This week, the Big Apple footballers head to Yeats County to take on Sligo in the second round of the Connacht Championship in Markievicz Park, Sligo’s home venue.

The victory over Leitrim two weekends ago, after extra time and penalties, set the scene for this uncharted chapter in New York’s football championship history.

These teams have met five times over the last two decades, with Sligo victorious each time. In 2002 they won by 1-19 to 1-11; in 2007, 2-18 to 1-3; in 2012, 3-21 to 0-6; in 2017, 1-21 to 1-13.

Last year, though Sligo had four points to spare, 1-16 to 0-15, New York was very much in contention right down to the added time when the Yeats County with a few late points got them over the line.

Indeed the Big Apple brigade had legitimate claims of being a tad unlucky as the woodwork thwarted three goal-bound efforts. In addition, Sligo survived a late goal-mouth scramble where the ball bobbled hither and thither but didn’t cross the line.  

New York lined out against Leitrim as follows and I expect it will be quite similar against Sligo, barring injuries. I admit that Connell Aherne must have enhanced his chances of being a starter based on his performance coming off the bench.

The New York lineout was: Mickey Cunningham(0-1), Jamie Boyle, Alan Campbell, Eoghan Kerin, Bill Maher, Robert Wharton, Shane Brosnan (0-1), Johnny Glynn (capt.), Gavin O’Brien, Mark Ellis, Adrian Varley (0-2), Shane Carthy (0-3), Mikey Brosnan (0-1), Peter Fox (0-1), Daniel O’Sullivan (0-1). Subs were Connell Aherne (0-4), Killian Butler, Matthew Queenan, Jack Reilly (0-1), Niall Madine, Luke Kelly, Tiernan Mathers, and Paddy Boyle.

Also listed on the squad on the last day were Adam Loughlin-Stones, Colin Keane, Padraig Stuttard, Shane Bolger, Daniel McKenna, and James Breen.

I have been informed that the complete panel is traveling to the game. I think this is a very commendable approach as all these players have trained hard for the last four months, plus many of them they will be traveling later to represent New York in the junior competition.

The rest of the panel includes Alex Harvey, Mike Creegan, Conor Mathers, Danny Corridan, Dylan McDermott, Conor Lynam, Cian McArdle, Cathal O’Carroll, James Breen, Mike Boyle, Kevin Rafferty, Thomas Shalvey, and Shane Bolger.

Johnny McGeeney is the manager, and all his backroom team is traveling as well. The selectors are Gareth Bailey, Brian Henry, Tommy Quaid, Kevin Moriarty, and Michael Caterson. The backroom team also includes physiotherapists Sinead Burns and Thomas O’Brien, logisticians Sharon Redican and Ryan Logue, and statistician Michelle Dowd. 

This historic meeting of New York and Sligo in the second round of the Connacht Championship has all the hallmarks of developing into another close contest. Sligo would be regarded as marginally better than Leitrim as they just edged by them in a recent League meeting.

Both teams can legitimately claim to have made considerable improvements from last year. Sligo has the stats and standings to prove it and, of course, the quote by former NFL head coach Bill Parcells, fits nicely here, namely, “You are what your record says you are.” 

Despite losing their first League game to Laois, they went on to win seven out of eight games. Sligo beat Wicklow in the Division 4 final, 2-10 to 0-14. Victory was achieved with a powerful second-half performance as Sligo battled back from being five points in arrears at one stage. Sligo will now be performing in Division 3 next year.

Their good form continued in the Connacht Championship as they easily accounted for London at McGovern Park, 2-20 to 0-12, on April 8.

REPORT: A strong first-half showing laid the foundation for @sligogaa's victory over @LondainGAA in the Connacht SFC quarter-final today. #GAABelong

— The GAA (@officialgaa) April 8, 2023

Niall Murphy, one of Sligo’s chief score getters, would be very familiar with the New York scene as he played for a season with the local Big Apple Sligo club, losing to St. Barnabas, an all American-born squad in the New York final. So without reservations, Sligo has improved considerably since they played here over a year ago, validated by plenty of wins and promotion to a higher grade.

Now how does that suit or sit with New York, or do the Yanks have any chance against a team that seems to be very much in the ascendency?

You also have to agree that New York has improved considerably from last year due to the confluence of a few critical factors. In last year’s close encounter between the Big Apple and the Yeats boys, the woodwork helped save Sligo’s bacon.

McGeeney and his backroom team quickly realized that this close encounter could be the foundation to build a stronger team. The panel enthusiastically endorsed this narrative, and thus training began before the year ended to ensure that New York would be as well prepared, if not better, than their county-player colleagues in Ireland.

For once the elements cooperated as we had the warmest and mildest winter on record (apologies to the global warming theorists), thus allowing training and preparations to proceed uninterrupted through the winter.

Now they were more committed than ever, and their confidence was greatly bolstered after coming so close to Sligo last year. Naturally that confidence and commitment continued to grow as New York finally got that over that major hurdle, a victory in the first round of the Connacht Championship.  

New York’s stock got a massive boost early in the season when a cadre of experienced intercounty players from the other side joined the Big Apple squad. Among them were Eoghan Kerin (Galway), Robert Wharton and Gavin Reilly (Kerry), Brian Maher (Tipperary), and Shane Carthy (New York/Dublin).

All these players contributed to the win, and Kerin got nominated to the Football Team of the Week. I’m sure Glynn, Cunningham along with Wharton, Carthy, and Reilly must have been in contention too for spots.

It was an exciting weekend of @ConnachtGAA @MunsterGAA @gaaleinster and @UlsterGAA Senior Football Championship action so difficult selection decisions had to be made #GAA

— The GAA (@officialgaa) April 11, 2023

The majority of the sports pundits aren’t giving the Yanks much of a chance in this game. The same folks had Leitrim winning by three last week, and this week they have Sligo cruising home by much more.

Some claim that New York was extremely lucky as Leitrim missed a bagful of goal opportunities. That’s one perspective, granted, and the wonderful display of keeper Cunningham was chronicled, but the sterling defensive work by the fullback line of Kerin, Campbell, and Boyle wasn’t mentioned.

The shooters weren’t exactly treated with kid gloves as they were manfully handled, harassed, and hounded by the last line of New York’s defense. Also, the trio of Ellis, O’Brien, and Wharton were quite effective in patrolling the middle third of the field.

I’m sure manager McGeeney will be addressing the facility that enabled several Leitrim players to get to the firing zone without being seriously challenged. If this defensive vulnerability isn’t rectified, I’m sure Sligo’s sharpshooters such as Carrabine, Murphy, Spillane, and company will exploit it to their benefit. 

There’s no doubt that this is a very talented, versatile, fit, and well-balanced team. Glynn is a powerhouse wherever he’s deployed, and all newcomers blended in with great impact into New York’s fluid and fast-moving play.

It was also great to see the confidence that the young Irish American players displayed under testing conditions. Mikey Brosnan coolly blasted the ball to the net when the game was on the line and the younger brother Shane, besides operating very well in defense, showed that he could also hit the target.

Shane Carthy, despite being away from the fray for a while, showed that he can still deliver, especially in tight situations. A strong bench is a sine qua non in the modern game, and New York’s subs validated that premise. Connell Aherne, Jack Reilly, and Niall Madine played their parts well, and all got critical scores.

For this game I’m informed that things are going well; apparently I’m no longer regarded as a spy. However, I didn’t tell them that my wife’s people are rabid Sligo supporters as most of them have relocated there over the years.

The New York squad will be housed in Bundoran, away from the hustle and bustle of the Sligo metropolis, in one of Brian McEniffe’s hotels. Brian was a great Donegal player and of course successful manager in his day.

The game is at 2:30 pm Irish time on Saturday, April 22 in Markievicz Park, Sligo’s home field. Obviously, Sligo will have home field advantage. That will be a factor here as the pitch can be quite sodden and New York has little recent experience of playing on natural grass, though they have traveled to Rockland a few times.

Another interesting sidebar to this game is that both managers are from the same powerful Armagh club. Johnny McGeeney and Tony McEntee are originally from Crossmaglen.

Here’s wishing New York all the best on Saturday. Will see you there.  

*This column first appeared in the April 19 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.