna to thank for a brilliant late winner.
That bolstered them through Christmas which included a 100 per cent turnout for training on St Stephen's Day ahead of an All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal's Red Hughes, when James Lindsay, who has a serious grá for the surfing, bagged the critical goal in their 1-8 to 0-9 victory.
“It was hard to foresee this ever happening, it's such a unique occasion and especially for a Sligo club,” McGuire says. “Tourlestrane were in the ladies' junior final pre-Christmas but we're the first Sligo men's team to get there and there's a great buzz around the place, with flags, bunting and all sorts around. We're getting great support and from neighbouring clubs as well, which is great. “I've a brother in New York flying in for it and James Rolston, a former player who's living in Australia is flying home too. They're just two examples, I'm sure there's plenty more coming.”
This week McGuire is “thinking of all the people who have gone before us and wore the blue jersey, some of them no longer with us. You'd be thinking of all the people who supported you from when you first started playing. Your family and all the people who brought you to training, looked after and coached you. You'd be so happy for them because they're the ones who pushed you forward and gave you the love for playing Gaelic football.”
Their support above in the Hogan Stand will contain three
generations of his own family alone.
Baby Emma is thriving now, and while she's probably too young to remember Daddy's biggest day with the club, there's a good chance her 'big' brother James will.
“He'll be four in March and is going around in his jersey and very excited. I think he's at the right age to remember. My biggest problem right now is keeping him away from training!”
Easkey (Sligo) play Beaufort (Kerry) in the AIB All-Ireland JFC final on Saturday, February 9, 3pm, Croke Park.