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Leitrim's grassroots toil now bearing fruit


Conor Daly of Roscommon tries to surge past Sligo’s Cathal Surlis in the Cadbury Connacht U-21 FC semi-final

Conor Daly of Roscommon tries to surge past Sligo’s Cathal Surlis in the Cadbury Connacht U-21 FC semi-final

Conor Daly of Roscommon tries to surge past Sligo’s Cathal Surlis in the Cadbury Connacht U-21 FC semi-final

Regardless of what may happen on GAA football fields for the remainder of this year, it is hard to imagine a bigger shock occurring than the one that took place in Carrick-on-Shannon on Saturday evening, when Leitrim's U-21 footballers beat Galway 0-9 to 0-8.

This result defied all the rules about competitive team sports in this country, as well as the discrepancy between the two counties in terms of population and resources.

The population of Galway in 2011 was 250,653, while that of Leitrim was 31,798. Galway covers 6,148 square kilometres of land – it's the second largest county in Ireland after Cork – while Leitrim has just 1,590 square kilometres.

Population density is also very interesting: in Galway it is 40.7 people per sq km, while in Leitrim the figure is 19.9, which is the lowest by far in Ireland. GAA people around Ireland need to be reminded sometimes about these massive discrepancies whenever wild claims are bandied about regarding fairness and equality when it comes to dividing counties among the various GAA competitions.

Galway have so much going for them compared to Leitrim when it comes to GAA affairs. There are far more secondary schools in the county and several teams who regularly play in the premier All-Ireland 'A' colleges championship. Leitrim have no secondary school in that grade.

There are third-level colleges in Galway as well but no sight of one in Leitrim. The club gate receipts in Galway GAA for one year would keep Leitrim going financially for at least 10 years.

But the most important statistic of all in relation to the two counties is the number of young men aged 18 to 21 at any given time who are involved in Gaelic football. It is safe to assume that it is at least 10 times what it is in Leitrim.

Galway have won the U-21 All-Ireland three times in the past decade, including twice in the last three years.

So how do we get the odd result like Saturday's in the face of all these facts and figures, bearing in mind that Leitrim U-21s have not won any game in Connacht since the last century (1998)?

Clearly there is no exact science in this matter, for which we must all be thankful.

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But in Leitrim, as in neighbouring counties Cavan, Roscommon and Longford, there has been a remarkably high quality of football coaching from the age of U-14 upwards for over a decade, as some forward-thinking people realised that the only way they could hope to compete with these larger counties, where young players seem to grow on trees, was to cultivate better players by continuous team preparation during their teenage years.

This is onerous and expensive work, often done on frosty Saturday mornings in the depths of winter, but there is no other way.

It has been shown to work elsewhere, such as when Tipperary beat Dublin in an All-Ireland minor football final three years ago. The fruits of this modern-day coaching and preparation are now clear to see.

Roscommon won the All-Ireland minor title in 2006 and lost narrowly to Dublin in an U-21 final in 2012 – and it is showing in their present senior team.

Cavan have won an Ulster minor title followed by three successive Ulster U-21 titles, and again this is reflected in their senior team at the moment. Longford have won two Leinster titles in the past 12 years against ridiculous odds each time and they have also reached Leinster U-21 finals on three occasions in the past six years.

These are all relatively small counties compared to Galway, Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal or Mayo, but the fact that they can still compete against the odds shows that only by coaching and motivating players from an early age can the population handicaps be alleviated.

However, of all the examples mentioned, Leitrim's achievement is by far the most dramatic.

They now meet Roscommon in the final in Carrick-on-Shannon on April 5 and what an occasion that should be.

The Rossies beat another huge county, Mayo, in the first round before getting a major scare in the Connacht semi-final, managing to win by two points against Sligo.


In this part of the country there are two long-standing underage tournament competitions which have played key roles in the development of football in the area.

At U-16 level there is the Fr Manning Cup involving all the counties above and a few others, usually six counties, and at U-21 grade there is the Hastings Cup, involving the same counties more or less.

These provide good quality competitive games by which the coaching and team selection of the teenagers can be monitored as they move up the ranks.

They have paid handsome dividends. Both competitions are organised under the auspices of Longford GAA boards.

The Leitrim U-21 manager is Shane Ward, a young teacher who describes himself as "Donegal by accident but living in Leitrim" and on Saturday he showed all the attributes of a talented, up-and-coming coach.

He has produced a set of totally dedicated players, not easy when you play for Leitrim with its associated failures over the years. The team excelled in their tackling and disciplined play, which was vital in preventing Galway from picking up some easy scores.

As he so aptly put it: "Football is the heart and soul of Leitrim."

Behind by 0-6 to 0-3 at half-time it looked like the usual hammering for Leitrim by the larger county, but not on this occasion.

Even when Galway drew level at 0-8 apiece with time almost up Leitrim held their nerve as Niall Brady from Glencar-Manorhamilton, almost up in Donegal, grabbed the winning point to spark scenes of joy from Leitrim fans.

And why not? After 17 years without getting past the first round of the Connacht championship, they can now look forward to a local derby with Roscommon.

For Leitrim GAA people this weekend there definitely is a God!

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