ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE Mark Byrne from Kilkelly was on Europa Conference duty with Sligo Rovers in Iceland last week. Pic: Sportsfile
AS readers were picking up their weekly copy of The Mayo News at 9.30am last Tuesday morning, five Mayo men were leaving Sligo’s Showgrounds and heading to Dublin Airport for a flight to Reykjavík.
The occasion was Sligo Rovers’ first leg Europa Conference tie with Icelandic-side, FH Hafnarfjordur in the Kaplariki Stadium two days later – a fixture that ended in a 1-0 defeat for the visitors. The Mayo men were Ballina native Leo Tierney, who is part of the Rovers back-room staff, and four players — Belcarra’s Luke McNicholas, David Cawley from Ballina, Mark Byrne from Kilkelly and 16-year-old Conor Walsh from Westport, who is normally in the Under-19 squad as goalkeeper.
McNicholas, Cawley and Byrne all featured in the match.
For goalkeeper Luke McNicholas, winger Mark Byrne, and teenager Conor Walsh, this was their first overseas trip with Sligo.
“It was a great experience,” Luke told The Mayo News. “We didn’t see much of the place though because under UEFA rules we had to remain in the hotel unless we were training or playing due to Covid regulations.”
Luke said that they arrived in Reykjavík on Tuesday evening in time to have dinner and then watch the first Euros semi-final between Italy and Spain. On Wednesday they trained in the afternoon and watched the second semi-final that evening. On Thursday they had the game. After the match they ate at the ground and then made the half-hour trip to the airport for the flight home, arriving in Sligo at 6.30am on Friday morning.
“The stadium is about the same size as the Showgrounds but has only two stands and they are probably a bit newer than the ones in Sligo,” he explained. “Before kick-off, Leo Tierney (the Sligo goalkeeping-coach,) just told me to relax, stay calm and just do what I always do.”
The header that beat McNicholas, came from a Scot – Steven Lennon – who had played for a spell with Dundalk as well as Glasgow Rangers.
“It was a good header,” Luke said, “and there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. They hit the post on another occasion and that was it really. Myself and the defenders dealt with anything else they tried.”
Mark Byrne described the trip as an unbelievable experience.
“Liam (Buckley, the manager,) always says before a match that we should go out and enjoy the experience and express ourselves. This was no different,” Mark told The Mayo News. “Obviously the result wasn’t the one we wanted, but we are looking forward to getting another go at them in the second-leg, on Thursday.”
The 20-year old is enjoying a great season for Sligo, having broken into the team at the start of this season. “It’s fantastic,” he said, “and we’re going well too and I’m really enjoying it. There isn’t much between ourselves, Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic at the top of the Premier Division.”
Mark was replaced after an hour of play in Iceland by another Mayo man, David Cawley – the Rovers captain.
Sligo lost influential Greg Bolger to a second yellow card in the tie, and he will miss the home leg as a result.
Irish sides in the competition include Bohemians and Dundalk, as well as Sligo Rovers. Also in the competition are Scottish sides, Aberdeen and Hibernian as well as big names like Roma and Tottenham Hotspur.
“If we can get through the qualifying stages, we’d love to get a crack at some of the big teams later on in the competition,” admitted Mark Byrne.
With Sligo is such good form, anything is possible. Football is always about the next match, of course, and as this is the knock-out part of the competition, the next match has to be won. They are 1-0 down at half-time in the tie and know that they have to perform at home this Thursday, to advance.
Or else, just like the Euros, they will be watching the glamour sides on television.