Things are coming together at last for Leitrim – Mulligan
THEIR U-21s reached a provincial final while the minors won their provincial league. The senior side have lost just two of 11 competitive games so far this year and the juniors are in another final.
This is not usually a description you can associate with Leitrim but it's why Emlyn Mulligan believes this is the "best position Leitrim football has been in a long time."
At senior level there has been progress too. Back-to-back FBD League titles aren't about to prompt a new world order in Connacht but it's the little things, Mulligan says, that matter.
"Over the last few years we haven't been too successful sometimes on the field but we have overcome things we haven't overcome in a while," said Mulligan.
"Even little things like beating Mayo in the FBD. We hadn't beaten them in 20 odd years. Beating Galway this year – we hadn't beaten them away from home in 20 years. Maybe when the younger groups start to see this they might start believing that we are as good as these teams if not better and it is showing at underage level."
The minor league success was 23 years in the making but was worth the wait. Leitrim went unbeaten in that entire campaign which draws a stark comparison with Mulligan's underage career with the county.
"It's completely different. Competitively I don't know if I can remember even winning a game at U-16s. I didn't play minor due to soccer commitments. Even at U-21s we might have won an auld shield against Westmeath for a 3rd/4th play-off," he said.
"I can't even remember the victories we had at that age. So it's admirable and you'd be very proud of that minor team and what they are achieving.
"They are huge milestones, the minors especially is a massive one for us. We've been non-existent for years at that level and there is a lot more going into the underage now and there are decent men that are in position.
"Martin McGowan, who was a selector with Mickey Moran and John Morrison, is over the U-15s and it is benefitting us now.
"The U-21s caused a massive shock against Galway. Unfortunately they weren't able to follow it up in the final. It's a positive start to the year and it's the best position Leitrim football has been in a long time."
Just exactly where they are at will be tested sorely tomorrow when they travel to Dr Hyde Park to take on neighbours Roscommon for their Connacht championship opener.
The Rossies won a Division 3 title and contested an All-Ireland U-21 final while Leitrim's championship form last year was dismal as they went down to London before shipping eight goals to Armagh in the back door.
Despite Leitrim's progress this year, Roscommon are almost unbackable at 1/9 to progress to a meeting with Mayo in the Connacht semi-final.
Resources mean that Leitrim's scalping of the province's big guns will continue to be rare. But Mulligan, who joined Dublin club side St Brigid's last year, would keep it that way rather than merge with other counties as has been mooted recently.
"Aidan O'Shea was interviewed and he mustn't be thinking too much about the weaker counties because he says he was looking ahead to the Roscommon game. He wasn't thinking too much of Leitrim anyway," he laughed.
"It's easier for them to say that in the bigger counties but us boys at the lower level, we are putting in as much of an effort and we get as much of a buzz whether we play Mayo or Roscommon every week. I don't agree with (merging) to be honest.
"It would take the whole passion out of it. Like our U-21s beating Galway if that happens once every 15 or 20 years I think that's great for the game. I can't imagine joining up with another county. I don't agree with it.
"It's a small county with a small population but it's a tight unit and you know everyone. We had something for the supporters' club there and Declan Darcy spoke at it about the time they won Connacht in 1994 and told about one of the players, Padraig McLoughlin, going back to his parish and everyone was in tears crying.
"Then he went up to Sandyford with the cup and they didn't know who Leitrim were and what they had won. He was saying that's the difference in a small community and a tight population and what it means to them. I play for Leitrim and that's as much as it will ever be."
Roscommon is "without doubt" the game Leitrim supporters want to win the most, according to Mulligan. As it turns out, they've won the last three games, though all of those have been in the FBD League.
In 1994 and 2000, they went to Roscommon's back yard and won in the championship. Repeating that feat would help all the "small" things manifest themselves into something more significant.
"I'm from the north of the county and there's not as much rivalry but down south in Carrick there is a massive rivalry. Carrick-on-Shannon is spilt in the middle so it's always an interesting tie," he said.
"They are going very well and they were delighted to get promoted and they had the U-21s in a final too, but there has been a lot going on there so hopefully they might have forgotten about our games and we might just slip in there!"