Hope, in a sporting context, has no equal. It is the fuel of all ambition and delusion, the antidote to cynicism, the elixir that sustains the masses. More specifically, within the confines of the GAA, it has often been accused of being a roadblock to progress. For many years, and perhaps still, the" so-called weaker counties" willingly endured annual drubbings at the hands of their domineering neighbours, in the hope that someday soon, the tides would turn, and their county would stand tall. Their glory days, however fleeting, would return.
Sligo GAA is no different.
In the 138 years since the GAA’s foundation, Sligo’s days in the sun have been few and far between. Three Senior Connacht Championships, (just two in the last 90 years), three Connacht Minor Championships (just one in 50 years), and a smattering of critically acclaimed, but unrewarded groups of players provide the bulk of the nostalgia for the GAA’s Yeatsmen. Until recently, it seemed as if the glory days of 2007, when the Men in Black bloodied the Tribesmen’s nose to win their Connacht Championship, and 2002, when Eamonn O’Hara et al tore the qualifier system asunder, defeating soon to be All-Ireland winners Tyrone and bringing eventual champions Armagh to a replay, were going to drift interminably further into the past. Mayo, Galway and Roscommon had all established themselves at the top table of Gaelic Football, perennial Division 1 participants trading Connacht Titles like Pokémon cards, while Sligo slipped into Division 4, forced to rebuild from the ground up.
Yet from those humble beginnings, a new generation of Sligo footballer has risen, and the county, emboldened by their brash assuredness, fearless disposition, and champagne style of football, has risen with them. The Sligo U-20 footballers, in the space of a few weeks, have instilled fresh hope within the Sligo GAA community.
Sligo U20s: the unseen work
As with all overnight successes, this is the result of years of hard work at grassroots level. From 1968 to 2021, Sligo had not one a single underage Connacht championship at Minor, Under 20, or Under 21 level. Since 2021, they have won 3, the glass ceiling being first broken by the 2021 minor team (managed by current U-20 manager Paul Henry). As a supporter, to see successive Sligo sides routinely turn over the giants of Connacht football is not just inspiring, it’s empowering. Why can’t we climb through the divisions like Roscommon? Why can’t we dominate underage like Galway? Why can’t we call ourselves the Big Dogs of Connacht football? That’s what this U-20 team has given us, it has given Sligo the confidence to say ‘why not us?’. Their path to glory this year could scarcely be more daunting.
Roscommon. Mayo. Galway.
Dr. Hyde. Bekan. Tuam Stadium
Win. Win. Win
The Sligo U20s hitlist in 2023:
...and now Kerry
That's what big dogs do.🐶🦴 pic.twitter.com/CPE4ZUCmsR
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) May 6, 2023
The Big Dogs, as the U-20s have become affectionately referred to since Captain Canice Mulligan’s instantly-iconic speech after the Connacht Final, have garnered a following no Sligo team have before, as evidenced by the rapid support that followed the boys to Salthill Saturday last for their All-Ireland Semi Final against Kerry. In a sense, one would have to feel a tinge of sympathy for the Kerry lads, as they looked out at the crowd of Sligo supporters, outnumbering their own by at least 7:1 in the purportedly neutral venue.
Yet in truth, that game could have been played on the moon and I suspect the crowd, and the result, would’ve remained the same. Sligo, after losing stand out forward Matt Henry in the Connacht final, super sub-Dillon Walsh due to illness in the intervening weeks, and captain fantastic Mulligan in the first 8 minutes, conquered the Kingdom of Kerry, and sent Sligo to their first All-Ireland final, at any level, since 1968.
No matter what happens against Kildare on Saturday, the team that sent Sligo packing at the semi final stage last year, the Big Dogs have changed Sligo football. The goalposts have moved now. From now on, we won’t dream of sneaking a Connacht final win against a powerhouse having an off night, we will look further, look for the Celtic Cross, not a participation medal. And I’d like to think, in other similarly-sized counties, the Longfords and Wicklows of the world, that the GAA faithful will look at this team and say, ‘if Sligo can do it, why can’t we?’.
Because hope should not be a method of distraction during the dark days, it should be the method of inspiration during the good ones.
A French philosopher once said that “Hope is not a dream but a way of making dreams become reality", and the Sligo U-20s have done just that.
Brian Marren is a 21-year-old former Sligo Minor footballer and avid Sligo GAA supporter