I don’t recall ever feeling the pain of a bunch of players as badly as I did for the Leitrim lads during the second half of the game in Castlebar on Sunday.
They had played with great purpose and pride in the opening half, but when Mayo’s second goal eased the hosts into what I knew would be an insurmountable 2-9 to 0-7 half-time lead, you could see the fight draining out of our boys. Up to that point the full-back line had coped capably with Mayo’s lauded inside forward line, while we worked hard to break the ball in midfield against two physically superior opponents.
The switch of Paul Brennan from left half forward to half back to cover the forced removal of Wayne McKeon due to an early ankle injury was working well and our forward line were timing runs well and creating good space for each other and our supporting midfielders, particularly Darren Sweeney who struck a sweet opening point.
The fact his midfield partner, young Shane Moran, was unable to resume after half-time due to what looked like a dead-leg he was carrying for much of the first half didn’t help matters, but it had little to do with the final score. As Mayo began to stretch their legs all over the pitch in the second half, Leitrim got pulled from pillar to post. We had lost the fight with 35 minutes to go.
Sitting with one of the most loyal bunch of Leitrim supporters of the past 20 years – the proud ‘Lurganboys On Tour’ – we couldn’t believe how many Leitrim supporters started to pour out of McHale Park with 20 minutes of the second half to go. Yes, we were being ripped apart at that stage and a real drubbing was on the cards, but to walk out on your team when they needed you most, what was the point in making the trip at all? Leaving early to avoid the traffic?
Had Leitrim won, those early leavers would have been on the pitch slapping backs. Traffic would have been the last thing on their mind. What did that say to the lads on the field already facing insurmountable odds when they inevitably saw their supporters throwing in the towel? Is it any wonder they capitulated completely in the final 20 minutes? Hardly. Despite the rubbish Roy Keane has spouted recently, supporting your team when the chips are down and sport has delivered upon them a public humiliation is the most important time to show them you still care. And clearly the Leitrim public does care considering the thousands that made the effort to travel to the game.
But that’s only a sideshow for now. We need to ask some serious questions about Leitrim football because the lads who took to the field on Sunday are the lads that are going to be charged with representing Leitrim for some years to come, and the task ahead of them is enormous. There are other players in the county capable of inter-county level competition and I would urge every one one of them to make themselves available. Some have played at that level before and have walked away.
Others have never considered making the necessary sacrifice. Every one of you is needed right now more than any time since the late 1970s when things were at an equally low-ebb due to emigration and other circumstances.
How ironic that we are facing Leitrim’s most challenging period in decades in the year we prepare for the opening of the County Board Centre of Excellence. This facility will provide us the opportunity to regroup in the Autumn but a root and branch examination of football in the county needs to take place right now – and then something needs to be done about the findings.
I sat on a review committee a few years ago that made an array of recommendations. I don’t know if any of them have been implemented.
We need a ten or 15-year plan to be put in place, focusing on underage structures in the county at all levels. A coaching officer from another Connacht county recently asked me what was happening with Leitrim and why some our underage county squads were so ill-prepared for inter-county competition in Connacht. I couldn’t answer him. We have not been competitive at underage since our break through minor team of 1998.
That team offered the backbone of the senior panel for the majority of the ‘90s. It has since dispersed. Few others have come through and what has is the result of experiences and coaching at club, not county level; hence our current problems.
Something also needs to be done at national level to address the existing competition structures, and it doesn’t shame me to say that the likes of Leitrim need to operate in an open-draw second tier national championship competition to allow us rebuilt and compete against counties of similar resources for some time. We are not alone in this – other counties are in a similar situation. The extent of the beatings received by some counties this year is doing no one any favours.
Regular competition at an appropriate grade will allow teams at the peak of a cycle to get promoted to the upper grade and challenge the upper echelons when they are ready. Promotion to the upper grade would have to be earned through development and consistently improved performances. Once-off championship wins would no longer be able to paint a false picture.
The Provincial championship structure can be retained and played off as four individual competitions at the start of the season (as the National League as we now it will no longer exist), while the provincial leagues of January can be dropped altogether.
I’ve already over-run the space available to me and I haven’t even been able to address the challenge of the qualifiers facing this panel after such a defeat. I’ll come back to that next week, as well as adding further flesh to some of the topics touched on above.
But before I go I want to offer my congratulations to Laura Reynolds on her incredible achievement on reaching the London Olympics. Laura and Colin are examples of what can be achieved with long-term planning, appropriate support, hard work, perseverance and no little talent. Heads up to the Leitrim panel, County Board and supporters, there is always light at the end of the tunnel.