GAA Connacht SFC preview

What a difference a year makes

John Connolly finds new look Leitrim a much different proposition ahead of Sunday's big game

John Connolly

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John Connolly

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sports@leitrimobserver.ie

What a difference a year makes

Jack Heslin in action against Roscommon last year in Carrick - Leitrim will be looking to Heslin and his fellow Leitrim attackers to cause the Roscommon defence problems Picture: Willie Donnellan

Emlyn's Mulligan resigned reaction last October when the draw was made for the 2019 Connacht Championship was probably shared by each and every Leitrim supporter who watched as the green & gold were paired with our old friends Roscommon for the fourth year in a row.

Three big defeats, one a record setting one, had Leitrim deflated and frankly dispirited by the prospect of facing the neighbours who traditionally bring the best out of the green & gold.

Yet, seven months later, as Leitrim fans prepare to travel in their droves to Hyde Park next Sunday (3.30 pm throw-in), the mood has changed and changed dramatically and it is a confident senior team who make the journey charged with a self-belief that they can test a team that has, to put it mildly, walked all over them for the past three years.

Leitrim's league run has the county on a high, believing that a championship breakthrough can follow on promotion from Division 4 and that Roscommon, themselves relegated from Division 1 this spring, can be beaten.

The palpable excitement is a good thing and is shared by a Leitrim team clearly buying in to Terry Hyland's methods and motivation. It is Hyland's presence that has many people believing that this could be the year that Leitrim record a first victory over one of Connacht's big three since Seamus Quinn lifted himself off his knees to score the winner in 2000.

That game took place in Hyde Park, another omen that Leitrim fans might seize on as the Rossies ' home patch seems to bring out the best in us and a superb surface in the Hyde will surely suit a young Leitrim attack that looks unusually potent.

Even with the loss of Darragh Rooney and Conor Cullen, Leitrim go into this game with real options and an attack that opposition defences have to pay real attention to - with pace in every sector and pace coming from the halfback lines, Leitrim are racking up big, big scores this year.

The big question for Terry Hyland is where Ryan O'Rourke starts and it would seem that full-forward is the best spot for the Fenagh St Caillin's man. His speed to the ball and fearlessness in taking on a full-back line will give Roscommon plenty to think about.

O'Rourke's centre forward stint in the league final didn't really come off but I believe a 'quarter-back' role for Emlyn Mulligan on the forty would get the best of both O'Rourke and his team-mates.

After that, it is a question of whether Mark Plunkett reverts to centre-back or stays at midfield. It is a tough decision because when Derry got on top in the league final, it was surging runs through the centre that did enormous damage. In fairness, it has been a problem throughout the league.

Leitrim will travel full of self-belief and the ideal scenario is that Leitrim battle and battle to keep the game tight before striking in the final 15 minutes as they did to such good effect in the league.

Trouble is, Roscommon are wise to the threat posed by a rejuvenated Leitrim and their words of caution are genuine, not the usual platitudes thrown out before the game.

Anybody thinking that relegation will have an effect, think again. Two years ago, Roscommon were relegated in double quick time yet they handed a Leitrim team, with a game already under their belts, an almighty hiding.

If you delve into Roscommon's results from the league, they weren't that far off staying up; were it not for a moment of madness against Tyrone, Roscommon would still be a division one side.

Roscommon's forward line has been the envy of many a county over the last five years and it only seems to have gotten stronger. Ciaran Murtagh is a loss but the addition of former Kerry star Conor Cox gives them a genuine out and out target man at full-forward.

Leitrim have faced Cox before, the full-forward scoring three points for his native Kerry in the All-Ireland Junior semi-final in 2017 and while there are suggestions that he might not be as effective on drier, harder ground, Cox is a potential match winner and was often Roscommon's best player in the league.

Throw in the likes of Enda Smith, Cathal Cregg, Diarmuid Murtagh, Niall Kilroy and Donie Smith and Roscommon have a riches of attacking talent with several of those players capable of lining out at midfield alongside Ultan Harney or Tadhg O'Rourke or Shane Killoran.

Roscommon might be judged as that little bit weaker in defence but they have successfully negated Leitrim's attack for the last two years; they'll be confident of repeating the trick but Leitrim's attack is a different beast, attacking with much more confidence and pace and looks really dangerous.

Leitrim's attack has misfired at times and Leitrim will need everyone at their most accurate if they are to pull off a shock; that means frees can't be missed, easy 30 yarders have to go over the bar and the right options taken each and every time.

Easy to write that but it is what the top teams do. Leitrim have done it more this year than they have in the recent past but when the quality goes up, old bad habits can resurface. And that is why it will take time, playing at a higher level, week in, week out to get Leitrim to where they want to be.

Roscommon's secret weapon will be the intensity and physicality they are used to playing against - Division 4 teams might run more than Division 1 sides but in the top flight, space and time is at a premium and Roscommon's physicality has stood out this year; they hit, hit hard and hit often and Leitrim need to be ready.

The pressure is back off Leitrim following the league; anything after is a bonus. Can Leitrim beat Roscommon? Yes, they can but they will need everything to go their way and Roscommon to not perform. The chances of Roscommon not performing look remote as Anthony Cunningham will have his team pumped up and revved up for this game.

Strangely, it is defences that could decide this contest, not in the traditional sense as I see this game as a high scoring shoot out. Both teams like to go full throttle and it could just be the defence that slows down the opposing forwards best next Sunday that prevails.

Honesty compels me to admit that I can't see past a Roscommon win this Sunday; Leitrim have made enormous strides and will be competitive for the first time in a long time under Terry Hyland but it may be a year or two too soon for them. I also think it will be a battle, a high scoring battle and if it becomes a battle, who knows what might happen?