If the pressure was never as intense on Leitrim as it was in Ruislip at the beginning of the month, then the County Senior footballers face an altogether different prospect next Sunday in Castlebar’s McHale Park when they face reigning Champions Mayo in the Connacht Senior Championship (3.30 throw-in).
Compared with the scenarios that preceded the trip across the Irish sea, Leitrim have absolutely nothing to lose as they attempt to bring off what would be considered to be one of the greatest shocks in the history of the GAA next Sunday.
Mayo are the reigning Connacht kingpins, contested the National League Final and last year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final and present as formidable a challenge as there is the country – and all that without ever considering the famed McHale Park hoodoo!
Leitrim’s woes in Castlebar have been well documented and there is not much to be gained from going over and over them again, suffice to say that the Green & Gold have suffered their fair share of heavy defeats and heart-rending narrow losses with no team from the county ever tasting victory there.
Even as they analysed the footage from Ruislip, RTE were writing off Leitrim’s chances against Mayo and as much as manager James Horan is stressing that the Leitrim challenge will be taken seriously, Mayo’s fans and neutrals can only see one outcome.
But perversely, that very fact could be a liberating one for the Green & Gold next Sunday –McHale Park has never been a happy hunting ground for the Green & Gold but as Sligo showed against Galway, hoodoos are there to be broken!
After emerging from the psychological furnace that was Ruislip, a mentally toughened Leitrim will have drawn more than just having a championship match under their belts – the boost to the confidence of a young, new look Leitrim side is immeasurable. When you consider that Leitrim traditionally play their best when underdogs, it should all add up to the perfect ingredients for an ambush.
Now, we’re not losing the run of ourselves - Sunday’s game is a tremendously difficult prospect and Mayo will rightly start as favourites due to their pedigree, resources, history and recent record but Leitrim are hoping to fall in the foot-steps of Sligo and Clare in reaching Provincial Finals against the odds.
Sligo’s victory may have Mayo forewarned of an ambush but it will also have them on edge, something the home side have never been comfortable with, and if Leitrim can start well and frustrate James Horan’s side, the pressure will come crashing down from the stands.
But Mayo are definitely a different proposition to London – the two can’t be compared but in one area, they do have something in common as both will go into their meetings with Leitrim with little competitive action to their name.
London’s problems were caused by their remoteness but Mayo haven’t had a competitive encounter since they lost the Division One Final to Cork. That loss may have been a set-back but the manner in which James Horan’s side etched out a hard fought win over Kerry in the semi-final after extra-time suggests a new found mental strength.
For Leitrim, injury worries are as much of a concern as the debilitating loss of Ciaran Egan – the Gortletteragh man will be a major loss, his physical presence at full-back would have been much needed against a physically imposing Mayo attack and it will cause major problems in light of the injury worries Leitrim have since suffered.
Wayne McKeon suffered broken fingers in Ruislip but the hope is that the Ballinamore man will be able to take his place. Reports suggest that Daniel Lowe will miss out due to injury and Leitrim will badly miss his physical presence.
Mayo too have had their injury worries but the expected return of the O’Shea brothers and the return of Ronan McGarrity to the fold will ensure that the champions have plenty of options.
Upfront, Conor Mortimer will lead the way but with Horan able to choose from last year’s young player of the year Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran, Martin Conroy, Alan Dillon, Jason Doherty & Kevin McLoughlin will pose a far more significant threat than London’s forwards. In defence, Mayo are mobile and strong and although Mayo might be short of their stars in the middle of the field, the home team will nevertheless expect to have dominance there too.
Traditionally, Mayo have played an expansive game but under James Horan, a more defensive, modern approach has been adopted which will make it harder for Leitrim to work out scores. Emlyn Mulligan showed real leadership when the pressure was on against London and will need to do the same against Mayo, although a more economic return is needed.
James Glancy & Ray Cox can cause problems, particularly if they get quick low ball in - both are ideally suited to working against the odds but they will need better support from out the field. Robbie Lowe might be added to the mix after a strong showing as a sub but Paddy McGowan is definitely worth another shot, his physical strength will be a huge asset.
Shane Moran and Enda Williams are both likely to start, particularly in the absence of Ciaran Egan, but the defence may see a radical restructuring with the full-back position needing to be filled. Paddy Maguire or Fabian McMorrow would both seem like candidates for the job but there are options that include moving Paul Brennan back into defence while Alan Wynne, St. Mary’s James Glancy and Colm Clarke could all be asked to fill in at corner-back.
It adds up to more uncertainty than Brian Breen and George Dugdale would like ahead of a big game but this year is very much a learning process for a young Leitrim side.
The first test was passed with style in London, the next is far more daunting but a fearless display, playing with discipline and commitment, is something that can be built upon in the years to come.
In fairness, the Leitrim camp seems to be revelling in the challenge - minutes after the win in London, George Dugdale said “Wins like that bring you on no end that no amount of training can” while Brian Breen said “The prize for winning today is a trip to McHale Park, something we’re going to enjoy.”
And if you think that those words are just management talk, Enda Williams and Paul Brennan were of the same mind! Paul said “Mayo, I tell you, I’d not be one bit afraid of coming into Mayo. We’ll get them in Castlebar, good sunny weather, anything can happen!” while Enda added – “As far as people are concerned, it is a no-win situation for us but we’re going down to Castlebar, shackles will be off and hopefully we can express ourselves and play.”
That is the attitude Leitrim must carry into Sunday’s game – Mayo are favourites and you must expect them to win but regardless of the final result, a strong, defiant performance can lay out a template for the future development of this Leitrim team for years to come.