An agonising two point defeat may have ended Leitrim’s dreams against Laois in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada last Saturday evening in the third round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers but the Green & Gold flag was nevertheless flying proudly and renewed at the end of 70 plus pulsating minutes.
Celebrating defeat is not something that comes natural to any sportsman and nobody in the Green & Gold was celebrating what they regarded as a missed opportunity but from the depths of despair in Castlebar, last Saturday’s display has reinvigorated the belief that a new look Leitrim could be about to embark on a new era.
As much as the defeat pains them, this largely inexperienced Leitrim team will come to realise that they delivered their best display in the face of odds that would have broken many a team.The spirit and fire displayed by a Leitrim team beset by emigration and injuries was a sight to see as they put a talented if suspect Laois team to the pin of their collars to escape with a victory from Pairc Sean.
Moral victories are something Leitrim are sick of and, to be honest, this wasn’t one of those as Laois deserved their win. They dominated possession in the second half and only for some awful profligacy in front of the posts, would have cantered home.
But the renewed confidence for the future comes not from the result, as heart-breaking and close as it was, but from the performance, from the defiance Leitrim have shown against the odds in recent weeks and the renewing of what seemed to be fading away over the last few years – the passionate support in the stands and on the terraces.
Who couldn’t but be inspired by the standing ovation Leitrim’s players received coming off the field at halftime as everyone connected with the Green & Gold dared to dream? And if Laois’ midfield mastery caused the crowd to go silent for a time, the waves of “Leitrim, Leitrim” and vociferous support pouring onto the field is enough to inspire any footballer.
Stand-in referee Martin Higgins was not exactly the flavour of the month with his decision to penalise Cathal McCrann for picking the ball off the ground but over the course of the match, the Fermanagh official did little harm to Leitrim, the timing of the decision the most damaging aspect.
More important was the Laois goal, arriving as it did in added time at the end of the first half. Leading by five points at the time, the goal changed the dynamic of the tie and settled a clearly disturbed Laois.
Who knows what might have happened had Leitrim gone into the break five up instead of three but it was a score that brought Laois back into a game they looked in danger of losing.
Neither did the confusion over the substitution of Kevin Conlan help late in the game, although after being brought back on after being mistakenly taken off, the Dromahair man showed little ill-effect with a marvellous long range effort.
The tactical battle were fascinating to say the least – Leitrim’s ploy of leaving Enda Williams in front of the backline paid huge dividends as Laois opted to play a man extra in defence but once Laois changed tack and pushed Billy Sheehan back into attack, William’s dominance was curtailed.
Laois made switches time and time again and not always with great effect – the opening 20 minutes of the second half saw them blitz Leitrim to go two in front. Whether it was the caution of their manager or over-confidence that the job was done, Laois again dropped a man back and Leitrim charged again, before Laois reverted to 15 on 15, an approach which brought them far more dividends.
In remarkably similar stats to the Wicklow game, an efficient Leitrim made the most of almost every single opportunity with only six wides over the 78 minutes while Laois registered a wasteful 17 wides.
In the end, the sheer dominance they enjoyed in the middle of the park ensured that Laois got over the line – the incredible display of Brendan Quigley almost certainly the difference between the teams.
In contrast, Leitrim’s approach was simple – flood the defence with bodies, cut off the long ball to the full-forward line and try to engineer time and space for Emlyn Mulligan to set up his forward colleagues.
For the first part, the tactic worked a treat once Leitrim could gain possession in their own half and work it pain-stakingly up the field. The plan might have been for Mulligan to feed James Glancy, fresh after an inspired display against Wicklow, but Laois were wise to the threat and the Manor man was largely nullified by Cahir Healy.
At one stage during the second half when James Glancy was standing on the edge of the square with his marker and not a Leitrim man outside his own fifty yard line as Leitrim’s defensive strategy saw everyone drop deep to restrict Laois.
With Glancy’s threat largely nullified, Ray Cox and Kevin Conlan stepped up a gear with the Annaduff man particularly dangerous in the first half, his pace and determination to win ball incredibly effective. Cox did fade in the second half but that was due more to Laois’ stranglehold on possession.
Kevin Conlan typified this Leitrim team – his goal and two long range points seize the attention, all three scores showing real belief, but it was his tireless work around the field, popping up in defence, offering an outlet for any passes and never ever allowing a Laois man to rest on the ball that will summed up his day.
Those qualities were on display in so many Green shirts – the exurburant work-rate, the refusal to bend the knee and a fanatical desire to get the ball that was infused in everyone in a Leitrim shirt.
Emlyn Mulligan showed laser like accuracy from frees and did his best to direct Leitrim while Paul Brennan, Alan Wynne, Colm Clarke and Paddy Maguire all had their moments.
Keeper Cathal McCrann was central to two incidents – the late free that gave Laois a two point cushion was harsh but more critical was the lack of protection he received for the Laois goal. Unaware that a Laois man was coming at him, the keeper went to field the ball but a Laois hand diverted the ball down to a waiting Conor Boyle for a goal that changed the course of the game.
Areas like midfield might not have functioned the way one hoped but the way Leitrim have reinvented themselves after the Mayo game, flooding huge number back in defence, denying opponents space and time and slowly working the ball up the field, has been remarkable.
There are draw-backs to the style and an onus to take every single opportunity that comes your way but in the absence of Wayne McKeon and Daniel Lowe, the change in approach necessitated by those absences seem to have unlocked a new fire in the Leitrim players.
Certainly the performance was a million miles away from not only McHale Park but also Ruislip and the development of this team in such a short space of time is testament to the incredible work behind the scenes done by Brian Breen & George Dugdale.
Of course, a critical eye will see areas to improve but perhaps a foundation has been laid for the future but only if Leitrim can retain the spine of this team and perhaps entice some of the absent and emigrated players back into the fold for next year.
The biggest danger is continued emigration with plenty of rumours surrounding the future of several players but if they can be kept together, a determined effort to get out of Division Four has to be the priority, to build a winning team and ensure a platform for the years to come.