Wild celebrations as the Nestor Cup is lifted - the 1994 triumph was the highlight of an incredible decade for Leitrim GAA. Photo by Willie Donnellan
We’re in the middle of the Club only month of April in the GAA world and yet the disconnect between the club and county games seems as wide as ever. But it wasn’t always like that in Leitrim and it doesn’t have to be like that in the future!
There was a time when the strength of the Leitrim County team was reflected by our club teams, when our County team rubbed shoulders with the very best in the country and our club teams caused tremors all over Connacht!
The 1990s were without doubt the greatest ever era for Leitrim football. From 1990 to 2000, Leitrim teams at Club and County level were the equal of anyone in Connacht.
Now some will spring to the defence of the Pakie McGarty & Cathal Flynn inspired Leitrim side who reached four Connacht Finals in a row in the late 50s and early 60s while our Juniors won Connacht titles and a Minor team led by Josie Murray contested the All-Ireland Minor Final in 1956.
It was a glorious era and that McGarty-Flynn-Dolan Leitrim team remains, in my mind at least, the most loved team ever to don the County colours but in terms of success, the 1990s sets the benchmark for Club and County.
A simple list of the county’s achievements in the 1990s underlines the arguments:
1990: All-Ireland Senior B Championship winners, Fr Manning Cup winners, Connacht U21 Finalists
1991: Connacht U21 Championship winners, Connacht Minor finalists
1993: First win for a Leitrim Senior team against Galway since 1949
1994: Connacht Senior Championship winners
1998: Connacht Minor Football Championship, Connacht U21 Championship finalists
2000: Connacht Senior Championship Finalists
But it was a success built on the strength of Club football in the county, a very different club football to what we have at the moment.
Championship was straight knockout then, started in July and all over by the last Sunday in August. County games were spread out over Autumn and Spring and there were probably only three divisions in the club game and no Junior B or C competitions.
The Intermediate Championship was just a year or two in existence and underage football was confined to a Towns Championship comprising of 15-a-side teams from St. Mary’s, Allen Gaels, Sean O’Heslin’s, Mohill and Glencar/Manorhamilton while everyone else played the Rural Championship at 13-a-side level.
But those differences might just have been strengths as between 1990 and 1998, four, yes I wrote FOUR, four different Leitrim clubs reached Connacht Club Championship Finals.
Sean O’Heslin’s in 1990, Aughawillan in 1992 and 1994, St. Mary’s Kiltoghert in 1995 and Allen Gaels in 1998 all contested Provincial deciders.
And it wasn’t that Connacht was going through a fallow period in that spell - Clan na Gael had reached four All-Ireland Finals in a row up to 1990 while Ballinamore were beaten by a Salthill Knocknacarra team who would reach the Final, as did Castlebar Mitchels in 1994.
And Allen Gaels came up against a Corofin team who would go on to become the first Connacht team to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup in 1998, a victory that presaged Galway’s own lifting of the Sam Maguire later in the year.
Leitrim clubs were more than competitive in this era and it fed into the County team, just as the County’s success lifted the ambitions of the county’s clubs, both feeding each other and driving the other on.
Aughawillan, Gortletteragh and Sean O’Heslin’s had dominated the Club Championship in the 1980s but Allen Gaels burst onto the scene in 1991 in a way you simply cannot underestimate and with them came new horizons, new ambitions and new targets for the likes of Aughavas, Melvin Gaels, Glencar/Manorhamilton and a fabulous Fenagh St. Caillin’s team who surely deserved at least one Fenagh Cup in that era.
The knockout element added to the excitement and I can still picture the traffic games in Carrickmakeegan when Drumreilly’s ground hosted the 1991 meeting of Ballinamore and Aughawillan; scenes repeated in 1996 when Ballinaglera hosted St. Mary’s and Fenagh, both games first round ties and repeats of the previous year’s final.
What was equally impressive in the 1990s was the way the Clubs and the County got behind whoever was representing Leitrim in Connacht Club competition - thousands descended on Aughawillan when they hosted two Provincial decider and I can still picture the throng of Leitrim fans from every club in Tuam when St. Mary’s were on their way to Corofin in 1995.
So what changed?
There’s a million and one different theories but there is no getting away from the fact that bad decisions with long-terms consequences still being felt today were made by clubs and county board when it came to structures at adult and juvenile level in the early 2000s.
The group system was introduced in 2000 but disastrously was expanded to 16 teams soon after and then 20! In a County with just 24 clubs!
Instead of raising the standard, it was decimated and it is no coincidence that the St. Mary’s team of 2003 and the Kiltubrid team of 2006 had come up through the old system, the last two Leitrim club teams to really test the eventual Connacht winners.
In concert with that decision, underage football was hugely expanded but not in the right way. The introduction of 9 and 11-a-side football might have catered for very small clubs but very soon, clubs were dropping down levels to ensure they could win a title with their 9 or 10 best players instead of trying to develop 15 to 20 players.
It meant two or three generation of players came up through the ranks playing a style of football that has no resemblance whatsoever to the adult game, the amount of space and time they had on the ball curtailing their development as footballers and led to a game that relied on two or three players running up and down the field all day.
So what can be done?
First, clubs, not the County Board or the County team, have to step up in the big way.
They are the one producing the raw talent and they have to take some hard decisions with a much longer term view in mind. Some decisions may mean pain in the short-term but in the long term it will pay off for everyone.
We need to make it harder, not easier, to win a Club Championship - back in the 1990s, it was dog eat dog and nobody missed the championship. Make it harder to win, harder to reach the knockout stages and make the eventual winners work harder to lift the Fenagh Cup and it will benefit everyone in the long term.
Steps are being taken to reverse the damage in recent years but it is hard to be hopeful with the glacially slow pace of change.
Back in 2007, then County Board Chairman Gerry McGovern and Secretary Declan Bohan tried to implement at underage something very similar to what has been done in the last two years ago. Their efforts were smacked down hard by clubs at Coiste na nOg level and suddenly ten years, ten years worth of Leitrim footballers at all levels, were lost in the blink of an eye.
Has it changed? I’m not so sure because as welcome as the new structures in underage football are, we saw clubs vote against reducing the Adult Leagues to ten teams per Division just last December, a move that would have led to a reduction in Championship teams in due course.
But again clubs voted short term, not long term and not for the greater good, and then we wonder why the County team is struggling in Division 4?
The Club game and the County game should compliment each other - just look at Dublin and the success of Dublin clubs in Leinster and All-Ireland. Or Galway hurling teams and the strength of their club game.
The sooner everyone in Leitrim realises that, the better off we’re all going to be. It’s over to you now clubs!