Twelve months ago I was writing from New York about a Leitrim performance that set the side up for a Connacht semi-final against the winners of Sligo and London.
Everything appeared to be going relatively well for the squad and management. True, the league had proven disappointing with the side’s hopes of promotion dashed relatively early in the campaign, but the FBD victory suggested the side had the capacity to put a string of victories together.
I’m back in New York a year later wondering what to write about following the side’s demolition by Down in the Qualifiers. I jumped online a little earlier to see the result and to be honest it didn’t surprise me. The last thing I said to a GAA colleague when he asked me if we could run them close was that I felt sorry for the lads who were making the trip, that Leitrim football was at its lowest ebb since my time watching or playing for the county.
It would be easy but foolish to talk about all the missing players and the gulf between Division 4 and Division 1. That would be missing the point completely.
The state of Leitrim football and the reason the lads suffered such a drubbing in the back door system for the second year running lie much deeper that such superficial issues.
The problem rests in the attitude too many players in Leitrim have towards the Leitrim jersey and their sport in general. Firstly, there are too many players unwilling to make themselves available to play county football. Secondly, there are those who are on the panel who are there not for the team, but for themselves.
Whether it is the commitment they fear or the effort and sacrifice, I am not sure. For sure, it requires a great deal of all three attributes. However, the rewards – if everyone is together and united and working for each other as a team and not as individuals – greatly out-weight what you put into it. But only if you give it your all and don’t just do it for what you want to get out of it.
This is the vicious circle Leitrim football has found itself in. Too many players find the challenge of inter-county football unfulfilling in itself because they are doing it half-hearted and don’t achieve the sort of self-actualisation a fully committed experience can offer.
This sets in motion a series of actions that doom the panel to failure. Number one – it releases a poison into the panel that infects everyone. The most committed of players begin to question why they are giving their all when everyone else isn’t.
The younger lads who just come onto the panel full of enthusiasm and hope and limitless aspirations find themselves confused by the dichotomy of behaviour they witness and the divisive culture they find themselves in. Some rage against it and try to change it, others succumb to it and fall by the wayside.
Older members question why they should continue to give the necessary sacrifice at this stage of their lives and drop themselves off the panel despite the fact they have more years to offer. And so that essential link with experience is lost, as is the potential passing of wisdom down through the generations.
The cancer doesn’t stop there. It reaches outside even the panel to the body of clubs who feed the county scene. Results like Sunday’s seep deep into the conscious of all potential future Leitrim footballers. Those club players who display all the potential for higher-level combat hear of the malaise and see the factitious nature of the inter-county panel and opt not to make themselves available.
And who would blame them? To commit to that life you must know all is well, for the road is hard. The only way to reach a fulfilling destination is as part of a pack that is pulling together. It’s quite primal really.
What Barney Breen and George Dugdale tried to put in place last year was an understanding of what was required to achieve this. Here is where we are, here is what we want to achieve, here it what we must do to achieve this. It’s quite a simple formula when you look at it like that. Remember, they didn’t impose this on anyone, the players themselves drew up the group contract, created it and signed up to it.
They were not looking at some short goal – a potential Connacht final appearance for example. They were looking at putting in place foundations of attitude and behaviours from which a culture of passion, and commitment, and integrity, and cohesion could be built throughout which the common good always prevailed over self-interest.
These are not easy things to do. Changing a culture is one of the most difficult things to do in a society. It causes great fractures occasionally and lots of collateral damage as those agents of the existing culture rage against the change. They may not understand it or they may fear change inherently, or most damagingly they may see their inability to adjust their ways to conform to the required new way of thinking and acting.
To achieve such a new state and understanding the agents of change must also find support in the surrounding environment – in Leitrim’s case the supporters and the clubs and the county board. Unfortunately, while many saw what George and Barney were trying to achieve, too many failed to see the bigger picture.
Instead they looked at the short term impact (no big day out in a Connacht final) and opted to personalise the situation. They forced a change in management that would ironically ensure that no change in the problematic culture would happen at all.
And that is the situation and the culture that Sean Hagan and his management team inherited this year and that is why we find ourselves in the exact same situation as we did twelve months ago. To keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is the definition of madness.
My thoughts are with those lads who gave it their all for Leitrim this year, not just on the training field or on the field of play, but in their hearts and their thoughts and their actions when they were far from the management’s or supporters’ watching eyes.
I feel sorry for them, many of them good friends of mine, others I barely know. I feel sorry for them because their efforts were wasted. Not because they lost to Down – for you can lose any game and still emerge a winner – but because they were left to play as individuals in a team sport. And that should never happen.