Strolling along the Salthill promenade tomorrow afternoon, in and among the thousands headed for Pearse Stadium, will be a most surreal experience for Mark Breheny.
Having announced his retirement from the inter-county scene back in January, 36-year-old Breheny continues to adjust to life as a former player.
He’s been told the first year is the toughest.
That’s not necessarily the view he’d share but the last couple of months have certainly been different.
Training schedules and matchday practices have given way to new routines.
The Summerhill College teacher didn’t make the trip to Ruislip for Sligo’s championship opener earlier this month and so tomorrow’s Connacht semi-final away to Galway is his first Championship outing since moving back onto the terraces.
Such is the service he gave to the Yeats County across two decades — the St Mary’s club man was part of the Sligo set-up for 17 seasons (2001-17) — he’s largely forgotten what it’s like to be part of the crowd on Championship Sundays.
He’s travelling down to the match with his two brothers and unlike previous visits to Galway, there’ll be no Garda escort waiting for when they hit traffic along the docks. There’ll be no gearbag in the boot, no dressing-room access, no complimentary programme. Like every other patron and punter, he’ll queue at the turnstiles, he’ll purchase a match programme.
“Galway were also the opposition the last time I attended a championship match as a Sligo supporter, that was the summer of 2000,” recalls Breheny. “That really was a long time ago. The same as when I was a young fella, I’m back cheering them on.”
His first league game as a former player was Sligo’s round two victory at home to Wexford in Division 3 of the league. He’s lined out countless times at Markievicz Park and yet this particular trip to the home of Sligo football was, for him, awkward.
“I wasn’t sure, I was thinking to myself, ‘Where do I stand? Where do I sit?’ Meeting some of the fans going in, they were saying a couple of things to me. It took a while to get used to.
“Now that championship is here, it is a strange feeling. Like a boxer, I was always preparing myself for that five or six months. You knew your targets, you knew when your first Championship game was. I was mentally and physically always getting ready for my first Championship game. That has been absent from my life this year.
His nephew, Cian, is part of Cathal Corey’s squad and while Breheny remains good buddies with several current players, he knows not to be troubling them. “Not knowing what is happening inside in the squad is just something I’m not used to: ‘What is the team for the weekend? Any injuries, challenge matches?’”
Once you’re outside the bubble, irrespective of service given, your membership is revoked. “It is not that you’re easily forgotten, but a new team has just gone out on social media and I’m not there. People aren’t saying, ‘How come Breheny’s not playing?’
“That is the way it is. There are new faces in. For me, it will take a little bit more time to get used to. Everyone else, it just moves on for them. I am enjoying not having the full-on Sligo commitment this year, in some ways.
“In other ways, I do miss it.
“Family commitments — there are two small kids at home — and work have kept me on my toes.”
From the starting team named tomorrow, Charlie Harrison and Ross Donovan are the survivors from the 2007 Connacht final triumph over the Tribesmen. Breheny was top-scorer that afternoon, his brother Tommy in charge. They’d again upset Galway in the provincial semis of 2010 and 2012. Breheny sees no reason why they can’t trouble Kevin Walsh’s charges.
“I remember Mayo reached the league final in 2010 and we had them in the first round of the championship. We had won Division 3 that spring, beating Antrim in the final.
“Mayo, having lost to Cork in the league final, were in the same position that Galway are in now. Sometimes you can read too much into league form. We beat Mayo that day fairly comfortably. It is going to be a big ask, but I give Sligo hope.
“We have a lot of new lads on board this year. What we have done to Galway over the last 10, 11 years will instil some confidence into the lads and I’m looking for a big performance from them.
“We might just ruffle a few feathers and we’ll see where that takes us.”
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