Saturday represents Leitrim’s best chance of winning a Qualifier match since we played Roscommon in Pairc Sean in 2003. But if the team think like that it won’t happen. Between now and the throw in, and even more importantly, for the full duration of the game, every player’s focus needs to remain on the performance, and the performance only. Only that can bring a win.
We were leading 1-11 to 1-9 deep into injury time in 2003 when Roscommon launched a final attack. It appeared to have been dealt with but the ball broke loose and a toe-poke from a Roscommon boot saw it end up in our net. The referee blew the final whistle when Gareth Phelan kicked the ball out. It was the most painful defeat I experienced as a Leitrim footballer. We thought we had the game won. That was our mistake.
We played Roscommon off the pitch in so many positions that day with Shane Canning playing his finest game for Leitrim at midfield. Just minutes before the Roscommon goal Padraig McLaughlin pinged the ball off their crossbar. But as we know two points is a dangerous lead in football or hurling.
It was a cruel defeat, but sport has offered every player plenty of those. I always watched the DVD of our games – win, lose or draw – to learn as much from them as possible, but I have never brought myself to watch that one.
Each year, once the Qualifiers start out our national newspapers list the league table showing what teams have won the most, and the least, in the backdoor system. Leitrim is currently the only team not to have won a single Qualifier match.
As a player, I was involved in a lot of those defeats, but two of them were the best games Pairc Sean has seen in some years. The Meath match in 2005 was played in torrential rain in front of a packed crowd and an electric atmosphere. Once Danny Beck edged us ahead in the final minute of normal time it looked as if a famous win was on the cards. We should have closed out that game.
I think we started to look at the possibility of the winning result rather than concentrating on what was happening in the there and now. It was my old Sigerson team mate at DIT Ollie Murphy – sprung from the bench by Sean Boylan with a couple of minutes to go – who landed a great point over his shoulder to tie the game.
We had worked so hard against a physically superior opposition for the 70 minutes of the game we were always going to struggle in extra-time, and so it passed.
Fast forward two years and Donegal came out of the hat. Galway had beaten us by four points in Pairc Sean in a Connacht semi-final that frustrates me to this day. We gifted them a few handy frees when we controlling the game while missing two clear goal chances in the second half (after Gary McCloskey bagged a peach early in the first).
I knew Sligo would beat Galway in that Connacht final. They were there for the taking and Sligo did so by taking their goal chance – a brilliant individual effort by Eamon O’Hara.
Sometimes you just need that one piece of magic to make things happen; to generate the momentum and belief that carries a team over the line. (In my opinion Sligo will give Mayo plenty on Sunday too, and could land their second Connacht title in five years if their forwards can take the chances I’m sure they will create.)
I always loved playing Donegal as I knew a few of their team fairly well, having played soccer with Brian Roper and Niall McCready for years, and having trained with St. Eunan’s on a good few occasions during my time in Letterkenny.
Add that to that the fact that they played football the way I loved playing it myself – with a fleetness and freedom of self-expression, but rooted in team-work and attacking from the back – and I was really excited about the challenge.
We started the game in top gear and I couldn’t remember the last time I was moving so well, getting on lots of ball as we raced into an early lead. Unfortunately, 20 minutes in I had to stretch to take a pass from Gary McCloskey and my marker Frank McGlynn came in to challenge.
Whatever way he landed on me I dislocated my collarbone. I knew it immediately but tried to convince myself I would be able to play on, but as I tried to lift my arm to attract Dr Loftus’ attention the shot of pain I got told me otherwise. I had to come off.
I watched my team mates put everything on the line in an effort to gain what would have been a famous win. A missed penalty looked like putting the game beyond us until James Glancy (Glencar Manorhamilton) landed what remains the best goal I have seen in a GAA match.
It would have made Match of the Day’s top ten for the season. Again, our efforts in normal time meant we had too little left to push on for the win in extra-time and Donegal escaped.
I urge the panel on Saturday to do everything in their power to make sure they don’t have the same regrets. Risks and stances will have to be taken, and a refusal to be beaten must be imbued throughout the panel. I’ll be tuning in from the Basque country, and would dearly love to hear the right result coming across the airwaves.