Wednesday 24 January 2018

Lingering memories of 1977 loss ensure Leitrim won't be taking Exiles for granted this time around

Joint Leitrim manager Barney Breen
Joint Leitrim manager Barney Breen
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

THEY walked straight, bang, wallop into the ambush 36 years ago, which is why the sight of London arriving for tomorrow's Connacht SFC semi-final has Leitrim folk swallowing heavily and loosening their collars.

They don't talk about it much because it still pains them, but back in 1977 Leitrim were feeling unusually cock-a-hoop.

Their U-21s had beaten Roscommon in the Connacht U-21 final and gone on to score three goals against a talented Kerry U-21 team (full of future legends like Páidí ó Sé) who eventually only beat them by two points.

A year earlier, Leitrim's seniors had beaten Mayo in a replay in Connacht. They may have subsequently taken a hockeying from Galway but, with the U-21s coming through, Leitrim had every reason to be hopeful in the summer of '77.

Then London waltzed into Carrick' and scored their first ever Connacht championship win, a defeat that still rancours.

"We were like mice in the dressing-room afterwards," recalls Noel Crossan, the man who manned Leitrim's goal in that infamous 0-6 to 0-9 defeat.

"I don't remember much about it, maybe I deliberately erased it from my memory! But I do remember the terrible silence in the dressing-room afterwards.

"We'd usually hang around after a match, but not that day. We all disappeared away as quickly as we could."

Crossan recalls that it was a fine day weather wise and "there wasn't a whole pile of talk about London beforehand".

Two stand-out memories remain. He recalls that London had a storming midfielder who was also a good free-taker by the name of Brian Grealish, a brother of Irish international soccer player Tony, who recently passed away.

He also vividly recalls that time was running out and Leitrim were trailing 0-6 to 0-8 when Joe Reynolds took off on a great run towards goal.

"I thought, 'this is it, this'll get us back into it' but then Brendan Greenway, the London goalkeeper, made a mighty stop on Joe and that was our last chance gone."

The fact that London did a similar number on Sligo this summer to win only their second Connacht championship game means they're fighting it out now for a place in the Connacht final.

Two years ago, many of this same London team almost also put Mayo to the sword (after extra-time) in Ruislip and went on to win their first qualifier game against Fermanagh, all of it achieved under the watch of Roscommon native Paul Coggins.

Crossan himself went on to be a Leitrim senior selector during Seamus Bonner's management and is still actively involved in coaching, currently with the Kilmore club across the border in Roscommon.

A native of Ballinamore who went on to play for Carrick-on-Shannon, he saw first-hand how the Exiles gave Leitrim a right rattle (1-11 to 1-9) in the last round of the league this year, when towering ex-Cavan player Lorcan Mulvey scored 1-3 for the Exiles.

"London were right in the game until the last 10 minutes. They're big and strong but they just tired and our extra fitness made the difference in the end," he observes. "We were lucky to get out of Ruislip by a point two years ago and the current manager seems to have them well organised.

"At the start of the year, when we saw the draw, everyone was thinking that we could get to a Connacht final if we could beat Sligo, no one was thinking about London.

"When you saw that game, and the way Sligo hit the woodwork early and in the late stages, you could see it wasn't going to be their day and everyone had to think then about London.

"Our league game against them was far too close for comfort.

"Over the years, discipline has been one of London's problems. They tended to get a player or two sent off in big games which could be a factor, though we'll have to watch our discipline ourselves."

Leitrim's decision to drop four of their players – Wayne McKeon, Shane Moran and Tomas and Conor Beirne – for an internal disciplinary matter since the New York quarter-final has also caused some controversy in the build-up.

"You'd wonder if that decision will come back to haunt us," Crossan says. "But hopefully not and I still expect us to be two or three points ahead at the end."

Irish Independent

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