Robbie Lowe puts the ball in the net four years ago - Leitrim will be looking for more of the same in Gaelic Park
Listening to Leitrim supporters in the last few days leading up to next enormous Sunday’s Connacht Senior Football Championship clash with New York, there are two distinct schools of thought emerging.
The first is that New York are primed to secure their first ever Championship win in Gaelic Park next Sunday (7.15 pm throw-in Irish time), their form of recent years against Sligo and Roscommon backed by an influx of top class talent as the Stateside Exiles are going full-out for victory.
The second, just as prevalent among fans who have seen Leitrim in action in challenge games, is that the Green & Gold are on course for an impressive victory, the troubles of the League well behind them as the pick up speed approaching the championship.
The truth is somewhere in between as Brendan Guckian’s side face another pressure laden championship opener, one that promises to test mental fortitude every bit as much as physical.
Leitrim manager Brendan Guckian, trainer Michael Moyles and selector John O'Mahony and Seamus Quinn on a trip to the 4G pitch at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence last Sunday. Photo by James Molloy
That New York are gunning for Leitrim is no surprise. Reports suggest they are training much harder than they ever did with their ambition of a first ever Championship win raised by superb performances against Roscommon and Sligo over the last two years.
Jamie Clarke is the headline addition but former County players litter the New York squad. Former Sligo keeper Vinny Cadden is between the sticks and Roscommon duo Neil Collins & Donal Ward may well be with Kevin McStay’s side if they were at home.
Mayo’s Tom Cunniffe is another familiar name to Leitrim fans while Kerry’s David Culhane presents a real threat to the Leitrim defence as does Crossmaglen’s Aaron Cunningham. Interestingly, former Leitrim player Enda Williams, who was brought in to train the team, came on as a halftime sub against Corofin last Thursday.
That Corofin game will have worried Leitrim fans a bit with New York winning 1-20 to 1-7 but again, hard to read too much into the game. Corofin arrived literally on the day of the game and were down about seven players from their All-Ireland Club winning team.
Leitrim's backroom team of Pat Guckian, Kevin Ludlow, Alan Doonan, Philip Howard, Enda Lyons and Ronan O'Rourke pictured at training at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence. Photo by James Molloy
Yet the total of 1-20 shows something New York weren’t exactly known for before - scoring freely and Clarke’s nine points with Culhane’s 1-2 clearly illustrate where the threat will come from.
Leitrim too have shown they can run up big scores, the 2-15 and 2-18 totals registered against Wicklow and Limerick indicative of a team that can score when they get the space and time, something their tally of 3-10 against promoted Laois also illustrates.
A ten point win over Sligo and a reported demolition of Waterford shows the forwards are in good form but no more than New York’s 1-20 against Corofin, chances are neither team will get the space and time they did in these games.
Generally matches against New York are hard hitting and fierce with the US side traditionally running out of steam late on. Hard to see that happening this year with New York reportedly training since January but Leitrim should still have an edge in fitness.
One thing Leitrim does have in abundance is speed and on a 4G pitch in Gaelic Park, Leitrim can cause real damage with the pace of Darragh Rooney, Ryan O’Rourke, Aidan Flynn, Conor Gaffney, Killian McGloin all in the mix.
The return of Emlyn Mulligan, Ronan Kennedy and Paddy Maguire gives Leitrim real options and it is hard to see anyone other than Maguire picking up Jamie Clarke. Both Mulligan and Kennedy are finishers and along with Keith Beirne, there is real scoring power there.
Leitrim captain Donal Wrynn. Photo by James Molloy
New York are judged to be slightly weak in the middle of the park but trying to nail down a starting Leitrim midfield is tough with Colm Moreton, Dean McGovern, Mark Plunkett, Domhnaill Flynn and Keith Keegan all in contention.
But what will stand to Leitrim most of all is that they are aware of the very real threat New York pose. Now that might bring it's own pressure but Leitrim went through this last year with London and came through with flying colours.
Defeat, needless to say, would be an enormous set-back for Leitrim football but from talking to players and management, there is a real awareness in the camp of how high the stakes truly are next Sunday.
It will be very tough and going on the Leitrim's early season performances, the prospect of a New York win are real. But Leitrim have knuckled down impressively and, true to cliche, are focused only on New York next Sunday and nothing else.
It's going to be nail biting, it might not even be pretty but an ugly one point win would do this writer. And when it comes down to it, I think Leitrim have the self-belief and talent to edge through.