A full hour after the astroturf had settled, crowds were still coming through the turnstiles in the Bronx.

The 2017 All-Ireland Championship had officially begun with a pulsating clash played out on the beady plastic surface at Gaelic Park. 

While the late, late arrivals were clearly more interested in the social than sporting aspect of the occasion, they didn’t need to check the scoreboard to tell it had been the visitors’ day.

Sligo players and management mingled freely with the expats and travelling support as the band belted out nostalgic numbers and the BBQs burned into Sunday evening on the packed patio at New York’s home of Gaelic Games.

Niall Carew’s men had been given a real scare by the hosts. But in marked contrast to Roscommon before them, they had worked their way out of trouble and powered home by eight points. 

Twelve months earlier the Rossies collapsed over the finishing line, winning by the barest minimum but losing so much of the momentum they’d built up in a stellar league campaign.

That evening, Roscommon players and management couldn’t get out of the Big Apple quick enough, scurrying to their buses for a rapid flight home. Sligo, however, will linger longer. 

The victory here secured Carew’s men a date with Mayo in two weeks but the planning and preparation will begin 3,000 miles away in Rockland County, north of New York City.

“We’re here till Thursday and this game will bring us on. The couple of days here together will definitely help,” he said after Sunday’s 1-21 to 1-13 victory. 

“There’s a big relief. When you think of it, they were a solid team coming in but they talked themselves up quite a bit. That can go two ways.

“A lot of our lads were coming in after playing in Connacht finals and have a medal. [New York] probably didn’t think of that and showed a little bit of disrespect going into the game. 

"But we prepared thoroughly for this game. We only played on astro after the last national league game to make sure that we were in a good place. That gave us an edge.”

Every edge was necessary as New York turned the screw and took the lead midway through a scintillating second-half on Sunday. 

As the Exiles continue to take forward strides, that gnawing fear of becoming the first county to walk away from Gaelic Park as losers becomes all the more real. 

Next year it will be Leitrim’s turn to cross the Atlantic and hope they don’t return as the answer to a table quiz question.

“It’s a cauldron in its own way. Everyone is behind New York. Rightly so,” said Carew. 

“We didn’t want to be part of history. On that other side of it. In five years’ time it can be someone else from Sligo or it can be Leitrim next year.

“They’re a real side but they probably do need to be in the National League. I think if they had more games behind them they would get a sense of what way to play and what suits them. I don’t know how possible that is.”

A more familiar cauldron awaits Sligo now. They haven’t beaten Mayo for seven years and the last Connacht Championship meeting between the sides — the final of 2015 — ended in a 25-point trouncing for the Yeats County.

Tom Cunniffe was part of that five-in-a-row Mayo side that day but swapped green and red for the red, white and blue of New York this year. 

The veteran corner-back had a front-row seat as Sligo veterans like Adrian Marren and the evergreen Mark Breheny took command in their side’s time of need, reeling in New York before ultimately coasting home.

The visitors’ energy and pace in attack were impressive throughout and they have re-enforcements waiting back home. Cunniffe insisted Stephen Rochford and co. will have taken notice.

“Mayo are a quality team, the type of team that aren’t sitting down checking this game on their phone and that’s that,” he said. 

“Their heads are going to be switched on, not taking anyone for granted. They won’t take these guys lightly at all. The first game [of the Championship] is a huge game in Mayo and they’ll take it from there.”


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