You couldn’t write it for Hollywood, you just wouldn’t be believed but the story of Leitrim’s famous, or infamous if you are from London, 1997 win over the Exiles featured a Connacht scoring record for Declan Darcy, a hard hitting match and a controversial penalty that gave Leitrim a desperately needed lifeline that took the game to extra-time where Leitrim’s superior fitness finally told its tale.
Leitrim usually are on the wrong end of big decisions but on June 1 1997, it was the Green & Gold who were on the right end of one of the most controversial decisions ever in the Connacht Championship.
With just ten seconds of normal time left on the clock, London led by three points and a rattled Leitrim just pumped a long ball into the full-forward line where Adrian Cullen grabbed the ball and was “fouled”, Galway referee Des Joyce pointing to the penalty spot and Declan Darcy, who scorec an amazing 2-13 on the day, drove home a penalty to send the game to extra-time.
With the added salt of one of London’s native born Hehir brothers being insulted by a Leitrim player, London outrage was fierce and remained so ten years later when the match programme referred to the referee thus “Biased Galway referee Des Joyce was the main centre of attention after an appalling display with the whistle” before adding “the Galway official’s penalty award to Leitrim must be regarded as one of the greatest travesties of justice in GAA history.”
The reaction at the time was no less strong as Aughnasheelin native Aidan Creamer, lining out with the Exiles, stormed “I know that to criticise referees is an easy option but I thought it was blatant. It is time to get a neutral referee in for these games. If it was a definite penalty, I wouldn’t have a problem with it but I’m quite honestly disgusted by it!”
Even in 2002, London’s anger hadn’t subsided as the Exiles manager Chris Llyod commenting on refereeing decisions just ten years ago remarked “We were unlucky on a couple of occasions and weren’t as lucky as Leitrim were in 1997 with the decisions of the referee.”
Leitrim manager Seamus Bonnar was not quite of the same opinion as he said “We’d have no quibble with the referee. I thought he did a fair enough job”, later adding “The penalty really got Leitrim out of a hole. It was backs to the wall there for a while and we very nearly went out of the championship.”
The Observer report of the time didn’t mince its words “Darcy’s amazing scoring heroics, that saw him notch up an individual Provincial scoring record, was the only reason Leitrim managed to avoid an embarrassing and humiliating defeat against a hungry and very impressive London side that have just cause for the age old complaint – We were robbed!
“A controversial penalty awarded by Galway referee Des Joyce less than ten seconds from the end of normal time dug Leitrim out of an enormous hole and took the game to extra time where Leitrim’s superior fitness carried them home against a wilting London. But, in all honesty, it was an escape they scarcely deserved against a London team that caught many by surprise.”
With so many veterans of the 1994 Connacht winning team on the field, it was Leitrim’s first championship without John O’Mahony leading them and the Observer added “And to be one hundred percent fair, most Leitrim supporters at the game agreed that the crucial penalty shouldn’t have been a penalty. But a championship win is a win no matter how it is achieved!”
Despite his anger at the result, Aidan Creamer was thrilled to face his native county - “It was excellent playing against Leitrim. I’ve been looking forward to it and I’ll remember it for quite a while. I was disappointed with my own performance as I felt I concentrated too much on Noel Moran’s game. I had been warned about his attacking and I think I played too defensive a game.”
But the final words can be summed up by recalling the report’s introduction - “There is not a lot can be said about last Sunday’s Bank of Ireland Connacht Senior Football Championship First Round clash with London in Ruislip that could really sum up the nerves, anxiety and, finally, immense relief of Leitrim supporters except five words – THANK GOD FOR DECLAN DARCY!”