Eleven doesn’t seem a particularly lucky number but it was 11th time lucky last Saturday as a defiant and injury hit Leitrim put a decade of heartache behind them to finally record their first ever victory in the All-Ireland Football Championship Qualifiers before an ecstatic Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada crowd.
After ten previous outings in the Qualifiers that yielded some devastating heart-breaks, some heavy defeats and more than a few disappointments, Leitrim finally became the last county to record their first Qualifier win with a heart-warming win over Division 4 Champions Wicklow.
Led by a superb Man of the Match in James Glancy and directed by the vision and leadership of Emlyn Mulligan, Leitrim produced a wonderful performance that not many were expecting, full of heart, spirit and pride to provoke an outpouring of joy and raw emotion Saturday evening.
To see a Leitrim team cheered off the field by esctastic supporters just three weeks after one of the county’s most sobering defeats in the Connacht Championship is a testament to the wonderful unpredictability of sport and a tribute to the resilience of this current Leitrim side.
Without so many players from last year and further hampered by the loss of Wayne McKeon and Daniel Lowe in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, Leitrim’s players ran themselves to a standstill, tackled everything that moved and gave every last ounce of energy to prevent Wicklow from emerging with the win last Saturday.
An immense display of sheer will and determination saw Leitrim chase lost causes and brought a great reaction from the Leitrim support in the 3,346 crowd in Pairc Sean, a rousing cheer off the field at halftime and wild celebrations once the final whistle sounded.
Leitrim have often played much better in the Qualifiers with no reward but up against a Wicklow side that seemed either lack-lustre or over-confident, Leitrim withstood immense pressure and did what far more talented Leitrim teams have never done – win a Qualifier game.
Leitrim’s attacking play on the break, led by five wonderful points from play from James Glancy, saw them miss very, very little and if the Green & Gold ‘won’ a few frees over the 70 minutes, they were no more than their immense effort deserved.
Some of Leitrim’s scores were top class and with Enda Williams, Paddy Maguire and debutant Alan Wynne putting in immense efforts in the rearguard along with exhaustive efforts from Paddy McGowan and Paul Brennan, the Green & Gold certainly deserved their day in the sun.
One must admit that luck, so often desperately against Leitrim in the past, was in the Green & Gold’s favour last Saturday, no more so when an umpire awarded James Glancy a point that most in the press box and television pictures would suggest tailed wide in the first half.
Wicklow may well be wondering just how they lost last Saturday’s wonderfully entertaining tie and in fairness, they would have a case.
Just imagine what Leitrim supporters would feel, and have felt in the past, in their shoes if the Green & Gold had created but wasted three glorious goal chances, dominated possession for the closing quarter and kicked an incredible 16 wides, four times the tally Leitrim registered!
Wicklow were not moving with the same purpose they showed in the League but they created enough chances to win the game with something to spare and, while there were put under huge pressure, many of their misses were the sort that Leitrim supporters would have expected their own team to get.
The turning point was Cathal McCrann’s wonderful save five minutes before the break to deny John McGrath a certain goal – after two defenders got in an awful mix-up, a Wicklow goal seemed certain but the Gortletteragh man managed to block a low shot and lifted the crowd and his team-mates immensely.
James Glancy’s disputed point followed a minute later and instead of being three points down, Leitrim were now a point ahead, a four point turnaround and a lead they would hold at the break and a massive infusion of self-belief.
If good fortune shone on Leitrim before the break, two superb Mulligan frees after the break gave Leitrim the breathing space and belief they needed in the second half, the incentive to work and work and work to hold on as Wicklow started to panic.
The Garden County lacked the clarity of thought that Leitrim possessed and if there was a little cynicism in the willingness of Leitrim players to go down in search for frees, it also demonstrated the determination of the Leitrim players to finally end their Qualifier hoodoo.
Some times, however, it almost back-fired as Leitrim players tried to play out time and the best example was of two Leitrim players trying to “win” frees in the last minute of normal time but when James Glancy made an immense effort to keep a ball in play, his incisive play yielded a vital point that restored a three point lead.
As exhilarating as the victory was, there was still much for Brian Breen and George Dugdale to worry about in the days ahead – midfield was dominated completely by Wicklow and the amount of ball won by their half-back and half-forward lines will worry the Leitrim duo.
And if the defence put huge pressure on Wicklow’s scoring attempts, the fact that they were creating so many chances is another source of concern.
But that is a worry for next Saturday – the Qualifier hoodoo is finally broken and Breen & Dugdale have delivered a successful championship campaign. The scale of the loss against Mayo may take a shine off the year but a hard-fought win in London and a first ever Qualifier win means this campaign is already a massive success.
And Leitrim will play a fourth championship game in the same Summer for the first time since 1994 (the Tommy Murphy Cup being a secondary competition), a fact that underlines the achievement of this squad of players.
Laois are up next, not the worst draw Leitrim could have got but not the best either as the O’Moore County were operating in Division One this year and although relegated, they did register wins against Donegal away from home and Armagh.
A big physically imposing side, Laois showed at the weekend that they are capable of getting goals and they will be a definite step-up from Wicklow but with home advantage and the spirit shown last Saturday, who can blame Leitrim supporters if they dream a little this week!