Pride, battered and bruised after the capitulation against Roscommon, was restored to some degree last Saturday afternoon in Pairc Esler in Newry as a severely weakened Leitrim footballers produced a spirited performance against a superior, if patchy, Down in round two of the All-Ireland Senior Championship Qualifiers.
The long and frustrating search for an historic first win in the Qualifiers goes to yet another year but the hoodoo was never likely to end after Leitrim began the game without five of the team who started against Roscommon, the pre-match talk dominated by the absent Beirne brothers, Wayne McKeon and the injured Ronan Gallagher.
With the Beirnes also dropped for breaches of the Players Charter by manager Mickey Mickey Moran, joining the previously dropped McKeon as absentees, it seemed as if the Green & Gold were surely in for a hiding from last year’s All-Ireland finalists.
If fears of a massacre were high among the sparse Leitrim support, a generous estimate put it at around 200 dedicated followers drawn mainly from family members and exiles along the eastern sea-board, the talk afterwards was dominated by footballing matters and, thankfully, not disciplinary problems.
The eight point winning margin was an accurate reflection of the difference between the sides on the day, the pace & power of Benny Coulter causing Leitrim enormous problems as familiar age old failings came back to haunt Leitrim.
Those failings were brutally exposed in the third quarter as a surprise Leitrim lead, thanks to a fantastic goal fashioned in Manorhamilton, was clinically and coolly reeled in as Down upped their intensity and pace, hitting eight unanswered points to kill off last Saturday’s Qualifier.
The effort and endeavour from Leitrim was truly first class and whatever may be said about the disciplinary issues and absent players, the fire evident in Leitrim bellies last Saturday in Newry certainly answered any questions about dis-harmony in the camp!
Leitrim’s players ran themselves ragged in the first half, hanging on by their finger-tips at times against a potent Down attack spear-headed by the wonderful Coulter with great support from Conor Laverty, Martin Clarke and Mark Poland, but Leitrim’s never-say-die attitude kept them well in contention.
That spirit saw Leitrim respond to the body-blow of a 15th minute penalty, the fears of a hiding seeming to materialise as Leitrim trailed by five points after Martin Clarke’s spot-kick but instead we got a Leitrim team who refused to go quietly, kicking three marvellous points and putting the Mourne-men on the back foot.
Adrian Croal’s thunderbolt goal out of the blue in the first minute of the second half had us all dreaming for a minute of a shock to beat all shocks and a first ever Qualifiers victory as the wonderful spirit shown.
Unfortunately that spirit could only carry Mickey Moran’s team so far and when a Down team, chastened by a halftime mauling from their back-room team, considerably upped the intensity after halftime, legs and concentration began to fail the Green & Gold as passes were over-hit, possession lost and ball turned over as the physical toll of earlier efforts exerted a heavy price on the Leitrim players.
In an ironic twist, Leitrim’s goal was the catalyst to Down’s transformation as, just as Leitrim responded to Down’s goal, the home side ramped up the intensity and swamped Leitrim for a 20 minute spell in a chilling response to Croal’s goal.