Mark Breheny holds the distinction of being the longest-serving player in inter-county football, having made his Sligo debut in 2000. Now 36, he has an encyclopaedic memory of the matches he’s played along the way.
Q: You’re facing into your 17th year of league football. Do you find it hard to muster the same enthusiasm as when you were starting out?
A: I still have the same enthusiasm for it. I’m looking forward to the game tomorrow against Armagh, despite all the years I’m at it. The seven matches in the League go very quickly and this year we’ve four away, which brings its own challenges. We’re just trying to hit the ground running and see where it takes us.
Q: Now that Dick Clerkin’s gone off into the sunset, you’re the longest-serving player in inter-county football. How did you take that news?
A: It was never an ambition of mine to become the longest-serving player, but I’m in a privileged position to be still playing football, first of all, and I’m delighted to have that accolade. I’m still enjoying it, which is the main thing. I still have some targets to fill in my career and that’s the main reason I’m back, despite the sacrifices you’ve to make. I’m glad I made that decision, I’m enjoying the training and looking forward to, hopefully, a successful season ahead.
Q: What are the things you know now about preparation and training that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
A: It’s evolving very, very quickly, especially over the last number of years. Even the band work we do for strength and conditioning, which helps to build your glutes… I would’ve had hamstring problems years ago, and certainly working on my glute-area and my back wasn’t something I knew much about in my early 20s. If I had that, it would’ve saved me running to physios so much. Small changes like that have made a big difference and has given me a more sustained period on the field over the last few years.
Q: As someone who came into the Sligo team in Division 1, how does that compare to the experience of younger players, like your nephew Cian, coming into the team in Division 3?
A: Sligo would’ve been stuck in Division 3 or 4 a lot in the 90s. I came on the scene around 2000, after the leagues were restructured, and for my debut we played Meath, who would’ve been the All-Ireland champions the year before, and beat them. It was a big scalp for us to beat Meath in Navan and four Connacht teams ended up in the National League semi-finals that season. That was a big jump from being in Division 4 in 1995.
At the current state of affairs, OK, it’s Division 3, but we’re playing Tipperary, the All-Ireland semi-finalists, Longford beat Monaghan last year, Armagh are always very strong, and Laois. It’s a very competitive division and it’s probably on par with Division 2 in a lot of ways, so the lads will be getting a very high standard of football. Division 1 is obviously that step up, but behind the top four or five teams that are out on their own at the moment, there’s a cohort of counties that are very similar and could beat each other on their day.
Q: I remember last year, yourselves and Tipperary played on the final day and either county could’ve got promoted or relegated, depending on results. Is there more emphasis on the league this year with the tough championship draw ye have?
A: Yeah, the league served us well in 2010, when we beat Antrim to win Division 3. That gave us great momentum to beat Mayo and then beat Galway in the semi-finals that year. Hopefully the omens are good, if we can get promotion again. We head to New York first and that’s going to be a huge task, but next on the list if we get over that is Mayo and Galway again. It’s a very tough draw and we’re not looking beyond New York at this stage, but if we can bring good form into the championship, it’ll bode well for us, please God.
The last couple of years, we’ve had a huge gap between league and championship — having to start a pre-season from April to mid-June for the 10- or 11-week gap – so it’s really panning out well for us to have early May for the New York game. Everyone’s more motivated by that.
Q: What’s your favourite league moment from your career so far?
A: Winning Division 3 in Croke Park would be up there. Making my debut would be another one. Some personal matches I would’ve felt great playing against certain teams — I remember a game against Donegal a couple of years ago where I was moving very well. We’ve had good wins on the road too, beating the Downs and Kildares of this world.
Q: I’ve asked for your highlight, so was there a low point that stands out?
A: Going back to 2004, we were going really well in Division 1B… We beat Cavan at home first, beat Laois away, and we went to Markievicz Park then and were beating Galway coming near the very end. Seán Óg de Paor got a last-second goal and, after that, a point to bring it to a draw. There was a break for three weeks, we had five points out of six and then we went to Wexford… Mattie Forde put on an exhibition of shooting (he scored 2-10) and we got well beaten.
That was a real disappointment because we got knocked out by a goal on scoring difference and Galway went into the semi-finals instead. We won our last game and we would’ve qualified, only for Meath got a last-second goal. That was the goal that kept us out.
Q: You’ve a great memory for matches!
A: Yeah, I’d nearly remember every match now. It’s funny — there is such a fine line between getting promoted and relegated, or into a Division 1 semi-final. I remember we played Wexford away in 2010 and getting well beaten, but Alan Costello got a last-second goal.
At the time, we didn’t really care about it but the way it panned out in Division 3, ourselves, Antrim and Wexford ended up on 10 points. Wexford had beaten ourselves and Antrim but because it was a three-way tie, both of us had a better scoring difference than Wexford. So, Wexford stayed in Division 3 and we ended up getting promoted to Division 2 — all because of that last-second goal. We still lost by seven points but that six-point swing was the difference.
Q: So, the lesson is to always play to the final whistle…
A: Absolutely. Even if you’re losing by a good few points… Fellows might put the head down and say it doesn’t matter, but getting one or two extra points on the board matters so, so much in the league.
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