Action from London's victory over Leitrim in this year's Allianz NFL Division 4 meeting between the counties in Bekan Picture: Willie Donnellan
Tailteann Cups, new All-Ireland structures and an All-Ireland Final in July may mean a brave new world for those counties plying their trade in Divisions 3 & 4 of the Allianz Football Leagues but when it comes to Leitrim football, the one true test of their resolve is often how they fare against London in Ruislip.
It has ever been thus - I’ve been lucky enough to cover games going back as far as 1992 and apart from that very first trip to McGovern Emerald Park, Leitrim have never had it easy when they do battle with London in Ruislip.
Next Sunday’s Connacht SFC Quarter-Final has followed the script of the past 30 years with Leitrim fans growing more and more worried the closer the game gets with rumours of new additions to the Exiles ranks and the knowledge that the Green & Gold never get it easy making it an uncomfortable journey across the Irish sea.
Two new wrinkles have been added to the mix - London’s thoroughly deserved 2-5 to 0-9 victory over Andy Moran’s side in the League in February has ramped up the pressure, the thought of adding to the fabled defeats of 1977 and 2013 causing quite an amount of unease among the expected large Leitrim travelling support.
Some dismissed that result due to the change in venue and the conditions but anyone doing so would be foolish for London demonstrated organisation, a defined game plan and superb fitness - three aspects of the game that has often let them down in the past.
Truth be told, I'd have this London team as the best organised I have seen in my time with the Observer and that is saying something!
But it is more recent events that has Leitrim fans on edge as Keith Beirne has been ruled out of the game due to suspension, his dismissal against Sligo in the final round of the League a huge blow for an anxious Leitrim team who has relied hugely on his personal tally of 2-42 throughout the Division 4 campaign.
We can’t say Beirne’s dismissal was controversial because nobody saw it apart from, reportedly, one of the umpires but what we can say is that the one match ban for the Mohill man is potentially a match defining one.
That Leitrim have talented players to step into Beirne’s boots, as it were, is not in doubt - Ryan O’Rourke, Darragh Rooney and Tom Prior are three exciting forwards and all three are accomplished freetakers for their clubs, not forgetting about Emlyn Mulligan who is featuring off the bench so far this year.
Donal Wrynn, Dean McGovern, Domhnaill Flynn and Mark Plunkett have been known to blast a few placed balls from long range over the bar, so, on paper, Andy Moran’s have the players to cope with Beirne’s absence.
But it is illuminating that in Leitrim’s three losses in the League to Cavan, London and Sligo, the Mohill man was held to no more than five points and he was still the Green & Gold’s top scorer in each encounter.
Leitrim's strengths under Andy Moran have lay in the forward division, scoring 11 goals in seven League matches but instructive to note that in two of Leitrim's team defeats against Cavan and London, no goals were scored as Leitrim were held to eight and nine points.
Firepower is not a problem with an average of almost 20 points a game in the other five games with London averaging just over 1-10 a game in their seven league outings. But the London men were involved in far more close contests, twice winning by one point and losing two contests by no more than two points.
Defensively, London's concession of 8-89 over their seven league outings is 11 points worse than Leitrim's concession of 9-75 but their tally is skewed by the hammering Sligo gave them in round 5, an 18 point defeat very much at odds with their miserly defence over the rest of the games.
Leitrim conceded 9-75 over their seven games, an average of just over 14.5 points a game which would appear to give Andy Moran's side a definite advantage stats wise but as so many will point out, you can prove anything with stats.
Leitrim conceded one more goal than London over the League and it was the Exiles goals that did the damage in Bekan while the performances of Michael Maher's side in pushing Cavan and Tipperary to the limit in their final league outings very strongly suggests that London are definitely not running out of steam any time soon.
Physically, the Exiles are an imposing bunch and if you look at their footballing pedigree, they're not lacking in that department by any means. One wonders if they might lack a little pace but it was very hard to judge that in the gale and rained that lashed down on Bekan back in February.
One thing I can say with certainty is that the old days of London just bashing and walloping everything that came within their orbit before running out of steam are long gone - let there be no absolutely doubt that Michael Maher has his team fit and disciplined.
It may turn out that Beirne’s absence will concentrate Leitrim minds even more. They may have lost just twice to London in their championship history but those defeats in 1977 and 2013 are regarded as the nadir of Leitrim’s footballing history, even more than record setting losses against Mayo or Armagh in the Qualifiers.
But it's not just the losses that stick in the minds of Leitrim fans when they contemplate the challenge next Sunday but rather the certain knowledge that no matter how well Leitrim are going, London always raise their game for the visit of the Green & Gold - many a Leitrim fan has squirmed through an uncommonly uncomfortable afternoon in Emerald Park Ruislip.
Ten years ago, Leitrim needed a couple of late points to squeeze by the Exiles, an experience that presaged a tumultuous Connacht Semi-Final defeat a year later in Dr Hyde Park while the controversial 1997 win, helped by a dubious penalty that earned Leitrim a draw before the Green & Gold crushed London in extra time, means no Leitrim fan will take this contest for granted.
London’s 2-5 to 0-9 League win has raised those stakes even further, causing quite a few Leitrim supporters to reconsider their decision to head across to Ruislip for the championship game.
But Leitrim supporters will still head in droves to London where they’ll be joined by hundreds of Leitrim exiles from all around the UK for what is generally a celebration of the county - provided of course the Green & Gold come out on top!
London’s impressive 2022 form means they are a serious threat to Leitrim - some argued that they got a run of good results against weaker teams in the early part of the league but their performances against Leitrim, Cavan and Tipperary suggest that Michael Maher’s team are no flash in the pan.
But in the strange world of GAA psychology, part of me wonders if Michael Maher’s men might have done themselves no favours because, in winning the league fixture, there is absolutely no danger of complacency or overconfidence in the Leitrim camp right now.
To say that Leitrim minds have been concentrated by that result would be to put it mildly and the drama over Keith Beirne’s red card has upped the drama among Leitrim fans. But it will also have the 15 Leitrim footballers who do take to the field aggressively focused because this is a game they will be judged on for years to come.
Jim Gavin attracted much derision when he spoke of tackling the minnows of Leinster with the same focus the Dubs would reserve for Mayo or Kerry but the famed “process” is something Andy Moran's troops must heed next Sunday in Ruislip.
No matter the pressure building from hordes of anxious Leitrim supporters or even previews like this or even the self-imposed expectations and worries that exist for every footballer who has ever laced up boots, each Leitrim player has got to realise that performing on the pitch is all that matters - everything else is noise and outside their control.
It is why the mental battle is just as important as the physical one next Sunday. We know these Leitrim footballers have the ability to deliver a victory in Ruislip but they'll do well to remember that for all the distractions involved in crossing the Irish sea, it remains a game that will be the one by the team who does the basics best.
The prize for the winner is not an enticing one - a meeting with either Mayo or Galway but it is a prize nonetheless because the fallout of a Leitrim loss in Ruislip would reverberate, not just for the rest of the year, but for years to come.
The pressure is immense on both sides - unfamiliar expectations swirl around London and that brings its own pressures but playing at home is certainly worth a few points. For Leitrim, with all the hope for the future that came with Andy Moran’s appointment, they simply have to win if they want to build for the coming years.
Part of me believed that London’s League win would ultimately focus Leitrim minds so much that they will emerge with the victory next Sunday but Keith Beirne’s absence complicates matters.
Yet, I still believe Leitrim have the scoring quality to prevail - providing they don’t let the occasion get to them next Sunday and that’s no easy task, nerves and pressure causing many a good footballer to stumble over the years.
Win and the year could open up with the Tailteann Cup a tangible target for any team with designs on taking the next step. But first you have to win and whatever about championship runs and Tailteann Cups, victory in Ruislip remains the true litmus test for all Leitrim teams!
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