By Damian Dolan
By his own admission Eoin Flanagan has “been around” – but then not too many players can boast to having represented three different counties in the Connacht Championship.
Two isn’t unheard of – but three? Well, Flanagan has – his native Sligo in 2015 and 2016, New York (2017) and, of course, London in 2019.
Last year, he was also on the bench for the Connacht meeting with Leitrim, and played in the subsequent Tailteann Cup clash with Sligo.
“I don’t think there’s too many (who’ve played for three different counties),” says Flanagan, who reached a Connacht final with Sligo in 2015.
But he’ll have no qualms about lining up against his native Sligo on Saturday – he’s well used to it by now.
“I don’t mind it; things have changed, there’s a lot more younger lads connected to the Sligo team,” says Flanagan.
Paul McNamara is his only St John’s clubmate on the visitors’ panel, while he’s also good friends with Sligo captain Niall Murphy.
But Flanagan wasn’t always so at ease with lining up against his fellow countymen.
After leaving the Sligo panel following the 2016 campaign he headed for New York and duly found himself togging out against his former manager and teammates.
Flanagan’s parents flew over to New York for the game, but he admits he found it all “a bit strange”.
“I was on the Sligo panel the year before, so to go onto a team trying to beat them felt a bit funny. You felt a bit out of place,” he said.
“The manager (Niall Carew) had been very good to me, giving me my debut. [We] got to a Connacht final and played Tyrone at Croke Park in the qualifiers, and you know all the players, and then the next thing you’re trying to ruin their summer.”
Sligo escaped Gaelic Park with a 1-21 to 1-13 victory, in a game in which the home side grabbed the lead for the first time with less than 20 minutes to go.
“It was pretty tight at one stage in the second half,” recalled Flanagan, who is one of three Sligo natives on the London panel.
The others being James Hynes (St Farnan’s) and Eunan Curran (St Patrick’s).
That Connacht final appearance in 2015 came in just his second-ever game for Sligo, having made his debut in the semi-final win over Roscommon.
“We were big enough outsiders (versus Roscommon) and then my second game was the Connacht final! It all happened pretty quick,” says Flanagan.
In the final, Sligo encountered a Mayo side simply operating in a different orbit to the rest of Connacht at that time under James Horan. Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and the like.
Sixteen points was Mayo’s final margin of victory.
“That was Mayo’s five-in-a-row; they were at the peak of their powers and challenging Dublin,” adds Flanagan.
“We were playing against lads we were used to seeing on TV, and the next thing you’re lining up against them in a Connacht final. It was an odd experience.”
Even so, playing in a Connacht final in just his second appearance for Sligo quite rightly remains a career highlight.
“There was obviously a massive buzz around the county – you saw a lot more flags around, that kind of stuff.”
Connacht finalists, Sligo faced Tyrone at Croke Park in the qualifiers.
“My Dad’s from Tyrone, so it was nice to play against them,” said Flanagan, for whom this was his one and only Croke Park appearance, so far.
“We done alright – we lost by seven. They had a pretty strong team.”
Saturday will be the fifth time Flanagan has faced his native county whilst wearing a London jersey – and a first win is long overdue.
He’s also one of the survivors from Michael Maher’s first game in charge of the Exiles, in January 2020, when Sligo handed out a 5-9 to 0-11 beating at Ruislip.
Noel Maher, Matt Moynihan, Conor O’Neill, Ronan Sloan, Liam Gavaghan, Liam Gallagher, James Hynes and Eoin Walsh are the others.
Post-Covid there was last year’s 18-point hammering in the league at Markievicz Park, and then that heart-breaking defeat in the Tailteann Cup at the same venue, when Alan Reilly’s last-gasp point forced extra-time.
Despite Flanagan and James Gallagher both then seeing red in extra-time, the Exiles still might have snatched it.
“That was probably our best performance, [but] Sligo just have lots of quality and Alan Reilly – last kick of the game from the 45 – hit a good point,” reflects Flanagan.
“And then in extra-time they got a goal that came off the post, and we missed a penalty.”
A few weeks ago, the Yeatsmen kept up their Indian sign over the Exiles with a 1-10 to 0-6 win at McGovern Park in the league.
Flanagan could very nearly have added Sligo’s 2018 visit to Ruislip in the Connacht Championship to his list of appearances against the Yeatsmen.
Having transferred into North London Shamrocks earlier that year, he joined up with Ciaran Deely’s London panel, but the timing just wasn’t quite right.
“I’d literally just moved over and I think I went training with them in the first week, but I didn’t even know my way around,” says Flanagan.
Instead, his Championship debut for the Exiles came the following year when a Killian Butler and Conor Doran inspired London gave Galway an almighty fright before going down 1-16 to 1-9.
“We should have beaten Galway – we were very unlucky. No one expected it,” says Flanagan.
It’s a game and a performance this London team can draw inspiration from.
“We’ve twice the team we had when we played Galway and we managed to give them a game. I’m sure we can do the same again (against Sligo),” said Flanagan.
“That  was similar to this year; we weren’t really going great, but we pulled out a performance.”
He added: “We know how good a players we have, we see it in training every week. It’s just little things have been going wrong. Our biggest issue this year has been injuries.
“Sligo will be massive favourites, but the main thing is we know we’re well able to hang with them.
“And anything is possible on the day.”