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Sunday 20 April 2014

Leitrim relish rare success

THERE may have been no danger of any cows going unmilked in Leitrim after this game, but winning their first FBD League title – and their first trophy in 19 years – sparked off some understandable early season celebrations for Connacht's traditional minnows.

As delighted captain Emlyn Mulligan noted, this victory at Markievicz Park was only the fourth senior trophy in Leitrim's history, so it was well worth celebrating, no matter what the competition's status.

Joint-managers Barney Breen and George Dugdale were both players when Leitrim won that historic Connacht title back in 1994 and the former immediately drew comparisons.

"Other teams might not take the FBD too seriously, but this reminds me a bit of 1990 when we won the All-Ireland 'B' for the first time," Breen said. "We took that competition seriously too at the time and that catapulted us on to better things.

"We got promotion to Division 2 in 1991 and in 1994 we won Connacht, so that provided us with a stepping stone to bigger things and hopefully today will be the very same."

It has certainly been a fairytale start to the new year for one of the GAA's Cinderella counties, who maintained their four-game unbeaten run by adding Sligo's scalp to that of Mayo and Roscommon.

This victory, which threatened to stall in the third quarter, was actually their most convincing to date and the manner in which late scores from new Kildare recruit Cian Reynolds and Brian 'Bruno' McDonald sealed the deal certainly brought to mind the way they also beat Sligo on their home turf in the 2011 Connacht championship.

They raced into an early two-point lead and led by three points (0-5 to 0-2) at half-time – they certainly had no fear of their hosts.

"Other people mightn't rate it and, in the big scheme of things, it mightn't be that big of a deal, but we'll savour the moment and we might let them have a few beers tonight," Breen said with a grin.

"But we won't be going mad or anything because this will mean nothing if we don't go on now and win our first two league games, starting with Limerick next week."

Wayne McKeon was Leitrim's Roy Keane-like leader, logging up massive mileage in a covering midfield role.

He played a key part in a defensive blanket that Sligo were largely unable to tug apart and while the heavy ground was not conducive to pretty football, Leitrim showed the superior hunger, handling, fitness and work rate.

Sligo fans left a little disgusted at their side's inability to score more than two points from play and some of their players were guilty of some indiscipline at times.

Brian Curran and Stephen Gilmartin were two of the few Sligo players to impress.

But the reality was that Leitrim's defence, well led by Ciaran Egan, Paul Brennan and Colm Clarke, never gave them much of a sniff.

One of Mulligan's metronomic frees and a late point from impressive wing-back Danny Beck gave Leitrim a three-point lead at the interval.

Impetus

A Mulligan '45' quickly extended that to four but the introduction of Adrian Marren – just back from honeymoon last week – and Shane McManus restored some impetus for Sligo.

They had the lead back to two by the end of the third quarter and were aggrieved then that the referee missed a push in Francis Quinn's back that might have got the margin to within a point.

Leitrim didn't score for 16 minutes but some quick thinking by McDonald, who took a quick free to set up former Kildare U-21 Reynolds, extended their lead to three in the 56th minute and another substitute, Conor Beirne, was also involved when McDonald got the late insurance score.

Leitrim's short-passing game, especially out of defence, threatened to backfire at times, but they had the fitness and patience to play themselves out of trouble, which, even at this early stage of the season, is encouraging.

"The FBD wasn't our long-term goal but when you get into a final, you want to win it," admitted Sligo boss Kevin Walsh.

"You can hide in the corner or take lessons out of it and that's what we'll have to do because we have a tough league opener against Roscommon next Sunday."

Scorers – Leitrim: E Mulligan 0-4 (2f, 2 '45'), D Beck, R Cox, B McDonald, C Reynolds 0-1 each; Sligo: B Egan (1f), A Marren (2f) 0-2 each, M Breheny 0-1.

LEITRIM – C McCrann; A Wynne, C Egan, P Maguire; D Beck, P Brennan, C Clarke; W McKeon, P McGowan; G Hickey, E Mulligan, B McDonald; R Cox, J Glancy, A Croal. Subs: K Conlon for Croal (44), C Reynolds for Hickey (50), C Beirne for Cox (53), B Brennan for McGowan (57).

SLIGO – A Devaney ; C Harrison, J Martyn, B Kennedy; N Ewing, M Quinn (Capt), B Curran; S Gilmartin, A McIntyre; B Egan, J Clarke, F Quinn; M Breheny, K Sweeney, B Egan. Subs: A Marren for Sweeney (h-t), S McManus for Clarke (h-t), K Cawley for Martyn (44), N Murphy for Breheny (55).

REF – J Henry (Mayo).

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