The 2012 All Ireland Football Championship started in earnest yesterday with an array of matches that Leitrim could learn a lot from in the run in to their big game in Ruislip in less than two weeks.
There’s an apprehensive feeling amongst many of the county’s supporters that London could put one over on us on June 3. While I’ve been around long enough to appreciate that the underdog can deliver a fatal bite on any given day, I don’t believe this will be the case on Sunday week. Alright, we had a mediocre league and didn’t achieve the goal of getting out of Division 4 but London also failed to build on their successful campaign of last season and their historic Qualifier win over Fermanagh.
True, our last outing against that rejuvenated Fermanagh side was our worst of the league but we had nothing to play for and that can have a detrimental effect on a team’s collective mindset. We have everything to play for in Ruislip, most importantly our pride. And history has proven that when our pride is on the line, Leitrim people tend to come out fighting. I expect the same reaction from our boys in the Green and Gold.
Barney and George are well aware of the potential banana skin that awaits their arrival over the water – George was still on the panel that pulled off the great escape over there in 1997 – and they’ll have the lads ready for a real dog fight in which the team that starts the best almost always comes out on top. It’s crucial the lads put London on the back foot from the off and allow them as little forward momentum as possible.
Possession in midfield will be key to this and clean ball is hard won in Ruislip’s tight environs so I’m expecting our desire to win to be displayed in our raw hunger for breaking ball. We no longer have two of the best proponents of this skill at our disposal in Philly McGuinness and Michael Foley but our wing backs and wing forwards will have to throw caution to the wind and make things happen in the middle third of the field.
A few minutes prior to throw-in on Sunday, a former Leitrim team mate sent me a text asking what I thought the chances of a Roscommon and Longford win was over their respective opponents Galway and Laois. I thought it was a decent bet, particularly Longford, but I felt the Rossies could really push Galway in the Hyde too and catch them at this early stage of the championship.
However, Galway’s dominance in midfield meant that was never going to happen. They showed exactly how you deconstruct an underdog’s game plan by killing off any hope early on. Leitrim are in the relatively unusual position of being favourites for the game in Ruislip – a challenge playing London always presents to our default mindset of underdogs – so we should aspire to do exactly the same: throw everything we have at them in the first half.
Okay, we don’t have a target man of the size of Paul Conroy on the edge of the square (the 2007 All Ireland winning minor announcing his arrival on the senior with considerable aplomb in the Hyde) to play direct ball in on top of but we do have two inside forwards capable of causing London considerable distress in James Glancy and Adrian Croal. Glancy has proven his mettle in big games before while Croal has a couple of inter-county seasons under his belt at this stage and I expect him to really come to the fore this year.
Both played exceptionally well for Manorhamilton in their recent league win over Melvin Gaels in the Bee Park and if they can repeat that form their partnership should play a big part in seeing us over the line as long as they get the right supply. And that brings us back to the question of midfield and the breaking ball.
The other main lessons to learn from Sunday’s games are to be taken from Longford and Louth. The weight of expectation brought about by their promotion to Division 2 got to Longford early on and it seemed history would come to the fore once more as Laois cruised through the first half to lead by 0-9 to 0-3 at the interval. But Longford used the break to refocus and Paul Barden’s goal five minutes after the restart gave them the momentum they needed to drive on to victory (the game reminded me of our win over Roscommon in the Hyde in 2000).
In Páirc Tailteann Westmeath thought they were already in the next round – nothing else could account for their lapse in concentration that allowed Louth steal in for a winning goal in the sixth minute of injury time. But that assumption takes away from the fact that Louth refused to believe they were beaten and they had the courage to push for that last gasp opportunity.
I’m hoping it’s the Galway model we follow in Ruislip, but I’ll take a win whatever way it comes. And I expect it to come.