West Sligo’s Easkey are a thrilling example of a club that is rising from the doldrums.
Red Hughs’ opponents in Sunday's GAA Football All-Ireland Junior Club Championship semi-final have had to reinvent themselves.
This time three years ago they were looking forward to a season back in their county’s Senior Football Championship, having won Sligo GAA’s second tier, the Intermediate Championship, in 2015.
But things didn’t work out for the club, popularly known as the Sea Blues. Easkey suffered successive relegations, in 2016 and 2017, and ended up in the Junior 'A' Championship last year.
Manager Dessie Sloyan, the former Sligo star, and his squad regrouped.
Favourites to prosper in the Junior 'A' grade and, indeed, tipped to do well at provincial level, they coped with this renewed expectation.
It helped, too, that they were playing in Division Two of the Sligo Senior Football League. Six wins from nine games saw them finish third, narrowly missing out on a final berth. They also reached the Benson Cup final but lost to Calry-St Joseph’s, a club playing in the Senior Championship.
The big one, of course, was the Junior 'A' Championship. Much of this campaign was a disappointment – not in terms of Easkey’s performances but the fact that they weren't tested en route to the decider against Owenmore Gaels.
The county final was something of an anti-climax; Easkey won by seven points, 1-11 to 1-4, but had played well within themselves.
Despite earning a promotion ticket back to the Intermediate ranks for 2019, something which many clubs would have been satisfied with, Easkey saw the Connacht GAA Junior Club Championship as an opportunity to be grasped.
Their first step into the unknown, against Leitrim opponents Glenfarne-Kiltyclogher, was a happy one.
Easkey won by 11 points, 2-17 to 1-9, and could have triumphed by more at Carrick-on-Shannon’s Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada.
Their next hurdle, a provincial semi-final against Mayo’s Balla, was a sterner challenge but one that that Easkey came through, helped by three first-half goals in a 3-7 to 0-9 win.
The Connacht final against Galway outfit Clonbur which took place at Quigabar, home of Easkey’s west Sligo neighbours, Enniscrone-Kilglass, was a thriller.
Easkey won by a point, 1-11 to 1-10, courtesy of Ryan McKenna’s wonder score in added time, and the squeaky bum finish contrasted to their earlier dominance in this game when they twice held substantial leads.
Supporters reckoned this victory, the club’s first provincial title, to equal that of the club’s Senior Championship success in 1966.
Just how good are this Easkey side? A shrewd management is blessed to have the experience of two former Sligo players, astute full-back Noel McGuire and rangy midfielder Eugene Mullen. McGuire, of course, captained Sligo to Connacht success in 2007.
The team also has two players who are likely to be part of Paul Taylor’s Sligo senior panel, Rory McHugh and Mikey Gordon.
McHugh is an outstanding talent and his older brother, Joe, who is also a key part of Easkey’s set-up, won a Lory Meagher Cup with Sligo Senior hurlers last year.
Ryan McKenna, Easkey’s match-winner in the Connacht showdown against
Clonbur, and Kevin Duffy are lively inside forwards, with Dylan Sloyan, son of the team manager, Dessie, a diligent link-player.
Easkey are a useful team and whatever happens at Ballinamore this Sunday, their journey to get this far has been a story in itself.