Visiting Ruislip has never, ever been easy for Leitrim teams but a forewarned Green & Gold travel to the Emerald Centre in London full of wariness and a fierce determination to overcome the home team in next Sunday’s Connacht Senior Championship Quarter-Final.
One thing no Leitrim team has ever done is take Leitrim for granted, there is far too much history of struggles and miraculous escapes in Ruislip for that to happen, but they know that next Sunday’s clash with London represents an even bigger challenge than normal.
The down-turn in the Irish economy has led to a resurgence in emigration to London, boosting the Exiles playing numbers and pick; conversely, Leitrim have literally bled players over the last two years with five of last year’s starting defence no longer with the team.
Nobody needs reminding that London’s single victory in the Connacht Championship came against Leitrim, back in 1977, nor that Fermanagh fell to the Exiles in last year’s Qualifiers and that the home team are expecting, not hoping for, victory next Sunday.
And if that wasn’t enough, the whole controversy over the “Seanie Johnston” rule seems to have bonded the London players far more than is usual, especially if they come through last weekend’s Club Championship game unscathed.
The focus and desire of London to make an impact in the championship is blindingly obvious, more so since they entered the FBD League for the first time this year and brought different panels over to Ireland for their various games in the Allianz League.
London probably have more pressure than they are used to and that will take some getting used to – it is one thing planning an ambush, coming in under the radar, but London will be expecting to win and that brings its own pressures.
Ironically, London may experience just what Leitrim are expected to achieve any time they travel to Ruislip – taking Mayo to extra-time last year and defeating Fermanagh gives them form and the manner in which they pushed Leitrim to the limit in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada suggests a titanic struggle on Sunday.
Injury worries have hampered Leitrim in recent weeks – Daniel Beck and Paddy McGowan have suffered knocks while Adrian Croal is back in action after a long lay-off during the League. A fully fit Croal will give Leitrim’s forwards, somewhat underperforming in the closing stages of the League, a real boost.
In defence, much will depend on the form of Wayne McKeon – it is hard to believe the troubles McKeon went through last year with the Senior set-up but he has emerged as a real leader of this team, his performances the bed-rock of Leitrim’s engine.
McKeon’s engine means the Ballinamore man adds drive to the Leitrim attack and his long range scoring ability could be crucial in a tight encounter.
New recruit Enda Williams will add greatly to a half-back line that suffered badly in the last few League games, adding a bit of heft to the line while the former Longford man’s long range passing ability could be a vital asset on Sunday.
Leitrim’s full-back line suffered against the high ball in the League and against a physical and strong London, the pressure must be put on out the field to stop the deliveries going in. Ciaran Egan should start at full-back with captain Paddy Maguire also guaranteed a starting spot.
After that, it is very much up for grabs – St. Mary’s James Glancy, Fabian McMorrow, Alan Wynne, Paul Brennan and Colm Clarke are all in contention, although Brennan could see action in the half-forwards.
Midfield will be a key area – London have quite a few big men with former Cavan player Lorcan Mulvey one to watch. Darren Sweeney, Daniel Lowe, Shane Moran and Paddy McGowan will all see action around the middle of the field as Leitrim try to counter an expected physical advantage for the Exiles.
Upfront, the return of Croal will greatly boost Leitrim but the Green & Gold will need Emlyn Mulligan at his most accurate best and James Glancy to rediscover his best form, testing and pulling the London back-line into places they won’t want to go.
Just who London have in their ranks is hard to answer – Galway duo Eoin O’Neill and Mark Gottsche will take watching in attack while former Leitrim and Mohill star Paul McDermott is just the sort of strong player Leitrim could do with at the moment.
London are undoubtedly stronger now than they have been at any other time Leitrim have played them and a strong performance against Wicklow in a challenge game, where they only lost thanks to misunderstanding of the new square ball rule, hints of a team well prepared.
Where once Leitrim could rely on London’s fitness to fall off, that is not the case now and Leitrim will have to start well and keep it going all the way through.
One area of concern certainly must be London’s physical advantage – Leitrim are a relatively small and light team compared to what we expect London to possess and heavy physical challenges can take a punishing toll on the smaller player.
London have traditionally tried to soften up Leitrim teams in the past, hitting them hard and often and expect no different on Sunday – it is one aspect of the Ruislip experience that the new players will have to steel themselves for.
But what will count most for Leitrim next Sunday is attitude – this is not an easy game for Leitrim and the form in the Allianz League wouldn’t leave anyone will a great deal of overt confidence.
That adds pressure and no matter how much you guard against it, it can seep into your system – particularly if time and time again, you are being reminded of how tough London are going to be and how difficult it will be.
Travelling to Ruislip has never been a particularly care-free endeavour for Leitrim, there have been too many close shaves for that but this is probably the first trip where London have been openly talking about victory.
Certainly, focus and taking London very seriously won’t be a problem for Leitrim’s players next Sunday but the big challenge for Leitrim’s players is not to let the occasion overcome them, not to let fear inhibit them.
London will have to deal with expectation and the pressure that brings, it will be different for them and Leitrim will hope to take advantage of that.
But most of all, Leitrim must remember the basics – as well said all throughout the National League, you can’t fault the effort or commitment of the Leitrim players, the effort they put in all over the field is immense and this year has been particularly difficult.
Down nine players from the starting team last year against Sligo, it would have been easy to throw the towel in but they have stuck it out and if performances weren’t what they wanted during the League, their spirit and resilience is something to build on.
Making a prediction about this one is difficult – Leitrim have lost too many good players over the past two years not to suffer a down-turn in their fortunes and London have gained so many. London have spirit and momentum that they have never had before and that will give them an edge.
But with the pride Leitrim’s players have exhibited over the years, you cannot take them for granted and they will give their all next Sunday. All we can say is, it will be close, mightily close!