It may have been little more than a pre-season encounter on the first weekend in January but a win over Roscommon is warmly welcomed whenever it arrives and while much of the game was largely forgettable, this was a contest that Leitrim deserved to win.
For much of the game it seemed unlikely that Leitrim would get 2013 off to a winning start but the impact of the players sprung from the bench and excellent scores from Conor Beirne, Gerry Hickey and Emlyn Mulligan gave Leitrim a deserved lead with just two minutes remaining and Roscommon were unable to reply as their challenge faltered when playing against the wind in the second half.
The Leitrim team was very similar to that which represented the county last year with Ciaran Egan returning at full-back while Conor Beirne, after some excellent displays for Eslin in last year’s Intermediate Championship is back in the panel and was among the substitutes for last Sunday’s game.
Injury meant Emlyn Mulligan began the game from the bench while Enda Williams was unavailable for the game and Cian Reynolds will not be making his Leitrim debut until after the FBD League due to commitments with Carlow IT.
With John Evans taking charge of Roscommon for the first time there was a large, expectant crowd present in Orchard Park, Elphin. Without the St Brigid’s contingent and a number of players, including Donnie Shine as a result of injury, this was undoubtedly a weakened Roscommon team but nevertheless they brought the game to Leitrim in the opening half.
After a weekend of heavy rain it was hardly surprising that the pitch in Elphin looked far from its best and even though there was no surface water on the field, the manner in which it cut up meant underfoot conditions were very difficult for all players.
Much of the opening half saw both sets of defenders dominate. The full-back line which became very familiar with one another last year of Alan Wynne, Ciaran Egan and Paddy Maguire looked very assured while in the absence of Enda Williams the number 6 jersey was worn with great authority by Paul Brennan.
With Daniel Lowe and Tomas Beirne unable to commit to the panel for the year ahead the midfield duo that began the game was Paddy McGowan and Wayne McKeon and while both worked tirelessly, they struggled to dominate what was a very congested part of the pitch.
After a slow start that saw both sides cancel each other out the deadlock was broken in the ninth minute when Darren O’Connor found Conor Devaney and the Kilbride man pointed.
Roscommon should have enjoyed a healthier lead at that stage but were left cursing the post when Fintan Cregg’s perfectly weighted through ball left the Leitrim defence flat footed and found Devaney with only Cathal McCrann to beat. Devaney seemed to do everything right but his first time shot hit the Leitrim upright before being cleared to safety.
Roscommon doubled their lead in the 17th minute when Fintan Cregg converted a free but in very difficult conditions the game was failing to truly capture the imagination.
Having played second fiddle for the majority of the opening half Leitrim began to assert themselves as an attacking force in the closing stages of the half as Adrian Croal was on hand to apply the finishing touch to an excellent counter-attacking move that began with Ciaran Egan and also saw Wayne McKeon heavily involved. While that point was warmly welcomed by the Leitrim support the fact that it took 27 minutes to arrive would have been slightly concerning.
However, once Leitrim did register their first score of the game they came close to taking the lead on the stroke of half-time but this time it was to be Leitrim who would be denied by the woodwork. After an incisive passing move involving the midfield pairing of Paddy McGowan and Wayne McKeon, the ball fell to Brian McDonald. The Glencar/Manor man unleashed a fine shot that beat Roscommon goalkeeper Mark Miley but it came back off the crossbar before being cleared.
That proved to be the final score of the half as a largely uninspiring 30 minutes came to a close.
Both sides made changes at the interval with Conor Beirne and Conor Sheridan entering for Leitrim. However, it was the home side who looked the brighter in the opening stages of the second half and they extended their lead with points early in the half from Cathal Cregg (free) and Conor Devaney.
With a little over 20 minutes remaining Emlyn Mulligan was introduced for Leitrim and his contribution in that short space of time went a long way towards transforming the outlook of the contest.
Mulligan’s first notable contribution was to convert what was by his standards a reasonably straightforward free to reduce the deficit but almost immediately a Cathal Cregg free put three between the sides once more.
The final quarter of the game saw Leitrim increase their intensity as the movement of Mulligan and physical presence of Conor Beirne gave the Roscommon defence plenty to contend with.
With 12 minutes left on the clock Mulligan struck from distance after easily getting the better of James Connaughton and all the momentum seemed to be with Leitrim who were full of energy and appeared to be playing with renewed confidence.
The gap was further reduced four minutes later when Gerry Hickey unleashed a massive effort from around the 45 which comfortably dissected the upright.
With just four minutes of the game remaining Conor Beirne struck to level matters with a moment of quick thinking and pure skill that was worth the admission fee. With his back to goal when he received the ball the Eslin man didn’t seem to have many options but instead of trying to avoid the attention of his marker, Beirne effortlessly kicked the ball over his own shoulder and over the Roscommon upright to leave nothing between the sides.
With the game edging ever closer to full-time Leitrim were presented with an opportunity to claim victory although it was certainly not a straightforward chance. Conor Beirne stood over a free, over 45 metres from goal, and after assessing the wind he approached to strike what appeared to be a difficult shot. However, Beirne made the kick look easy as the ball made its way between the posts to give Leitrim the lead for the first time.
Roscommon tried to fight back but ultimately they had no answer and it was Leitrim who were the happier when the full-time whistle sounded.
There were no wild celebrations when the game ended, this was after all little more than preparation for the more serious action that will begin next month and the preparations for the start of the league campaign continue in Ballinamore on Sunday when Leitrim welcome last year’s defeated All-Ireland finalists Mayo.
Cathal McCrann, Alan Wynne, Ciaran Egan, Paddy Maguire, Danny Beck, Paul Brennan, Colm Clarke, Wayne McKeon, Paddy McGowan, Gerry Hickey (0-1), Brian McDonald, Kevin Conlan, Ray Cox, James Glancy, Adrian Croal (0-1). Subs: Conor Sheridan for Maguire (HT), Conor Beirne (0-2) for Cox (HT), Emlyn Mulligan (0-2) for Conlan (39 mins), Robbie Lowe for Glancy (47 mins).
Mark Miley, Sean McDermott, Niall Carty, Neil Collins, Donal Ward, James Connaughton, Cathal Dineen, Michael Finneran, Kevin Higgins, Paddy Neary, David O’Gara, David Keenan, Conor Devaney (0-2), Fintan Cregg (0-1), Darren O’Connor. Subs: Scott Oates for Neary (HT), Cathal Cregg (0-2) for O’Gara (HT), Donal Keane for O’Connor (39 mins), David Hoey for Keenan (49 mins).