Drawn against last year’s All-Ireland finalists may not give cause for hope when Leitrim travel to Newry next Saturday for the second round of the All-Ireland Football Championship qualifiers but Mickey Moran’s side have nothing to lose when they take on Down in Pairc Esler.
It may have seemed a draw from hell but with Leitrim’s penchant for performing above expectations against top teams in the past and giving it a real lash when the odds seem against it, the Green & Gold are hoping to create history in their first ever championship encounter with the five time All-Ireland winners.
The chances of a first ever victory in the Qualifiers seemed remote when Leitrim drawn out of the hat to face James McCartan’s team next Saturday, a feeling that hardened with the news over the last week that Leitrim will go into the game without two first choice defenders Ronan Gallagher and Wayne McKeon.
The Mohill man will miss the clash with a ruptured hamstring but the absence of McKeon is more controversial as Leitrim manager Mickey Moran revealed to the Leitrim Observer that the Ballinamore Sean O’Heslin’s club-man was asked to leave the panel (see side-bar).
“We have to be fair to all the people on the panel who give 100% commitment and we made that decision because we could not look the other boys in the face,” Moran said of the absence of McKeon, “And that will be the same for anybody who does not live up to the standards we set in terms of commitment, sacrifice, discipline and whatever.”
The loss of Gallagher is less problematic in that John McKeon is an instant replacement but the Leitrim manager feels the loss of the full-back – “Ronan is out, he ruptured his hamstring in a club game two weeks ago, it is very bad, he is not even able to train.
“Ronan has had laser and physio and that. He has been fantastic, he has found his spot this year and he is a great whole-hearted player, it is very disappointing for him, a lovely lad. John will be coming in at this stage, a recognised full-back taking the place.”
Darren Sweeney and Brian McDonald impressed when introduced against Roscommon and Moran admits that the Glencar/Manorhamilton duo, along with a number of others, are pushing hard for starting places against Down.
“Darren & Brian did well and will be pushing for a starting place but there is a serious push from other lads. Picking the team for Roscommon was difficult enough but that is the way you want it. This year we have plenty of options around the pitch if anybody is injured or isn’t available.”
Although the draw isn’t favourable, there is a sense that Leitrim are throwing caution to the wind and the Leitrim manager is conscious of that – “The draw is done, it was the same last year with Kildare. We’ll just take it the way it comes but we’re looking forward to it to be honest.
“It would be nice to get a home draw for supporters on a Saturday but Newry is a great pitch, a great stadium and the lads should do well on it.”
Looking at Down and their close escape against Clare in the first round of the Qualifiers, Mickey thinks the Mourne men will be tougher opposition than what they produced in Ennis – “They got a close call in Clare but anybody who has gone down to Clare know it is sticky opposition down there.
“They have Danny Hughes who will probably be back and he is a big player for them in the half-forward line. They will probably have Liam Doyle, it will be his second match back and he is a good player so they will be a wee bit stronger than they were going to Clare because they had a few injuries and of course, Martin Clarke is back.”
Perhaps one element of the lack of nerves is the belief that the occasion got to a young Leitrim team in the Connacht Semi-Final against Roscommon and Moran believes that the pre-match excitement and hype did not help but he believes that his troops have rediscovered their confidence.
“Everyone is disappointed, there was so much hype before that game and I think it got to the lads because there was that much hype around the county. It was difficult after that for a week or so but to be fair, we’ve regrouped pretty and the attitude and training is going pretty well at the minute.”
That belief will be tested by the absence of Ronan Gallagher & Wayne McKeon and although the return of John McKeon off-sets the loss somewhat, they are two absentees that Leitrim cannot truly afford to do without.
The evergreen John McKeon will slot into full-back with Dermot Reynolds and Paddy Maguire alongside them but they face an equally tough task with the likes of Benny Coulter and Conor Laverty capable of running up big scores.
With Martin Clarke, Mark Poland and Danny Hughes in the half-forward, Down play a short-passing and hard pressing game, tackling back in huge numbers to pressurise the opposition. The task for Leitrim will be to escape that first line of attack and get the ball into the Down half as there is a suspicion that Down’s defence is not the most effective.
Although the defence suffered a torrid time against Roscommon, the major improvement must come further out the field as Leitrim were simply unable to secure first phase possession, lost the aerial midfield duel and the key battle for loose ball.
Both half-back and half-forward lines will need a massive improvement in that regard as Down specialise in dropping players back and swarming around the ball carrier.
Leitrim will also want to avoid running into the cul-de-sacs that Roscommon suckered them into in Pairc Sean as Down are just as intensely physical and strong and a light Leitrim must move the ball quicker and with more accuracy.
Although Down’s close shave in Ennis should give Leitrim some hope travelling to Newry, it will also fore-warn the home side of the danger of taking any team for granted and it took a spectacular last gasp diving save from goal-hero Laverty to deny Clare a famous victory.
Both teams will be looking to regain lost ground – Down from their astounding run to last year’s All-Ireland Final and Leitrim from the victory over Sligo, a victory that was being reassessed in the aftermath of the loss to Roscommon.
Of course, if Roscommon go on to win the Nestor Cup, that semi-final loss might be reassessed too but the task for Mickey Moran and his back-room team is to re-instill the confidence from that victory in Markievicz Park.
Honesty compels us to admit that Down are over-whelming favourites and have the players to back that up.
But what Leitrim fans will be looking first and foremost for is a committed display, showing the heart and spirit of Markievicz Park and if that is not good enough on the day, as long as Leitrim produce their best, then the dedicated hard core support will be happy.