'He epitomised the Leitrim ethos of work-rate and effort'
The passing of one of their star players set Leitrim back but they are building again, writes Marie Crowe
I n the aftermath of the death of Philly McGuinness, the Leitrim football panel was visited by Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. He spoke to them about his own life experiences and how Tyrone dealt with the loss of Cormac McAnallen.
He told them that it was okay to keep playing football and to do it with their former team-mate in their minds. But he also explained that they didn't need to go out and try to win games for Philly all the time because that can't be done, it's not the way sport works.
Just over a year has passed since Mohill and Leitrim lost one of their brightest stars, Philly McGuinness. The wing-forward never regained consciousness after sustaining a head injury when he accidentally came in contact with the knee of an opposing player in a league club match against Melvin Gaels in Annaduff in April 2010.
His talent was evident from an early age and he played for Leitrim hurlers and footballers up through the underage ranks. He made a few league appearances for the senior hurlers but once he made the breakthrough onto the county football team, he gave it his full attention.
"Football got very much pushed into its proper place when Philly died," said former Leitrim team-mate and Melvin Gaels player Colin Regan.
"What happened that day was the last thing you'd expect to happen when you head up to play a football game on a lovely Saturday evening. Philly was the heartbeat of the Leitrim team, he set the tempo, he was a perpetual-motion kind of footballer. He epitomised the Leitrim ethos of work-rate and effort."
McGuinness was also a dedicated club player, a key member of the 2006 Mohill team that won the senior county title, the club's first since 1971.
The McGuinness family are steeped in GAA tradition. His late father Michael also played football and hurling for the county, and was voted onto the Leitrim Team of the Millennium in 2000 at full-forward. His brothers John and Michael also represented the county.
"Philly's death had a huge effect on the club, he was someone everyone knew and he was the lad that a lot of the young players would have looked up to," said Gary Canning, Mohill club secretary.
"It united everyone, we all just wanted to do our best for him but sometimes you don't get the results you wish for. After it happened our manager told us all that we can do is try to be better at what we do."
Today, Leitrim make the short trip to Sligo having endured a difficult year on and off the pitch. They finished the league third from bottom of Division 4 with just six points. "I know people will say we didn't have the greatest league," admitted Regan.
"But if you look closer at our results, we only lost by a point to Longford and Roscommon, the two teams that ended up playing the league final. We don't believe there is anything between us and those teams."
Leitrim have only won two Connacht titles, 1927 and 1994. In 2000, they reached the Connacht final but lost to Galway by eight points, their last appearance in the final.
Regan retired last year due to injury after 15 years on the panel. He trained the Dublin-based players during the winter months and has first-hand knowledge of the current crop of players.
"This squad are a great bunch, a lot of them are around the same age and are great friends; there is a mix of young players and old warriors.
"But the most pleasing aspect is that the young lads have really taken ownership of the team, they are building towards the future. And while they are completely focused on Sligo they are also focused on getting the winning experience that they need to finally get them playing above the level that they have been playing at."
Mohill, meanwhile, are renaming their grounds in honour of their former star. Today, around 30 cyclists will make their way from Mohill to Markievicz Park 70 kilometres away to raise funds for the Philly McGuinness Memorial Park.
Sunday Indo Sport