Well done to all concerned with Leitrim’s victory over London in Ruislip on Sunday. When Barney Breen was interviewed for the Irish Independent ahead of the game last week and said a defeat would set football in Leitrim back years, he wasn’t engaging in hyperbole.
A London win would have ripped the heart out of this young Leitrim panel and picking up the pieces ahead of the qualifiers would have been a near impossible task for the management. Beyond the team, supporter numbers would have dwindled while even the tireless and ever loyal stalwarts from the Leitrim Supports Club would have found the pep gone from their step. Fewer youngsters would have been sporting Leitrim jerseys up and down the county, and it would have been a duller place for it.
Instead, all those excitable, impressionable young boys and girls that attended Pairc Sean for the County open day last month and got to meet this new tranche of Leitrim heroes can happily touch ball to toe as they race around their yards this week imagining themselves to be man-of-the-match Mulligan or one of our new super-subs, Enda Williams or Shane Moran.
In the cold black and white of newspaper print, people will look at the result and think Leitrim could only manage a one-point win over lowly London. But the GAA doesn’t happen in black and white – it’s a rainbow of colour offering a reflection on the full spectrum of Irish life in the various counties.
Dublin’s powerhouse win over Louth is a reflection on the fact that the recession really hasn’t hit middleclass Dublin. It reflects the growing divide between urban and rural Ireland and indicates, more than anything, that success brings success, and guaranteed exposure attracts the deepest sponsorship pockets.
London were pitched as favourites by some of the country’s biggest bookies and that was a fair interpretation of the reality of Sunday’s game and the state of play in Irish life at the moment. While Leitrim has been haemorrhaging its bright young sons and daughters as they seek employment in Perth and Melbourne, Toronto and Seoul, London’s GAA playing numbers have been swelling as that capital offers young Irish opportunities they can’t get back home.
Returning to purely football terms London knew Leitrim were vulnerable. They achieved their first championship win since defeating Leitrim in London back in 1977 when they shot down a vulnerable Fermanagh last year and they felt our boys were a prime target for an even bigger scalp in this year’s Connacht championship. London had nothing to lose in going all out for a win and the genuine disappointment expressed in their manager’s post-match interview showed just how sure they were this would be their year. Leitrim had everything to lose, but they didn’t.
Things looked ominous when London stretched their lead to four points early in the second half but the lads timed their second-half rally perfectly to see them home. Some intelligent play by our midfield partnership in breaking the ball during this period, and the hunger for that loose ball displayed by our boys turned a game that could just as easily slipped away as London threatened to take control.
A lot has been put down to our superior fitness in closing out the game, and while that was telling our mental toughness should not be underestimated in these circumstances too. This is a young team with very little experience to draw from but they clearly proved they had plenty of shared faith and spirit to call upon when needed the most.
Of course, Mayo in Castlebar will offer an entirely new challenge to this team. Mayo are operating on a different level than Leitrim and despite their under-par National League final earlier this year James Horan and his men have their eyes firmly set on returning to Croke Park at the business end of this season.
While history weighed heavy on Leitrim as they travelled to London at the weekend (the ghost of the defeated ’77 team haunting their pre-match thoughts with fleeting doubts) it is an entirely more ominous history that awaits them in Castlebar: the venue has been the graveyard of many a Leitrim dream down through the years.
While the task is a mammoth one it is not beyond any group of well prepared players to spoil the favourite’s party on any given day. History, too, has shown us just that on enough joyous occasions in Irish sport.