The news last night that Kevin Walsh has been reappointed as manager of the Sligo football team is as good a time as any to close out my thoughts on the season that has just passed for the county of my birth.
There has been a lot said and written since the six day nadir in July that ended Sligo’s championship season. I’m not looking to analyse all that – it happened. The season ended as it always would at some point. The question is where are we now and how are we fixed looking to Div 2 next year and beyond.
We shouldn’t have too many notions of ourselves. I believe that we can be competitive but we will have to be stronger from the off, keep a high tempo all through and find a few new players – both in specific places and generally for the strength in depth of the panel.
Taking each of these briefly in turn. If we start the 2011 league campaign like we did 2010, we could easily be too far behind before the gig starts. We could see ‘a Connacht final effect’ in the campaign… it happened Westmeath this year and four games in it became a self fulfilling prophesey.
The pace at Div 2 will be noticeably higher, in every game. Decisions in play need to be taken more quickly. If not, things happen – the ball and / or the opportunity is gone. That requires playing at a higher tempo all the time than was necessary in either of the past two Spring campaigns. To do that requires better conditioning and preparation by more players and not just a few. There is plenty of room for improvement among the Sligo players, and more particularly among those that are in their first or second years in the panel
That feeds into the point about the strength of the panel. From April on this year Sligo seemed to be working off a panel of 20 – the 15 that started the Connacht final plus Sweeney, Coen, Mullen, Mark Quinn and Francis Quinn. Sure they had 30 listed at every game and possibly 3/4 more togged but only 20 appeared. Granted a lot of other lads played League and perhaps there was a conscious decision to keep it tight but the re-emergence of Michael McNamara and Paul McGovern in the Connacht final panel (leaving aside whether they were correct choices) would point to management recognising that there is a need for a strength in depth that hasn’t existed. That will be important. Taking any inter county side on a step further from where Sligo is now means having 23 – 25 players that are putting real pressure on to be selected rather than just making up the numbers in training. It isn’t just about any bodies either. The additions that would be of value have to bring footballing ability. I’ve seen talk of Brendan Egan returning and clearly David Maye has proven capability if all sides are willing. Likewise Johnny Martyn has the capability if he has the appetite, but the moment may have passed. McGovern and McNamara could each add something in that they have the innate footballing ability to play at a higher level – something that you can’t give somebody or train them to acquire. Again the call with each is less about ability but more appetite and in the case of the latter it would be as an attacker rather than a defender – his 2003 deployment as a full forward was an experiment worth trying.
Looking at the squad as it is. We have a good goalkeeper in as far as the protection of the goal is concerned but we need more in terms of distribution. This year’s championship has seen a step up in that part of the keeper’s function with both the Meath goalkeepers (O’Rourke and Murphy), Down’s McVeigh, Tyrone’s McConnell, Cork’s Quirke and Dublin’s Cluxton all showing in different ways the importance and value of a higher capability to vary and mix kick outs as well as take the ball out the field. When he first joined the panel Greene struggled with distance on kick outs but the introduction of the tee helped that. You’d like to think that the lack of variety that we saw in the Connacht final was less about his ability and more about playing to a plan that was being twarted but for which there was no plan B. Whether it was individaul ability or the plan, either way, Sligoi can improve the contribution from the goalkeeping department and we need to have that.
The Sligo full back line has been an excellent trio for four seasons but again there is no plan B and some cracks appeared. I don’t accept the simplistic assessment that McGuire is finished. Having had the task personally many times of playing full back – a position I loathed to be frank – it is a complete no win situation if the team is being beaten home in the two lines in front of you. All year – and I wrote about this after the League final – we have had a problem with the centre of the defence, which was covered over at various times by midfielders, wing backs and wing forwards but when one – or as in the Connacht final all – of those don’t work… well then… We certainly need to look at options in personnel in the full back line and we need to have plans B and C looking to the longer term. If there is reconstruction in front of them, then I would not panic if I saw the same three starting the first league game against Laois or whomever. If not, then frankly it doesn’t matter who is full back, we will be seeing an awful lot of pressure in an area of the field where we don’t want it.
On the half back line, it is a matter of balance. We have raw but potentially brilliant prospect in Cawley – for whom his second year and his first full league will be more difficult. He is an instinctive ball reader and will pop up all over the line, but not necessarily be holding the line. Add that to the ‘bombing forward’ wing back that is Johnny Davey and for balance in the line you need something else very defensive and very baswic to hold the line. The successful defences with those type of players in it are built around a rock that holds the centre of the defence together and forces attackers to go around him, thus slowing them down, pushing them away from the danger area, both enabling others to funnel back and also to do the defending required in less dangerous places. Think Divilly for Galway in ’98, Gormley for Tyrone, McCarthy for Kerry – Liam Harnan for Meath or Martin Gavigan for Donegal if you want to go back a bit further. Sligo doesn’t have that balance. It isn’t a role that Philips could play and on the basis of the League final, I remain to be convinced that Mark Quinn is the answer even though he looks a good footballer. It isn’t a role that Sligo has filled well since Michael Langan was there and he was hugely under appreciated. If Sligo can’t find a natural holding centre back, then something else across that line has to change – one of the other two has to be sacrificed or play four across the line or something but otherwise it is easy street for a decent midfield or forward line, and in Div 2 and 1 as well as on the big championship days the opposition will all be capable of exploiting such opportunity.
In midfield Sligo has persisted with playing natural midfielders in midfield roles even if they all have a lot to learn. It is a policy to be applauded and stuck with. Gilmartin was over celebrated for his League final contribution – there was no pressure exterted there but he is a fine senior footballer in the making. Midfield is a position in which guys improve with age and perspective – Paul Durcan was ridiculed in his early 20s but the rock of the team ten years later. Gilmartin will be a much better footballer next Spring. Taylor too is growing as a midfield presence and has a lot of natural ability – he is noticeably ahead of his recent partner in his development. Both need to have their sights set a lot higher next year and be prepared to impose themselves on a game. I felt this year that they took games as they found them rather than imposing themselves. That is a maturity thing but in allowing for that once, then one must expect to see that maturity come. I think Mullen is a game and honest replacement but as the younger two improve, I think he will be seen as a limited replacement and short of the pace of thinking and skill required in Div 2. Either way there needs to be further competition as the worst thing that could happen that pair is never being under presure to start.
Over and above though the performance of the named midfielders is the need to be better on breaking ball. There were periods of the Mayo game and the Galway replay where Sligo were at the races on the breaking ball but for the greater portion of the last six odd games they were not. The team needs a few ‘ground hogs’ – the best example of recent years being Brian Curran. Again harking back to the pressure put on our defence, this is as much part of that as replenishing the full back line.
The forward line in general is the big plus of this year. For sure there is a lot of work still to be done and the presence of a few extra bodies would be welcome but compared to 2007, for example, there is now McGee, Coen and Costello added to the mix as reliable scoring forwards. Costello is a huge plus. Granted there is a certain percentage of ball that he wastes every game but he handles so much, passes so well and then weighs in with a few scores himself that it is worth the frustration of a few balls going astray. Both Coen and McGee know where the posts are. Both still need to acquire the physique of county footballers – coming from different directions if you like – but that is achievable and thus the potential is very exciting. Add in to all of that Kelly now is at a completely different level to what he was in 2007 and it is like having four new forwards added. Brehony remains a reliable scorer and contributor – a good playmaker as well as scorer. Marren I find frustrating in that he has the ability and physique but is inconsistent and then there is a question over temperment, but he can trouble any defence and keep any defender more than occupied. Sweeney seems to be the ultimate impact player – always contributes as a sub, almost never as a starter. That must be frustrating for him but it is a squad game so he has a key role and should definitely be used in that context. I would like to see a few other forward options emerge though. Maye, McGoldrick from the juniors – others?
I haven’t mentioned O’Hara but there is no doubt that he has a role to play and has to be involved. If there is one area where we have work to do it is in leadership and that may be down as much to selection as to any coaching that can be done as again, that is either there or it is not. O’Hara has it and there are a few younger lads that have something and can learn from him. To my eye, without him in the short term, there isn’t enough good example in that respect.
The management has done well on the whole. Sometimes they have got calls on the field right , sometimes maybe not but the old adage that when teams win players get praised, when teams lose management gets blamed looms large. I would like to see the management introduce a little bit of fresh blood or introduce something new into their own ranks and / or approach next year. Some may argue that would be disruptive but a little bit of edge is often a good thing and keeps everybody on their toes. There is a big danger that as everybody gets more and more familiar and used to each other, questions don’t get asked – even this year the fault lines that were exposed in Castlebar were there to see in Croke Park in April but when everybody in the set up is ‘on the inside’ you get to convincing yourself that it was / is all OK. I say that from having been there and agreed at the time with the ‘wisdom’ of selections that clearly should and could have been challenged. A change in the back up team may be the harder route in the short term but the better in time.
All in, Sligo is well better off than it was a year ago and can now be considered as ‘players’. In many if not all respects the real work starts now. The key to progress is in finding those little extra bits but also having real competition for places from guys of ability that are hungry to play. If there are only 19 or 20 that fit that bill, then they will struggle. If management can identify, nurture and motivate another 4 – 6 players the future is bright. If not it will have bright moments, but there is a world of difference between the two