You know times are changing when Leitrim fans depart a game unhappy with a one point win, stretching an unbeaten run to three games, but that was the case last Sunday in Pairc Sheain Ui Eslin, Ballinamore as a lacklustre Green & Gold nevertheless did enough to eek out a one point win over Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.
The win qualified Leitrim for a first ever FBD Connacht League Final against Sligo next Sunday, possibly an intriguing preview of a Connacht Semi-Final later in the year, a fact that was known before a ball was ever kicked in Ballinamore last Sunday.
The win was hard earned, the performance patchy and not at all fluent but it was a win nonetheless as Leitrim continued their unbeaten run, their third by a point as the Green & Gold exhibit a welcome new found ability to close off tight games.
Buoyed by wins over Roscommon and Mayo, an expectant Leitrim support gathered in Ballinamore expecting a facile win over a GMIT team heavily outclassed by the same opposition Leitrim had defeated but the home team, perhaps lulled into expecting an easier challenge, didn’t get out of the blocks properly.
As frustrating as the performance might have been to an unexpectedly confident home support, Leitrim won while playing far from their best, something that hasn’t always been the case, and it may serve a longer term benefit in cooling down fast rising expectations.
Truth to tell, Sunday’s contest resembled a challenge match with few challenges, loose marking and no real intensity and it was obvious that Leitrim’s players found it hard to rise themselves to the required tempo that had typified their displays so far.
That drive didn’t arrive until the double introduction of Adrian Croal and Ray Cox, who landed three points between them but more importantly, imparted a sense of urgency and direction that had been missing from a Leitrim team who were allowing the game to drift away from them.
To be brutally honest, it was a no-win situation for Leitrim who were facing a contest with no bearing on the Final and it was evident in the lack of bite in the challenges that this was not a game that got either team’s motor running at all.
A few changes to the starting line-up and the lack of intensity from the get-go militated against anyone making a big impression – Alan Wynne, Enda Williams and Paul Brennan stood out in defence, Wayne McKeon impressed in the middle of the park while Brian McDonald did well in the first half while Adrian Croal and Ray Cox upped the tempo noticeably.
New recruit Cian Reynolds, playing in his father’s home-town for the first time in Leitrim colours, had a tough introduction as his unfamiliarity with the Leitrim set-up didn’t help the youngster.
The top scoring Leitrim forward on the day, however, wore the colours of GMIT as Dromahair’s Conor Kelly showed typical poaching skills to claim the game’s only goal after Cathal McCrann spilled a high ball while Ballinamore’s own Shane McWeeney came on as a second half sub for the College side.
After two early Conor Beirne misses, GMIT surged into an early lead with points from Owen Warde and a John Ryan free but it seemed as if Leitrim were finding their rhythm with four unanswered points in a ten minute stretch, starting with Gerry Hickey’s sixth minute score that could have been a goal.
Brian McDonald added two and Enda Williams notched a second as Alan Wynne was heavily involved but Leitrim were rocked on 19 minutes when Cathal McCrann spilled a high ball and Conor Kelly showed good instincts to fire a low ball to the net.
Ronan Shanahan and Emlyn Mulligan swapped two fine points to leave GMIT with a 1-3 to 0-5 halftime lead. The early second half exchanges saw both sides miss chances, McCrann making a good catch from Warde before a Ryan free extended the lead.
Mulligan hit back with a point, quickly cancelled by a fisted Kelly point that could have landed in the net but the introduction of Adrian Croal and Ray Cox had immediate effect. Croal put over a good score, Mulligan hit a fine effort on the run and Wayne McKeon’s strong run set up Ray Cox for a big point to edge Leitrim back in front with 15 minutes left.
GMIT came back again with a Ryan free to level but as Leitrim missed a few good chances, GMIT saw a John Duane shot hit the crossbar before Croal finished off a well-worked move with the score that ultimately won the contest.
GMIT did have one great chance to take the victory but Ryan inexplicably played the 40 yard free out to the wing and the chance was lost as Leitrim easily saw out the remainder of the game.
Cathal McCrann, Alan Wynne, Ciaran Egan, Sean McWeeney, Colm Clarke, Paul Brennan, Enda Williams (0-1), Wayne McKeon, Paddy McGowan, Gerry Hickey (0-1), Emlyn Mulligan (0-3), Cian Reynolds, Conor Beirne, James Glancy, Brian McDonald (0-2). Subs: Adrian Croal (0-2) & Ray Cox (0-1) for Reynolds & Beirne (38 mins), Brendan Brennan for Clarke (43 mins), Conor Sheridan for Hickey (51 mins), Gavin Reynolds for Williams (57 mins).
Galway Mayo IT
Paul Mannion, Paul McNicholas, Alan McCormack, Barry Sheridan, Cathal Sweeney, John Duane, Ronan Shanahan (0-1), Shane Bohan, Sean Boyle, Eric Monahan, John Ryan (0-3), Brian Miskell, Conor Kelly (1-1),Darren Durkan, Owen Warde (0-1). Subs: Thomas Costello for Miskell (HT), Stephen Tighe for Boyle (41 mins), Shane McWeeney for Warde (43 mins), Myles Kelly for McNicholas (51 mins).
Referee: Marty Parker.