No more than the Senior team, Leitrim’s Minors face a daunting task next Saturday when they also take on the reigning Provincial Champions in the Connacht Championship when a highly regarded Roscommon team visit Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada (5.00 throw-in).
It may seem strange that Roscommon are regarded as Connacht’s power-house as underage level ahead of Galway and Mayo but Leitrim Minor manager Mark Heslin believes that the Rossies are the team to beat this year at Minor level in Connacht.
“Roscommon are the Minor team in Connacht without a doubt,” Mark told the Observer, “They’ve wiped everyone aside in the Minor League. In fairness to them, they keep producing these Minors down through the years and it is a credit to what they are doing over there. They are very strong, no-one will give us a chance going into it. We will put in a performance, we’ll be competitive on the day without a shadow of a doubt but Roscommon are definitely strong favourites going into it.”
But if Mark appreciates what Leitrim are up against next Saturday, the Gortletteragh clubman doesn’t believe that his young charges should meekly accept the role of underdogs – “It is a Leitrim thing to be the major underdogs.
“It is to get over that hurdle, to make the lads believe that they are not these big under-dogs, they have every chance if they apply themselves. But it is a Leitrim thing at this stage, you’re always the underdogs going in and we have to get by that.”
Other hurdles that Mark and the management team of Derek Kelleher, Michael McGuinness and Gareth Foley have to over-come have been a long break in competitive action and the Leitrim manager admits it has been a test.
“It has been a long time coming around since the League, we’re working hard, focusing on the task in hand. It has been hard, there is a big break in between it, there was a Minor League to be finished, there are club games and all the rest going on and of course, the Leaving Cert comes into it.
“It is difficult but in fairness to the lads, they’ve been fully committed all the way, never asked any questions and when they were wanted to be here, they were here.”
The slow start to the Minor League campaign was by necessity rather than design – “It took us a while to get our full squad in, we had injuries. We started late enough but we worked on what we needed to work on from game to game and gathered momentum. We finished off the League very well which is great preparation for the championship. We’re all clear of injuries.”
New recruits Daragh McKiernan and Colm Neville from Dublin have made a big impact – “The lads from Dublin have bedded in well, they’ve joined the group and being fantastic. They walked straight into it without a bother. It is great to have them on board, they’re a great asset to the squad.”
As for the game, Mark has some simple targets – “We’ll be coming into it to be very competitive, to give a really good showing of ourselves and we believe we can turn Roscommon over but a lot of things have to go right for us on the day without a doubt.
“There is no point in us coding ourselves, Roscommon are very strong. We will be here to do a job and when we go out on the pitch, we’ll be focussed on that.”
And Mark called on the supporters to turn out in force next Saturday in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada – “We need all the support we can get. Roscommon turn out in big numbers and they are only across the bridge there.
“We need big support, it is a home venue and we have to make that count, to have big support behind us and give the lads what they need on the day. It can drag you across the line sometimes if you have enough of people cheering and shouting you on, it can help them along.”
For a campaign that yielded only one win, the optimism that came out of the Connacht Minor League seems out of proportion to the results but it was more the manner of the performances that has Leitrim fans thinking there is something positive to be built upon. A narrow loss against Sligo was followed by a heavy loss against next Saturday’s opponents, an under-strength Roscommon hammering Leitrim by eight points in a devastating display.
But that loss seems to have unlocked something in this Leitrim Minor team - a slightly unlucky loss to Longford and an historic victory over Mayo followed before a battling and narrow loss to Galway in Tuam ended the League, infusing the Minors with a real sense of purpose for the Championship.
Donal Wrynn and Felim McHugh are the two powerhouses of this team in the middle of the field and will give the team a real physical presence in the middle of the park while Enda Fowley will anchor the defence at full-back. Upfront, much will depend on the mercurial Niall Brady but the Glencar/Manor man will need a lot of support if the scores are to come.
Roscommon will rightly start as favourites but they are wary too. They have been unbeaten on the challenge game circuit in recent weeks with good wins over Down and Meath but Leitrim will be hoping that home advantage and the new found spirit they discovered late in the League might be enough to see them cause a major shock.