Leitrim Ladies manager Hugh Donnelly Picture: Willie Donnellan
Leitrim Ladies head into a make or break TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Intermediate Championship clash next Sunday, November 8, in Mullahoran knowing that their clash with Meath is very much a case of win or burst.
Meath have already defeated Down 0-11 to 1-6 in the group stages, meaning that a win for the Royal County would kill the group stone dead, rendering Leitrim’s final group game against Down meaningless with only the top team from each group to qualify for the semi-final stages.
It means that Sunday’s contest is an old fashioned knockout championship clash for Leitrim Ladies and manager Hugh Donnelly is relishing the challenge of taking on the two time All-Ireland Intermediate finalists.
“It has been a strange year, we’re looking forward to getting back into competitive action,” said Hugh when chatting the Observer on Tuesday, “With the way things are, we’ve been restricted with our challenge games so preparation hasn’t been ideal but we’re looking forward to getting a crack at Meath.”
The fact that the game is a must win for Leitrim could have been avoided Hugh believes with a bit of scheduling from the LGFA: “I suppose when the LGFA were sitting down and sorting out fixtures, they might have maybe changed the fixtures and let ourselves and Down play first and have something to play for.
“Now Down are hoping that we take something off Meath and then leave it to the last game with something to play for. If we don’t perform on Sunday and get the result that we want, the last fixture is a dead rubber so maybe with hindsight, maybe they could have looked at fixtures a bit differently.
“But it is an opportunity for us to go out and perform against one of the top teams at intermediate level. They were beaten twice in the All-Ireland Final so we’re under no illusions of the task ahead of us but it is something we are going to look forward to and relish and hopefully we can get something from the game.”
Neither did Meath’s victory over Down reveal much for the Leitrim boss with the weather dominating the contest: “The conditions were absolutely dreadful by all accounts and all we’ve learned is that both teams can defend in numbers and it was really a case of who was best at moving forward in the attacking phases and who could get themselves into scoring opportunities.”
Yet even with the odds against Leitrim, Hugh believes that Sunday’s game is a great opportunity for Leitrim footballers and he has been heartened by the response he has received from the players.
“It has been really good, we’re probably down a few players from the National League but we’ve brought in 10 or 12 players and they have responded really well. We’ve had them only a month or five weeks or so so they have a lot to learn, a lot to catch up on how we’re going to play. But the girls have grasped the opportunity.
“We’re going to look to ourselves and play to our strengths. If we do that, minimise our risks, minimise our mistakes, this game will be a lot tighter than a lot of people would expect I would think.”
On the back of a very exciting Club Championship campaign, Hugh was very impressed with the standard of club football: “It was my first opportunity to cast an eye over Ladies football in Leitrim and I was more than happy with what was out there.
“Even right down to Intermediate and into the Junior, the standard of football is not bad in Leitrim. We brought in 12 players on top of what we had and it is a lovely balance of youth and experience and it is up to try and put the pieces together.”
But the message from Hugh to both his players and everyone else is that next Sunday’s clash with Meath is just the first step on a long road: “I made this very clear to the County Board and to the players when we came back, it is not that I want to disrespect this competition but we’re using the rest of this year as preparation for 2021 and the national league.
“Only for Covid, there was a very strong possibility that we would have been in the Division 4 League final and maybe promoted to Division 3 so we put in a serious amount of hard work over the first five months of 2020.
“We’re going to use this competition, over the course of the next two games, to put things in place and to have a good look at players.”
And Hugh urged his players to grab this opportunity: “At the end of the day, we’re playing two top teams in intermediate and no better way to gain experience and for the younger girls to gain experience and for us as a management team to see how girls perform at a higher level.
“It is a win-win for everybody and an opportunity for the girls to put themselves up against opposition who have played in two All-Ireland Intermediate finals.”