All’s changed in Sligo

Niall Carew has reinvented Sligo. The Kildare native experiences his first Connacht final tomorrow at Hyde Park, as the county renews rivalries with Mayo, three years after losing narrowly to their neighbours in the decider at the Roscommon venue.

All’s changed in Sligo

The respective paths of both counties since that 2012 provincial showdown have been painfully contrasting. Mayo contested two All-Ireland finals, and might have reached a third successive final if not for being outwitted by Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay.

Sligo, meanwhile, struggled in Connacht, including an infamous loss to London; last month’s shock semi-final defeat of Roscommon, masterminded by Carew, was Sligo’s first win in the province since 2012. Of course, only by winning the Nestor Cup will Carew really define his managerial career. What he has done is put certain ingredients in place, unearth new potential and done things – some of it risky – that other managers mightn’t have.

Getting veteran forward Mark Breheny to commit to another year of inter-county slog was Carew’s first accomplishment. The 34-year-old, the Sligo panel’s oldest member, is preparing for his fifth Connacht final — a Sligo record— and his first as team captain, another astute decision by Carew that has brought the best out of the St Mary’s playmaker.

The promotion of the team captain’s nephew, Cian, to midfield — where his partner is rising star Niall Murphy, a Sigerson Cup winner with DCU this year — is another Carew move from leftfield.

The Breheny/Murphy axis will endure its biggest test yet against Mayo but this non-traditional midfield pairing, both pacy ball players, shows that Carew isn’t afraid to mix things up according to his available resources.

Cian Breheny, a Sligo U21 player, has undoubted pedigree — his uncle is Eamonn O’Hara and his dad, Tommy, managed the Nestor Cup-winning side in 2007.

Another of Carew’s shrewd tactical moves has been the conversion of Neil Ewing, previously a corner-back, into a roaming, workaholic wing-forward, while Pat Hughes’ deployment at full-forward has also paid dividends.

Carew has also put faith in young defenders Kevin McDonnell, Eoin Flanagan and Daniel Maye.

In the midst of his reshuffling, however, Carew has been fortunate to have a handful of dependable, proven stars — the aforementioned Mark Breheny, Ross Donovan, St Vincent’s player Brendan Egan, David Kelly and leading marksman Adrian Marren. Indeed, Carew says that getting more out of established players like Kelly and Marren is as important as developing fresh talent.

Keeping Sligo in Division Three of the Allianz League and qualifying for a Connacht final isn’t sufficient, however; even before the Connacht semi-final against Roscommon, a fixture Sligo weren’t supposed to win, Carew talked of getting Sligo to the last eight of the All-Ireland series.

But Carew, who previously managed Waterford and also had a lengthy stint in Kildare’s backroom team, says that any progress Sligo make isn’t about his input alone.

“It isn’t about me — it is about the management team putting structures in place. My job is to improve Sligo football, that was always my intention, to leave it in a better place. You get satisfaction from that.

“To drive on the likes of Mark Breheny, David Kelly and Adrian Marren, to try get an extra little bit from them.

“I would hope the players we’ve given new roles to have got a new lease of life. The players have bought into these changes — for example Neil Ewing, going from a corner-back to a wing-forward. “There is a great hunger in the squad and there is a sense that these players aren’t done yet – they want to achieve more – and that can only be good for us going forward,” he added.

Sligo’s progress isn’t confined to senior grade. The county’s minors also contest a Connacht final on Sunday — the first time Sligo will feature in both deciders since 1954 — and the multi-million euro Sligo GAA Centre of Excellence at Scarden, is nearing completion. Can they take another giant step tomorrow?

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