GAA Football

Tony McEntee hopes Sligo can adapt to new Croke Park experience

Sligo boss Tony McEntee has been a supporter of the Tailteann Cup from the outset. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

OVERCOMING the Croke Park factor will be key to Sligo upsetting the odds and defeating Tailteann Cup favourites Cavan in Sunday’s semi-final, according to Yeats County boss Tony McEntee.

Only a handful of the Sligo players have ever played at Croke Park, while one member of the panel has never been to the GAA’s spiritual home.

However, after dramatic victories over London and Leitrim – the latter of which came via a penalty shoot-out in Carrick-on-Shannon – the Yeatsmen guaranteed themselves a Croke Park shot at Mickey Graham’s on-form Breffnimen.

Unlike Sunday’s opponents, Cavan are no strangers to Croke Park, having defeated Tipperary there in April’s Division Four final, as well as going toe-to-toe with eventual champions Dublin in the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final.

But McEntee, an All-Ireland winner with his native Armagh in 2002, hopes his own experiences on Jones’s Road, as well as those of his backroom team, can help calm any nerves before his players take to the hallowed turf.

“I think it is [a factor],” he said.

“It’s not so much the field as the occasion, the environment, the expectation, the crowd… all that other stuff. To be honest, in our case, I think it’s the biggest issue we have this weekend, dealing with the occasion as a whole and trying to manage that properly.

“We’re somewhat fortunate that, in the management team, we have people with experience. Noel McGuire, a Sligo man, has played at Croke Park, Paul Durcan has won and lost All-Irelands there [with Donegal], Joe Keane has also won All-Irelands with the club [Crossmolina] in Croke Park

“I’m hoping that can translate something to the players, but it’s not until they line out and see how they respond that we’ll know.”

There was a gap between the counties when they met in the League at Markievicz Park back in February, with McEntee admitting the second half was “damage containment” as Cavan eventually ended up winning by six.

And the Crossmaglen man who, alongside Gareth O’Neill, led his club to All-Ireland titles in 2011 and 2012, believes that while his men have improved, there is still a “gulf” that must be bridged this weekend.

“From the outset Cavan were the best team in Division Four, and that’s how it materialised.

“They won Division Four comfortably, had a good League final against a very good Tipperary team, and they have pushed on, beating Down and Fermanagh in the Tailteann Cup.

“Coming into this game, we would feel we’ve improved from the League meeting, but it’s also clear that Cavan have improved too. We played Down in a challenge match and lost by five or six points, so there still is that gulf between ourselves and Cavan; Cavan are probably a Division Two team, and we’re a strong Division Four team.

“But even coming through those two games so far, and the manner in which we won them, was important, moreso because we have quite a young team. They’re still finding their feet, trying to get that leadership piece and being able to pull through games and force a result at the end where at times it looked unlikely… that’s really positive for a group of young players trying to find where they’re going to.”

It also shows the significance of having a second-tier competition where counties have the opportunity to extend their summers against opposition of a similar level.

McEntee is a supporter of the Tailteann Cup, and believes the value – especially to his own group – has been clear to see.

“From the outset I was a supporter of the competition; I was a supporter of any change to the existing Championship.

“Anything that allows teams to compete at the correct level is progressive as far as I’m concerned. The Tailteann Cup fits into that bracket.

“It allows an extension of the season, more training, more chance to develop and gives us great positivity – not just for this year but looking into next year as well.

“In its absence, the only competition we had was the League because the Championship is really a non-runner. As much as we all want to reflect on the Championship and see it as the be all and end all… it’s not really, like.

“You compare this to teams that are there at the end of the year in previous years - it’s always the same teams because their season has extended and there’s a better chance to develop strength and conditioning-wise, and also in terms of football ability and knowledge.

“As a result, the other teams are always kept on the same level as a result. That had to change.”

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