From the minute they were relegated from the Senior ranks, Gortletteragh were always counted as favourites to win the GWP Intermediate Championship but after six heart-breaking years, they finally got their hands on the Frank Reynolds Memorial Cup after a thrilling contest with St. Patrick’s Dromahair last Saturday in Ballinamore.
Darren Duignan’s clinically finished goal midway through the second half was the decisive factor in a true heavyweight clash - both teams traded blow after blow in an enthralling encounter that delighted the few neutrals in Ballinamore before the game’s only goal proved the knock-out blow.
With that goal came belief for Gortletteragh and seeds of doubt for a Dromahair team that kept battling but suddenly found that passes that had previously gone to hand were now behind their intended target or straight to a re-energised Gortletteragh player making the big tackles and hard yards.
As hard as it is to believe, last Saturday’s Intermediate Championship medal was the first Leitrim Club medal the legendary Seamus Quinn has ever won as Gortletteragh put years of heart-breaking under-achievement behind them to claim the title after an epic encounter.
Gortletteragh’s actually won the Intermediate Championship title in 2003 but that was their second string outfit and at a time when the Senior Championship somewhat incongruously featured 20 teams so this was most definitely the south Leitrim’s club best day since they last won the Senior Championship back in 1987.
The celebrations on the field afterwards spoke as much of relief as of delight as Gortletteragh, once considered a member of the big three in Leitrim along with Sean O’Heslin’s and Aughawillan, are finally back in the Senior Championship.
And it is easy to understand why relief was etched all over Gortletteragh for Dromahair put them to the pin of their collars to emerge with the win, a spirited challenge that probably would have been enough to win the title in many a different year.
That Dromahair didn’t win was due as much to Gortletteragh’s experience from last year’s final as it was patently obvious that the memory of the loss to Melvin Gaels drove them and inspired much of what they did last Saturday.
Dromahair may have had more of the play and created quite a few chances but Gortletteragh weathered the storm, took their chances with greater efficiency.
They also managed to isolate Darren Duignan one-on-one in the second half and the former County man was always going to do damage with his pace and eye for a score – which is exactly how it turned out.
Duignan’s goal also saw Gortletteragh change tack as they flooded players back into their defence and upped the physical stakes, hitting Dromahair hard and often as they stopped Dromahair’s momentum in its infancy.
Dromahair kept coming but with the likes of Cathal McCrann, Cathal Quinn and sub Padraig McGarry putting in huge challenges to stop Dromahair’s progress dead, the north Leitrim side were never able to create the goal scoring they so desperately needed.
In a strange twist considering how free-flowing and open this contest was, both defences for the main part dominated with some excellent performances on both sides, none more so that Terry Kelleher who held his side together in the first half when Dromahair threatened at times to over-run Gortletteragh.
Kelleher’s accurate passing and ability to get his head up to see who was free was crucial for the winners as he was able to find the man in space while he broke up Dromahair attacks time and time again.
Cathal McCrann had a few uncharacteristic misses from placed balls but when the pressure was on, the County net-minder and Cathal Quinn made the big plays, made the big interceptions and stopped Dromahair dead in their tracks.
Ciaran Egan, James Campbell, Gerard Campbell, Niall Woods and Kevin McGrath all typified the hard work and graft that Gortletteragh produced, McGrath scoring a wonderful effort when he somehow managed to stay on his feet while weaving through a couple of tackles in the second half.
What is probably most encouraging for Gortletteragh is the age profile of this team and the waves of youth that appear to be coming through the Gortletteragh ranks – just seven of the 19 players who saw action are 30 years of age or older with quite a few in the mid-20s.
With their Minors joined with Fenagh to contest the Minor A Final and their second team facing Leitrim Gaels in the Junior A decider, Gortletteragh are a club with resources and a new found sense of direction that will make them very hard to beat in the years ahead.
For Dromahair, there is little consolation in the fact that they contributed so much to such an entertaining and enjoyable encounter and probably even less consolation when the old line that “you’ve got to lose one to win one” is trotted out in the days ahead.
Yet both are undeniably true – Dromahair played with panache and a great deal of passion and as understandable as their disappointment is at the moment, they can draw consolation from the fact that both Aughawillan and Gortletteragh themselves lost Intermediate Finals before coming back a year later to taste glory.
And it is also undeniably true that Dromahair have made huge progress over the last ten to 15 years – back in 1998 and 2001, they won the Junior A title in fantastic style and great things were expected but progress up the ranks stalled.
But in the last four years, Dromahair had progressed and progressed rapidly and if they can use the hurt from last Saturday’s loss, harnessing it in a positive manner and building on it could see Dromahair finally achieve their dream of Senior football in the very near future.
Paddy McGowan gave an immense display for the north Leitrim men while Jamie Conlon, Adrian Fowley, Cian Clinton, Kevin Conlan and John Evans put in great shifts for Dromahair, delivering performances that would have more than enough on many a different day against different opposition.
But at the end of the day, there was no denying that Gortletteragh deserved their win – their composure at vital times was the difference between the teams and a year that is already a massive success for Gortletteragh could get even better over the next two weeks.