Hope springs eternal. If ever we needed a good draw in the Qualifiers, it was this year. And out comes Wicklow. At home. In Paric Sean.
I know there was a lot of trepidation around the county about just who might come out of the hat considering some of the potential opponents. Wicklow proves the perfect opposition for a Leitrim team in desperate need of a qualifier win; in perhaps even more need of a good performance.
Don’t get me wrong. Wicklow are a good team, and their first round Qualifier win over Waterford will stand them in good stead as they travel West. This comes on the back of promotion to Division 3 via a Division 4 league final win over Fermanagh. But we know we can best this side, particularly at home. The loss of their talisman Leighton Glynn to injury is significant.
While no man makes a team, Glynn has been the player Wicklow has turned to for inspiration and leadership in recent years, and speaking to a native of the county yesterday, his absence was notable against Waterford.
I’ve no doubt that when Wicklow came out of the draw the entire Leitrim squad and management clenched their fists and said “yes, here’s our chance to turn our season around.
Here’s a game that gives us an opportunity to prove we’re better than that second half performance in Castlebar. This game gives us a chance to give some payback to our loyal fans with a real Leitrim performance on home turf.”
We have had many entertaining tussles with the Garden County over the past few years, the pick of the bunch probably a cracking Tommy Murphy Cup semi-final in Aughrim in 2008, which the home team narrowly won.
Besides that game, Wicklow have had the edge on us in the league in recent years (three wins to one since 2009) with their away win in 2011 (1-10 to 1-15) the only one going against the home side.
Preparation for this game must be perfect over the next week and a half. There can be no distractions. We’ll need Wayne McKeon and Daniel Lowe available if we are to pull off a win over a Wicklow team that will have benefitted from their extra-time win over Waterford in terms of belief and fitness.
We just don’t have the strength in depth otherwise. It’ll take 18 or 19 men operating at the top of their game to achieve a win.
Mental preparation will be key. The Mayo game must be parked, but lessons from it must be learned. Video analysis of the first half should be utilised, focusing on our ability to create scores with early ball into space and properly times support runs. We should also look at exactly how Mayo managed to create the overlaps that resulted in both goals.
As a team we need to get our wing forwards onto more breaking ball and this should be a big focus over the coming week.
We also need to be much more ruthless in our pressure game and in closing down space. It takes a lot of effort, but just look at what Wexford achieved against Dublin for large periods of their Leinster semi-final by putting some of the best players in the country under pressure. Had their shooting boots not deserted them in the second half Wexford would have won.
Other examples to be taken from last weekend’s results are found very close to home. Roscommon recorded a brilliant and deserved win over Armagh on the back of a crushing, even humiliating, defeat to Galway in Connacht. We know how that feels. They clearly used that experience to their benefit and even responded to a strong Armagh start to turn the game around, such was their collective belief.
Longford too struck down supposedly superior opposition (although I always fancied them to beat Derry) to set up a second round clash with Limerick (a home game I’d also fancy them to win.)
Individually, each team member must constantly visualise the role they are going to play against Wicklow: winning that first ball, anticipating the breaks and committing to them, supporting every team mate, running through all game plans. The match must rule their every thought and action for the next 10 days or so.
Collectively, they must work harder than they have ever done before to forge a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. Any in-squad games must have a ruthless streak. There’s starting places to be won, and there’s no place for pleasantries.
Because, as much as we supporters would love to see them win, this game is for the squad and management.
Sport is special in that you almost always get a second chance. You’re only as good as your next game. And this is Leitrim’s chance to show themselves, their friends, and their family how good they can be.