Carla Le Guen charges at the Sligo defence last Sunday in Drumshanbo. Photo by Willie Donnellan
Leitrim's Connacht Championship campaign got off to a disappointing start on Sunday afternoon last in Drumshanbo when they suffered a three point defeat at the hands of old rivals, Sligo.
While there would be few who would argue Leitrim deserved to emerge victorious as a result of their below par showing in the opening half, a resurgent Leitrim came agonisingly close to pulling off a great escape at the end of an enthralling encounter.
Sligo had the aid of a strong wind that was blowing towards the scoreboard end in Shane McGettigan Park for the opening half and although Leitrim struck for the opening point of the game when Aine Tighe converted a free after she was fouled by Etna Flanagan, Sligo wasted little time in taking full control.
Leitrim opted to avoid kicking the football as much as possible during the opening half as they attempted to protect the ball when playing against such difficult conditions. However, the danger was that a loose pass could present Sligo with possession in a dangerous position.
That proved to be the case in the fourth minute when midfielder Bernice Byrne released Emma Keavney who in turn found Ciara Gorman. With a clear sight of goal, the Sligo corner-forward looked destined to find the net but she was fouled before she got the opportunity to shoot. The resulting penalty was dispatched expertly to the top corner of the goal by Denise McGrath.
Two minutes later, it was to get even worse from a Leitrim point of view. A quick exchange of passes between Stephanie O'Reilly and Sarah Reynolds left the Leitrim defence exposed and when the ball was worked to Denise McGrath, the St Nathy's player showed excellence balance as she evaded the attention of Michelle Guckian before scoring her and Sligo's second goal of the game.
Leitrim lifted the siege they were under with a fine point from Ailbhe Clancy but that was almost immediately cancelled out by a point from Sligo's Emma Keavney.
Aine Tighe was next to score, raising a white flag after a strong run but unfortunately that 10th minute score would prove to be Leitrim's final score of the half as Sligo took control of matters.
During the remaining time in the first half Sligo scored six unanswered points and such was their dominance they will feel they should have increased their lead even further.
A Ciara Gorman pointed free was followed by points from Stephanie O'Reilly, Denise McGrath (two) and Emma Keavney as Sligo opened up as seemingly unassailable 2-7 to 0-3 interval lead.
Frustratingly from a Leitrim point of view, the wind eased during the interval and wasn't of the same benefit to Leitrim in the second half as it was to Sligo during the opening 30 minutes.
Aine Tighe opened the second half scoring with a fine point, taken on the run and under considerable pressure but Sligo hit back quickly with a pointed free from Ciara Gorman.
Attempting to generate a foothold in the game that would allow them begin to overturn the deficit they were facing, Leitrim replied with a fine point. Ailbhe Clancy was heavily involved as she combined well with Eilish O'Dowd and Roisin McHugh.
When the ball was worked to substitute Emma Guckian, she showed no shortage of confidence as she took responsibility for a shot from a difficult angle but she made the shot look straightforward as the ball sailed between the uprights.
Sligo were under plenty of pressure but were able to lift the siege with a pointed free from Ciara Gorman while goalkeeper Noelle Gormley helped deflate Leitrim spirits when she made a wonderful save to deny Carla LeGuen.
That save swung the momentum back in favour of the Yeats County as they then scored three unanswered points through Sarah Reynolds and Stephanie O'Reilly (two).
With time running out and Leitrim trailing by 13 points the chances of a comeback appeared to be very slim.
However, with 17 minutes left on the clock, Leitrim were handed a lifeline when Sligo's Grainne O'Loughlin was shown a yellow card for a foul on Aine Tighe and that proved to be the cue for Leitrim to launch a comeback that almost saw them claim an unlikely victory.
Barely a minute after the yellow card, Aine Tighe took full advantage of the fact that she was no longer being as tightly marked as she leaped to claim a high ball, tuned quickly and emphatically dispatched her shot past Noelle Gormley.
Although Sligo hit back with a Denise McGrath point, Leitrim were now playing with much more composure and committing more players to their attack.
With six minutes left, Leitrim were awarded a penalty. After Ailbhe Clancy saw a shot blocked, Eilish O'Dowd was then fouled with referee Garyowen McMahon immediately signaling for a penalty.
Clancy took responsibility for the spot-kick which she powered clinically past Gormley, meaning there was now seven points between the teams.
An Ailbhe Clancy pointed free was followed by two fine points from Michelle Heslin and given the amount of stoppages for various injuries that had occurred during the second half, the Leitrim players knew there was still time for them to snatch the game for Sligo's grasp.
The gap was reduced to two points when Aoife McWeeney picked out Eilish O'Dowd. The Ballinamore player attempted to fist the ball over the bar but the Sligo goalkeeper got a touch which deflected the ball into the net.
Moments later, Leitrim had a chance to take the lead when they were presented with another sight of goal but Aoife McWeeney's effort went wide of the Sligo goal. That miss seemed to knock the wind from the Leitrim sails and Sligo secured victory with a pointed free from Elaine O'Reilly.
Leitrim will be hoping to bounce back when they face Roscommon the weekend after next.
Michelle Guckian, Melissa Hewitt, Eilish O'Dowd, Ailbhe Clancy, Aine Tighe and Michelle Heslin were amongst those to catch the eye but the most influential player on the pitch was Sligo's Denise McGrath who finished the game with 2-3.
Leitrim's slow start to games has been a theme in fixtures throughout the year and even though they were playing into a strong wind for the opening 30 minutes, they were left to rue another sluggish start.
Sligo's fourth minute penalty helped Sligo open up a commanding early lead. The yellow card to Sligo's Grainne O'Loughlin and the penalty awarded to Leitrim late on would have been deemed more significant had Leitrim completed the great escape.
Garryowen McMahon attempted to let the game flow but that wasn't always possible. Leitrim weren't entirely happy with the attention afforded to Aine Tighe but overall the referee handled the game well.
The first score of the second half proved to be a cracker. Aine Tighe did brilliantly to keep control of the ball as she outran a Sligo defender and then produced a terrific shot that dissected the uprights.
From a Leitrim point of view the lowlight was the slow start. Giving a team as good as Sligo a 10 point half-time lead meant Leitrim were facing an uphill battle after the break.
Team: Michelle Guckian, Aine Heslin, Claire Owens, Sinead Tighe, Melissa Hewitt, Eimhin Quinn, Kirby Gilgunn, Deirdre Ward, Eilish O'Dowd, Bronagh O'Rourke, Ailbhe Clancy, Roisin McHugh, Carla Le Guen, Aine Tighe, Michelle Heslin. Subs: Emma Guckian for M Heslin (16), Claire Beirne for S. Tighe (46), Michelle Heslin for LeGuen (50), Aoife McWeeney for O'Rourke (50), Carla LeGuen for Clancy (58).
Sligo: Scorers: Ciara Gorman 2-3, 1pen; Emma Keavney, Ciara Gorman (3f) & Stephanie O'Reilly 0-3 each, Sarah Reynolds & Elaine O'Reilly (1f) 0-1 each
Team: Noelle Gormley, Etna Flanagan, Grainne O'Loughlin, Jacqui Mulligan, Ruth Goodwin, Elise Codd, Ann Marie Coleman, Bernice Byrne, Sarah Reynolds, Laura Ann Laffey, Stephanie O'Reilly, Sinead Naughton, Ciara Gorman, Emma Keavney, Denise McGrath. Subs: Lisa Casey for Naughton (30)
Referee: Garyowen McMahon (Mayo).