Kerry celebrate if they win Sam, we celebrate if we win
Leitrim football folk know their place but that doesn't prevent them from dreaming, writes John O'Brien
Back in March, Colin Regan was in London on a business trip and got talking to a few local GAA people. London's performances in the league hadn't been turning many heads and Regan wondered, quite reasonably, whether they had the quality to compete in Division 4. The collective shrug he received in response startled him. Their league showings weren't a true reflection. London had their sights set on a juicier prize.
"They told me they weren't really focused on the league," the former Leitrim player says. "They had their eyes fixed solely on Leitrim and consolidating their victory in the qualifiers against Fermanagh last year. We were delighted to scrape a one-point win over there. A lot of Leitrim people were very wary of that game."
The truth is Leitrim are wary of everybody these days. There is scarcely a moment when the modesty of their standing in GAA terms isn't brought home to them. No one needs reminding. The savage toll exacted by recession and the ravages of emigration hit harder in this part of the western corridor than anywhere else, a fact of life they have lived with for a century and more.
That toll has been well documented. It is two years since a persistent knee injury forced Regan into retirement and from that 2010 panel just 10 players remain. Last week, Martin McGowan, a senior selector for three years under Mickey Moran, estimated 30 players had left the panel in that time. "Every year you're going back to square one and rebuilding," he lamented.
Only one of the team that lines out against Mayo this afternoon is over 30 and that emphasis on youth is as much forced as strategic. Beating Sligo in Markievicz Park in their Connacht opener last year suggested a knot of talent to work with but seven of that starting 15 aren't available and for George Dugdale and Barney Breen, Leitrim's joint managers, there is the familiar task of assembling a competitive team from depleted resources.
"Traditionally, we'd have a panel from which we'd get 15 lads who could compete against most teams," says Regan. "But when you've got injuries or lads aren't available you have to dip deeper and deeper into your panel. It's not that those lads aren't good enough, but some of them mightn't be ready or are playing out of position. You see the top counties and they have four midfielders and six half-backs all good enough. That's our problem. We don't have the cover."
What they have, though, is an ever-increasing resolve to make the most of their resources. Mike Feeney scans through today's starting 15 and notes cheerfully that the vast majority of the players are home-based now. Up to recently that wasn't the case. Regan supervised training for the Dublin-based players last year and their number invariably reached double figures. It's a trend that could take a drastic turn at any time but, for now at least, it's a hopeful shard to cling to.
At the beginning of the year, Feeney took over from Eamonn Duignan as chairman of the Dublin-based Leitrim Supporters' Club.
Duignan had been in the position since the club's foundation 26 years ago and for all that time Feeney had been secretary. At their annual launch in January, Feeney surveyed the sea of people around him, the same familiar faces who came every year to offer their support and their cash. The passion for the county never ceases to amaze him.
"We have a golf classic that's now in its 22nd year," he says, "and you'd wonder how it keeps continuing. There's an incredibly modest type of quiet loyalty to the cause here that keeps us going. I think there's a good analogy to the support you see for the Irish soccer team. They will support the team through thick and thin provided they see the players putting in the effort and sacrifice. It's the same in Leitrim."
Through a combination of funds raised by the Supporters' Club and grants, Leitrim completed a €3m redevelopment of Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada and expect soon to turn the last sod on a €1m state-of-the-art centre of excellence in Annaduff that will have two floodlit sand-based pitches and everything an ambitious football county could ask to have. For Regan, the benefits are symbolic as much as practical.
"It's the first time we'll have had a training facility adequate for the county's needs," he says. "I remember times under Dessie Dolan when we trained on a raised sandbank in Cloone because the pitch was so heavy. Sometimes we did collective training in Longford rugby club and as I was living in Letterkenny at the time I wouldn't be getting home until 1.30am. Annaduff is still a hike if you're in north Leitrim but to be able to train in your own county all year round is fantastic. It's a massive development for Leitrim football."
Bravely they are casting their collective gaze ahead. To better days and brighter times. It's not enough, perhaps, to be going down bravely every year while singing the same old laments about lack of resources and emigration. They know they need to start implementing constructive measures to combat these difficulties and have already taken a few small steps to encourage players on the verge of leaving to stay and plan a future with Leitrim football.
Feeney was leafing through the Leitrim Observer last week when he saw a dispiriting story on the closure of two national schools in Aughavas, yet such worrying developments haven't deterred the Leitrim board from more investment in their underage structures. Carrick-on-Shannon, Feeney reminds you, won an All-Ireland Community Games title last year and this year's minors, coached by Mark Heslin, are a highly regarded bunch.
"There's huge interest in Gaelic football in Leitrim," Feeney says, "and the balance of power has switched recently. It used to be that you'd barely have one player from the north of the county on the team. Now Manorhamilton have won four county titles in a row and Melvin Gaels are intermediate champions. The GAA has taken off in north Leitrim and it's also spawning in Carrick-on-Shannon. If you know Leitrim, it's a narrow but very long county with Lough Allen between it. The GAA is the umbilical chord which unites the whole county."
Feeney expects supporters will travel in good numbers to Castlebar,
where Leitrim have never had a championship victory, and they'll hope for a solid and spirited display that sets them up for a decent tilt at the qualifiers. It is a sobering statistic that in the 11 years of the qualifying series, Leitrim have yet to win a game but, as Feeney argues, the system among other factors has shown them no favours.
He has a point. As Leitrim seldom fail to reach a provincial semi-final, they tend to enter the qualifiers at the second stage when the likelihood of drawing a better team with more games behind them is greater. Thus Down and Kildare away from home was their lot for the past two years while Donegal, Meath, Tyrone and Dublin presented an insurmountable barrier in other years. The qualifiers are not their friend.
No cause for despair yet, though. In his latter years with Leitrim, Regan never felt they were miles from a breakthrough and still harbours regrets that he didn't finish with a Connacht title to his name. He thinks back to the heartbreaking defeat against Mayo in 2006 and the loss to Donegal after extra-time a year later. Twice in recent years they had Galway reeling without closing the deal. With a bit of structure, he thinks, a good league run and a few back-to-back wins, a Connacht title would be within their grasp.
The spirit remains strong regardless. A few years ago, Regan was working as a journalist for the Observer when Tommy Moran, the then long-standing board secretary, crystallised for him what it was that made following Leitrim special. "In Kerry, they celebrate when they win All-Irelands," Moran said. "In Leitrim, we celebrate when we win."
Win today and they will have the mother of all celebrations.
Sunday Indo Sport