As I sit down to write this week’s Mixed Blessings, I have calmed down quite considerably after my emotional commentary on Ocean FM from the previous Saturday evening’s game, as the Leitrim Senior Team of 2012 created history in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada and became our county’s first squad of players to record a win in the All Ireland Senior Qualifying Round, since its inception in 2001, after defeating Wicklow.
Prior to the start of this year’s Championship, I was hoping that we would be able to defeat London in our opening game. It had been well documented in the build up to this encounter through various media and social networking sites how injuries, retirements and emigration had taken its toll on our senior panel in the past two years.
This was truly depicted in James Molloy’s photograph of the Leitrim squad of thirty two players on the 2010 panel, of which ten only remain on the current panel !
We were all nervous prior to and even during this encounter, as the exiles had taken Mayo to extra time twelve months previously, and managed to knock Fermanagh out of last year’s Championship during the qualifiers. Thankfully, as we all know now, those fears were quashed, as the full-time whistle was blown. We got out of Ruislip with a narrow one point win to book a Connacht Championship semi final encounter with defending Champions Mayo, in the newly refurbished forty-two thousand seater McHale Park in Castlebar.
Before this game, I had been asked by some of my Sligo friends, whose team had already qualified for the Connacht Final after their sides first Senior Championship win in Galway, if it was to be the year of the upsets, and whether Leitrim could cause an upset of their own? To be honest, I told them that Mayo would win by twenty points.
On paper, one has to remember that Mayo had contested this year’s Division One final against Cork, who, for me, are the best team in the country. My own beloved Leitrim, on the other hand , had finished fifth in Division Four. Going into this game, I had hoped that my theories would be blown apart, and who knows, if we had been able to withstand a couple of injuries to some of our key players during crucial times of that game, then the gap might have been a lot narrower at the end of seventy minutes than the twenty points, the history books now show. So for another season, we are left to dream that next year will be the year when we bring the Nestor Cup back to ‘Lovely, Lovely, Leitrim’ for the first time since 1994. As for this season, we would yet again have to set our sights on the back door qualifiers.
As I sat in my car after that game outside McHale Park that Sunday, with traffic backed up for several miles, I felt sympathetic towards the Leitrim management team of Barney Breen and George Dugdale, these two mighty men who were part of Leitrim’s historic championship winning team that defeated Mayo in the Connacht Final of 1994. I also felt empathy for their panel of players, many of whom I know on a personal level. As I sat behind the wheel going nowhere, I was trying to comprehend all the months of commitment, preparation and hours of travelling and hard training which this group of men each had clocked up prior to this game, hoping that it would pay off; however on this given Sunday it had not.
A draw which I think everyone in the in the county was happy with, saw us pitted against Wicklow, who had already beaten us this year on April Fool’s Day in Aughrim by six points, on their way to winning promotion up to Division Three. Aughrim is Wicklow’s fortress, Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada is ours. The big job on hand for Barney and George would now be to lift the squad of players after the tanking they received at the hands of Mayo.
Heading into Carrick-on-Shannon for this game, I had a good feeling. I met some Wicklow supporters outside the ground and I asked them how they felt their team were going to do? They explained that even without the services of their top scorer and their county’s best footballer for the past five years, Leighton Glynn (who broke his ankle in their side’s Leinster defeat to Meath), they were pretty confident of a win, and were more interested in getting familiar with Carrick-on-Shannon’s hotspots than going into the Pairc Sean to see the game!
What a game these guys missed, pride and passion had been restored in the Leitrim jersey as we defeated Wicklow by three points, and more importantly we had got the monkey off our back, of never having won in the qualifiers. Gortlettragh’s Cathal McCrann had made a crucial save to deny a certain Wicklow goal, Alan Wynne from the Hilly Road in Drumshanbo justified his inclusion in the side with a commanding performance in defence, Enda Williams sprayed perfect passes to our forward line and Emyln Mulligan as accurate as Phil Taylor from the oche, slotted over six wonderful points. “Ley Trum”, “Ley Trum”, “Ley Trum”, belted out around Pairc Sean close to the end of the game, it seemed the glory days had come again once more. As Glencar Manorhamilton’s James Glancy scored his fifth incredible point from play, I roared ‘Put Up That White Flag Fairly Lively Boss!’
On the final whistle, I roared on the airwaves ‘at long, long, last, Leitrim had won their first qualifier game’. Filled with emotion, PJ Leddy and I did a roll call in honour of the panel that togged out that day in the Green and Gold on Ocean FM . As I made my way onto the pitch to congratulate Barney, George and their team of heroes, I spotted former Leitrim greats Noel Moran and Gareth Foley doing the same. As I sat in the car park of Pairc Sean that night, my smile went from lug to lug. With a last sixteen game against Laois only seven days away, our victorious side had to put their celebrations on hold as they were meeting up the following morning for a training session in the pool.
As I pulled out of the car park, I recalled our proudest moment when Declan Darcy and the legend Tom Gannon lifted the Nestor Cup in 1994, knowing this day was up there with the best, as I headed for Drumshanbo!