Whatever dreams Leitrim travelled to Elvery’s McHale Park with last Sunday were ruthlessly turned into nightmare as Connacht Champions Mayo delivered a truly depressing and demoralising 22 point hammering in the Provincial Championship Semi-Final.
After a weekend that saw the County Minors suffer an 18 point demolition against Roscommon and the Ladies surprisingly lose by the narrowest of margins in the game’s first day in Castlebar, the destruction of the Men’s Senior team completed a truly depressing weekend for Leitrim football.
Not many Leitrim supporters travelled to McHale Park firmly believing that a shock victory was on the cards but the scale of the defeat and the manner in which Mayo swatted aside the Leitrim challenge in the second half was desperately hard to take for a team who have suffered blow after blow all year.
For 30 minutes, a battling Leitrim seemed to defy all pre-match odds by holding tight to the coat-tails of a slick and fast moving Mayo, recovering from conceding an Alan Freeman goal to trail by just three points with five minutes of the half remaining.
Getting into the halftime break trailing by three or four points would have represented a good half’s return for a Leitrim team struggling to contain Mayo’s surging runs through the centre of defence and immense power all over the field.
Kicking long and using the space incredibly well, Leitrim’s forwards worked off scraps to give Emlyn Mulligan the chance to score, scores he took with aplomb while an over-worked defence and midfield struggled manfully to contain a Mayo side who obviously went into the game brimming with arrogance and a hunger to secure a place on their starting 15.
But just as Leitrim supporters dared to dream when two Mulligan points pared a five point Mayo lead back to three, disaster struck as Mayo surged through the middle once more, a move that ended with Andy Moran driving the ball past the despairing out-stretched leg of captain Paddy Maguire on the Leitrim goal-line.
That score, more than anything, killed off the encounter as a Leitrim team, already reeling from the loss of Wayne McKeon and soon to lose Shane Moran, were dealt a devastating sucker-punch.
McKeon’s injury, after coming back from two broken fingers in the London game, was a ferocious disappointment while young Moran had started brightly but once he suffered a shuddering challenge, his day was done with a leg injury.
Emlyn Mulligan displayed an accuracy that would be welcome on any team in the country, particularly someone like Kildare, while Paul Brennan, Darren Sweeney, Paddy Maguire, Enda Williams, James Glancy, Fabian McMorrow & Paddy McGowan fought manfully and with great resolve.
The second half turned into a procession as Mayo kept the pedal down hard, even going so far as to drill home a goal in the last minute of normal time, at a time when they already led by 18 points, a result that does absolutely no justice to the effort displayed by the Leitrim players.
Mayo, more than anyone else, seem to delight in handing out horrendous beatings and if they get their tails up, the reigning Champions have always been the one team in Connacht consistently capable of pounding a team into the ground – just ask Roscommon in 2008!
Leitrim have not suffered a defeat of that magnitude since Galway administered a 19 point hammering in 2001 and the manner in which the home side kept going for goals invoked memories of the horrible days of the 70s and 80s when Mayo seemed to especially delight in running up enormous scores against the Green & Gold.
Manager George Dugdale opined afterwards that his Leitrim players didn’t deserve to receive such a beating and, to a point, he is absolutely correct. The passion displayed by the Leitrim players, their absolute commitment in the face of such over-whelming odds deserved better than a 22 point hammering.
Nobody needs reminding of the scale of player losses in the past four or five years. If last week’s article in the Irish Independent was ever so slightly mis-leading, the fact that Leitrim lost seven starters from last year’s Championship team, four of whom were situated in the defence, is a far more relevant stat.
At times in the past, you could legitimately question the dedication or commitment in some Leitrim matches but from what I have observed first hand this year, that is certainly not the question with this current Leitrim set-up.
The effort they have put in, the commitment to the cause and their obvious pride in representing Leitrim are all something that deserves far more but you can’t afford to lose seven first choice players from one year to the next and still deliver the same level of performance.
Last year’s victory over Sligo, an unexpected and welcome surprise, was our first over a “first tier” Connacht county since we last defeated Sligo in 2005 and although it is the 2012 squad who will endure the barbs of defeat, the roots of last Sunday’s defeat lie much deeper.
No Minor championship win since 2002, no Under 21 Championship defeat since 1998, the supply lines to the County Senior team are obviously not good as results bear out and the miracle is that the County Senior team performs as well as it does.
That is down to the immense effort being put in by players and management over the last 10 years but with the gap appearing to widen dramatically over the past three years, something needs to be done urgently.
Former County Board Chairman Gerry McGovern, in fairness, tried to do something when he commissioned a review of the underage structures in the county but despite producing a report full of progressive and far thinking reforms, reforms that were greeted with much acclaim at the County Board Senior Convention, delegates at Coiste na nOg unceremoniously threw most of the report out.
Three years down the line, some reforms have taken place and efforts have stepped up at County underage squads but much more needs to be done.
Leitrim GAA fans look on enviously across the bridge at Roscommon’s underage team but given the differences in population, a far better example is our other neighbour Longford who, with roughly the same population, have consistently competed at Minor and U-21 level in recent years and are now reaping the benefits at Senior level.
This year’s campaign is not finished yet and, depending on injuries and the draw, I wouldn’t rule out a good performance in the Qualifier but the work must start now if days like last Sunday are not to become a regular feature of Leitrim GAA’s future.