The encouraging start to the new year made by Leitrim when they beat Roscommon in the opening round of the FBD League continued last Sunday in Ballinamore as Leitrim deservedly saw off the challenge of last year’s All-Ireland finalists Mayo to record their second win of the year.
While it is important to remember that it is still only January and this was a jet-lagged Mayo team’s first outing of the year, the celebrations amongst the Leitrim players gave an indication of the significance of this win. Last June Leitrim travelled to Castlebar in the hope of reaching a Connacht final but were ultimately humiliated. Last Sunday’s win will go a long way towards eradicating that memory and even though this was not a full strength Mayo, it will help instil the belief among the Leitrim players that they are capable of competing and winning at this level.
For 20 minutes of the first half Leitrim were dominant in every area of the pitch and the five point to no score lead they enjoyed was not a true reflection of the dominance they were enjoying. However, that seemingly commanding lead was wiped out before half-time as Mayo upped their game with Tom Cunniffe, Alan Freeman and Barry Moran beginning to dictate matters while Leitrim seemed to lose confidence as wave after wave of Mayo attacks threatened the Leitrim goal.
The second half saw Leitrim regain their urgency as they upped the tempo and bossed matters once again. Alan Wynne, Paul Brennan and Daniel Beck were excellent in defence while the midfield pairing of Paddy McGowan and Wayne McKeon looked more assured than it had a week earlier as both worked tirelessly for the cause. Up front the running of Ray Cox, Adrian Croal and Brian McDonald caused numerous problems for the Mayo defence with Emlyn Mulligan’s frees keeping the scoreboard moving over the course of the game.
While the above mentioned all had fine games it is worth mentioning another Leitrim performer who excelled. Cathal McCrann came to Leitrim’s rescue with a number of crucial saves but what was even more impressive was the conviction with which he regularly out-jumped the Mayo forwards to claim possession for Leitrim. One such catch started a counter-attack which ultimately led to a Leitrim point.
While it is important to remember that Mayo were not in action last week and are only just back in the country after a team holiday in Miami it is equally true to state that whenever James Horan sends out a team to represent Mayo, he expects them to win.
The benefit of the game against Roscommon was evident from the throw-in as Leitrim were the quicker to settle and two Emlyn Mulligan frees in the opening three minutes gave the large home support the first indication that a victory over Mayo might become a reality for the first time since the 1994 Connacht final.
The lead was further increased when Mulligan turned provider for Adrian Croal in the ninth minute and without breaking stride the Glencar/Manor forward struck for a fine point. With the game just under 10 minutes old it got even better for Leitrim when Ray Cox was played in behind the Mayo defence by Mulligan. The Annaduff man had a sight of the Mayo goal but opted to fist the ball over the bar rather than test Kenneth O’Malley but there were no complaints from the home support as the white flag was raised for a fourth time.
Having created little as an attacking force during the opening stages, Mayo gave an indication of what they are capable of when Richie Feeney and Conor O’Shea linked up to find the unmarked Tom Cunniffe. The opening Mayo score seemed inevitable but Cathal McCrann stood tall to make an excellent save and shortly afterwards the Leitrim lead was extended to five points when Emlyn Mulligan converted another free.
Mayo finally opened their account in the 16th minute after Darren Coen capitalised on some confusion in the Leitrim defence but at this stage of the game Leitrim were still very much in control.
The final 10 minutes proved to be somewhat different as Mayo, for the first time gave an indication of the quality they possess while Leitrim, perhaps with one eye on a half-time break dropped their work rate. Mayo took full advantage of Leitrim’s lull and in the final eight minutes of the half scored four unanswered points through Alan Freeman, Michael Conroy, Lee Keegan and Barry Moran meaning there was nothing separating the sides at the interval with scoreboard reading 0-5 apiece.
The fear amongst Leitrim supporters was that the opportunity to claim a significant scalp had been missed but when the teams re-emerged for the second half and the game got underway the home side looked reinvigorated and once again took the game to Mayo.
An excellent point from Paddy McGowan re-established Leitrim’s lead and although that was soon cancelled out by Alan Freeman, Leitrim were looking the more threatening.
Adrian Croal pointed to complete a fine passing move that saw Gerry Hickey and James Glancy heavily involved and approaching the midway point in the half Emlyn Mulligan struck to establish a two point lead for Leitrim. While Mulligan struck with the sort of accuracy that is expected of this year’s captain, the key to the score was the magnificent catch made by goalkeeper Cathal McCrann as he saw off two Mayo forwards to claim possession of a tricky high ball before starting a counter-attack.
Leitrim had chances to extend their lead but a number of wides meant Mayo were still very much in contention and when Enda Varley (free) and Darren Coen pointed within minutes of each other the sides were once again level with just six minutes of the game remaining.
Two minutes later half-time substitute James Glancy was fouled and Emlyn Mulligan converted the resulting free to leave the minimum between the sides.
Leitrim had further chances to secure victory but the fact that they were unsuccessful mattered little as Mayo failed to threaten in the dying moments of the game and Leitrim recorded a deserved win.
Next up will be the visit of GMIT to Cloone and with Leitrim knowing that victory will secure a first ever Connacht FBD final and increase the chances of Leitrim making two trips to New York this year.
Cathal McCrann, Alan Wynne, Ciaran Egan, Paddy Maguire, Danny Beck, Paul Brennan, Colm Clarke, Wayne McKeon, Paddy McGowan (0-1), Gerry Hickey, Emlyn Mulligan (0-5), Kevin Conlan, Ray Cox (0-1), Brian McDonald, Adrian Croal (0-2). Subs; Sean McWeeney for Egan (26 mins), James Glancy for Conlan (HT), Conor Beirne for Cox (44 mins), Robbie Lowe for McDonald (53 mins).
Kenneth O’Malley, Michael Walsh, Shane McHale, Lee Keegan (0-1), Tom Cunniffe, Keith Rogers, Richie Feeney, Jason Gibbons, Seamus O’Shea, Conor O’Shea, Enda Varley (0-1), Cathal Carolan, Darren Coen (0-2), Alan Freeman (0-2), Michael Conroy (0-1). Subs: Barry Moran (0-1) for Gibbons (3 mins), Colm Boyle for C. O’Shea (43 mins), Ger Cafferkey for McHale (53 mins).
Referee: Shane O’Hehir (Galway).