04 Jul 2022

Pitching London's perfect storm


Pitching London's perfect storm

Leitrim's Ryan O'Rourke takes on the London defence during last Sunday's Allianz NFL Division 4 loss in the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence in Bekan Picture: Willie Donnellan

Not sure there has ever been a stranger “home” match in the history of Leitrim GAA but suffice to say, Sunday’s Allianz League clash with London has raised the hackles of many a Leitrim fan but not in the way you’d expect!

A loss to London, a damaging and potentially fatal blow to Leitrim’s promotion hopes, would usually have the Green & Gold fans frothing at the mouth, almost demanding statutory enquiries to find out what went wrong and who is to blame but, in just the first of a series of strange events, the ire hasn’t been over the defeat.

First of all, London were well worth their two point victory and tellingly, I didn’t meet one Leitrim supporter who did not say that London were the better team and deserved their win, difficult as that was to admit. No, the venom of the fans was reserved for the County Board, for Croke Park, Connacht GAA - anybody and everybody it seemed was caught in the crosshairs by the decision to move the game to the splendid Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence.

Quite why that is so is hard to fathom - was it merely a way to deal with seeing their heroes beaten by a team that, in our heart of hearts, nearly every Leitrim fan believes should be swatted aside with the sort of nonchalant arrogance that Mayo routinely dole out to Leitrim?

Maybe it is a blind spot in the Leitrim psyche but we can’t seem to get over the idea that our London and New York exiles up the ante when facing Leitrim because, dare I say, they see us as the county they are most likely to beat?

Whatever the reason, there was an undercurrent among fans that the only game that mattered was in Markievicz Park at the end of March as Andy Moran’s side were sure to run the table against the rest of the Division following the win over Tipperary.

Hand on heart, I genuinely expected Leitrim to win last Sunday but I also expected a stern test from London. I did start to get worried over the general carnival atmosphere among fans because, no matter how well Leitrim are going at any particular point in time, when it comes to meetings between these two counties, it is never, ever easy.

You could sense that dawning on Leitrim fans early in the second half - a calamitous goal against the run of play was overcome but as London grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half, you could sense the growing alarm and indignation among the predominantly Leitrim crowd. That alarm grew, cheers turned to jeers but this London team are better than any London team I’ve seen over the last 30 years - organised, superbly conditioned and these boys can play!

It would be easy to write off London as all crash, bang, wallop in the way that so many of their teams used to be but this was a team with a gameplan, drilled just every bit as much as Andy Moran has drilled Leitrim and, on last Sunday’s performance, there is no shame in losing to a good footballing side.

So, perhaps it is natural that the target of fans’ ire was transferred to other targets - be that the County Board, Croke Park or whatever. Seeing the game switched from Avant Money Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, it must be said, was enormously disappointing but here again, I’m truly not sure what could have been done.

Exacerbating the anger before the game was the surprise some fans got when they arrived in Bekan to find that the game was not taking place in the NUIG Connacht Air Dome. Many it seemed made the journey in the expectation that they’d be nice and cosy indoors but instead, they had to endure bitter cold, driving rain and sleet on a day that really tested your sanity.

Keith Beirne about to fire his late goal chance wide of the London posts Picture: Willie Donnellan

It didn’t help that some media sites suggested the game would take place indoors but the very first communication from the County Board stated clearly the game would be outdoors - hard to spread blame around when people get the wrong end of the stick but that’s what happened.

It only got worse when Sligo’s hosting of Cavan in Markievicz Park fell victim to the weather as did Wexford and Tipperary a mere minutes before the scheduled throw-in time with some fans suggesting that the County Board should have refused to move the game and just get it called off, basically telling our London friends “thank you, come again!”

Now, I don’t know the decision making process that goes into these situations and I’m not defending the County Board but I get the feeling that they may have been the victims of circumstance!

Remember the hullabaloo years back when Leitrim made the journey to Ruislip only to find the match called off on the day of the game. Remember Leitrim’s understandable annoyance as to why the game wasn’t called off earlier to avoid the hassle and cost of travelling?

This time the decision was made in more than good time - with about three inches of snow covering Leitrim, Sligo, Fermanagh and a good bit of Roscommon, a Saturday morning pitch inspection of Pairc Sean could only lead to one decision and that was the one taken. Did the decision sting? You betcha it did but an early decision to move the game is something Leitrim would demand if the situation was reversed.

Fans pointedly asked if another venue could not been found in the county and that’s a fair question. I can’t speak to all other venues but I imagine most would have struggled to host a game and that’s just the plain reality of the situation. Some asked why the Centre of Excellence wasn't used but fans would have faced the exact same conditions in Annaduff as they did in Bekan with no shelter in a venue not designed to host crowds of any real size at all.

Ironically, I was chatting to a senior member of the County Board late last year and his ambition is to see an all-weather pitch and floodlighting installed in Pairc Sean and discussions on that very subject took place last week before the snow hit and everything hit the fan. None of that would have had any impact at all in the decision to move the London game but, let’s face it, this is not a new problem.

Tom Prior takes on London's Evan Wynne in the Allianz NFL Division 4 clash Picture: Willie Donnellan

Readers with long memory will remember the visit of Kerry to Leitrim for a first ever League game in the county that had to be switched to Kenagh in Longford. Or what about the All-Ireland Qualifier against Tyrone that was abandoned early in the first half due to the waterlogged surface.

Leitrim’s aren’t alone in this - Mac Hale Park is closed right now for an upgrade to their pitch, Roscommon had to host the Dubs in Pairc Sean some years ago when the Hyde was unplayable and our hurlers head to Abbotstown next Saturday for their home game with Cavan but I don’t hear too much about that, I wonder why?

Maybe because this was a game we expected to win and win comfortably and when we didn’t, the anger had to find some target. There is a much larger and longer conversation here about the standard of pitches in the county but firing bullets here, there and everywhere isn’t going to achieve anything right now.

Interestingly, the one person who made no complaint about the change of venue was Andy Moran, indicative of the no-excuse culture prevalent in the Leitrim camp and when all was said and done, both teams faced the same conditions on the same pitch, the game was there to be won and London won.

Did Leitrim lose an advantage not having the game in Carrick? Certainly they did but I strongly suspect we'd be have a very different conversation right now had Keith Beirne’s injury time blaster found the net last Sunday!

In our thoughts: Finally, a word of sympathy to Leitrim GAA County Board Treasurer Martin McCartin and the entire McCartin family on the sudden passing of his brother Joe on Monday last. May he Rest In Peace.

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