More dominant than the score-line would suggest; the relief & smiles that greeted the final whistle summed up Leitrim’s feelings as they did just enough to carve out a deserved Connacht Senior Championship victory in Ruislip’s Emerald Grounds last Sunday.
Leitrim 0-12 London 1-8
With London threatening to record only their second ever Provincial championship success at halftime as they led by three points, Leitrim’s young team stood up when it counted most and edged their way into a semi-final meeting with Mayo thanks a powerful finish against a wilting London.
In true Leitrim fashion, the Green & Gold didn’t make it easy for themselves as they kicked a succession of wides in the second half that would have put a far more accurate reflection on their dominance but as the pressure rose in the final minutes, the tension seeping from the stands on the field, Leitrim did what they had to do.
On a day made for graft rather than flair, for character above style, Leitrim did what they have done all year – they worked ferociously hard, never gave up and kept doing the good things that eventually earned them their just reward.
And if as written in some farfetched script, the introduction of second half subs and Leitrim championship debutants Enda Williams and Shane Moran turned the tide most definitely in Leitrim’s favour just as the Exiles were beginning to believe that this was finally their day.
The fairytale aspect of both players impacts are easy to understand – Williams, transferred from his native county who were in action in Croke Park, made an immediate impact with a fabulous cross-field pass to set up Man of the Match Emlyn Mulligan for a great score.
And not to be out-done, just seconds after arriving on the field, young Shane Moran set up Williams for a vital point; later sweeping over a magnificent point to finally level the scores with four minutes to go!
But what both most urgently brought to the Leitrim challenge was a greater physicality – Moran broke up a lot of ball and field well while a shuddering challenge of Williams on a London attacker that not only stopped the attack but won the ball back.
The momentum that both changes generated, a timely and astute switch by Brian Breen & George Dugdale, were the winning of this game – London made a raft of changes but none generated the same impact that the arrival of the Leitrim pair did.
It was far from a one man show – man of the match Emlyn Mulligan gave another timely reminder of what he can do with time and half an inch of space, scoring a fabulous array of points that kept Leitrim ticking over when things weren’t looking good.
But for me, man of the match could have gone to either Paul Brennan or Paddy Maguire.
Brennan was simply immense in winning the “dirty” ball, breaking forward and carrying the game to London. The Melvin Gaels man worked his socks off in defence and attack and broke up countless London attacks.
Captain Paddy Maguire shepparded a, at times shaky, Leitrim back-line through a difficult encounter. With greasy ball and very slippery conditions, Leitrim’s full-back line looked in danger at times but when the pressure was on in the second half, Maguire led a charge that kept London scoreless for long periods.
Credit too to the many players who ensured that London’s expected midfield dominance came to nothing – Darren Sweeney, Wayne McKeon, Brennan, Paddy McGowan, Shane Moran and Daniel Lowe all worked their socks off to ensure that London and Lorcan Mulvey in particular couldn’t gain the foot-hold they needed.
In truth, Leitrim more than matched the London challenge through-out the game, apart from two ten minute spells. The first, at the very beginning of the game, saw London crucially kick just one point and five bad wides that could have spelt trouble.
Ten minutes, either side of halftime, raised the spectre of defeat but London, despite a whole-hearted effort, never created the sort of chances they needed to pull off a victory.
Managers Brian Breen & George Dugdale deserve great credit for the victory, particularly when the pressure was so high – their team was full of running at the final whistle, they were very well organised and when action was needed, swift and decisive changes helped to ultimately secure victory.
Next up in Mayo but that is for another day – Leitrim’s players, management and County Board deserve to bask in some satisfaction. This was not a day for the faint hearted and the Leitrim players came through a stern test of their character.
With London presenting a formidable challenge, it would have been easy to fold after all the losses of players during the past three years but instead, Leitrim met that challenge head on and answered.
The pressure they were under was palpable in Ruislip – a thick air of tension hung over the Emerald Grounds and it never truly left until referee Rory Hickey sounded his final whistle.
Tension like that can break you but it can also make you and the victory last Sunday could be the making of this young Leitrim team. They still have a long way to go and Mayo pose a very different test but this Leitrim team took a big step in it’s development in Ruislip last Sunday and that is all we can ask.