Mulligan pulls the strings as Leitrim retain title
LEITRIM 2-5 ROSCOMMON 1-7
FBD League final: Having claimed their first trophy in over 20 years when they won this competition a year ago, there was understandable euphoria yet again when Leitrim retained their title in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada.
The back-slapping and hugs when players and supporters mingled freely on the pitch in Carrick afterwards showed just what holding on to their crown meant to them.
Not only was it a victory over one of their bogey teams before the last few Christmas choccies had been scoffed, but the scoreline flattered the Rossies who also lost the bragging rights ahead of this summer's championship clash.
It was also achieved under a new management team and while captain Emlyn Mulligan was at pains to warn people not to get too carried away, Leitrim's new boss Sean Hagan reckoned it will stand to them.
"As Emlyn said himself coming up to this, there's only three trophies we can win this year – and this is one of them. Every inter-county footballer plays to win something," the Longford native said.
"Winning breeds confidence and winning a trophy, especially, is always a boost to your self-belief and confidence. It's all about the squad. We have 37 lads at the moment and I think every member of it has played a role in this FBD run and the 16th man – the supporters – also drove us over the line today."
Mulligan's acceptance speech also acknowledged the home support in the considerable crowd (over 3,000), who had defied the Baltic conditions and he urged them all to return next weekend for their Division 4 NFL opener against Antrim.
It was certainly a far cry from Leitrim's hero-to-zero fall from grace last summer when they lost to London and subsequently got an eight-goal mauling from Armagh.
Bringing their good early-season form into the league will now be the priority and their supporters saw enough here to be optimistic.
Division 3 side Roscommon played second fiddle throughout the game and their blushes were only spared by a piledriver of a late goal from Niall Daly.
Adding to the romance of Leitrim's victory was the form of Wayne McKeon – one of four players controversially dropped last summer – whose brilliant performance at wing-back won him the man-of-the-match trophy.
And Mohill's John Mulligan won't forget his county senior debut either as he got their second goal, in the 56th minute, at a vital time when Roscommon had clawed the deficit back to two points.
But, at the heart of everything was their captain fantastic Mulligan, spotting free men and threading sublime passes constantly like a virtuoso conductor.
The champions defied playing into the teeth of a gale by leading by a goal (1-3 to 0-3) at half-time, though Ray Cox was lucky to avoid a red card for retaliating in a second-quarter incident which saw Conor Devaney booked.
Their first goal came just six minutes in when Emlyn Mulligan put Ray Cox through and Aaron Hickey was on hand to put away the rebound after a Darren O'Malley save.
Despite wind advantage, Roscommon didn't score until the 13th minute, shot six wides in that first half and their three scores, noticeably, all came from defenders. Only after Michael Finneran's introduction did they gain some traction upfront, yet he was used largely as a sweeper.
The introduction of Diarmuid Murtagh, the St Faithleachs' teenager tipped for big things – who had scored 1-4 for their U-21s in the Hasting Cup semi-finals a day earlier – finally saw Roscommon rally upfront and his brilliant second point cut the deficit to two with a quarter left.
But Leitrim, who looked fitter and hungrier throughout, stayed resolute and Mulligan unselfishly set up their second green flag which new boy Mulligan (no relation) put away after a composed goalmouth one-two with Tomas Beirne.
Despite the wind advantage, they only scored three times in the second half, which indicates the difficulty of conditions which brought a shower of snow in the dying minutes.
But all three, including points from Clancy and Cox, were gems and Roscommon got 1-1 of their total in the dying minutes.
They were forced to start without Darren Sweeney and also lost Robbie Lowe, who had been doing well, to injury.
Others to stand out were corner-back Paddy Maguire and half-forward Fergal Clancy, and Daniel Beck also did well when he came in after they lost Paul Brennan to the game's only black card.
The Rossies' U-21s have reached the Hastings Cup final against Meath which may be a factor in their early-season form.
But they will have to take a good hard look at themselves this week before their difficult away league opener to neighbours Longford.
They still have some big names to return, with Donie Shine and Ian Kilbride not even on the bench yesterday, but, apart from their defence, where the Daly brothers, Sean McDermott and Niall Carty did well, they looked surprisingly sluggish and disinterested at times.
"Fair play to Leitrim they deserved their win, we couldn't have any qualms," said their disappointed manager John Evans, who pulled his players into a tight huddle afterwards for a stern onfield address.
"It's a good kick in the backside for us," the Kerryman said. "But we're hoping we'll learn from that ahead of Pearse Park next week. The only thing I'd say is that we did fight back, we did stay in the game against the wind in the second half, but we just didn't take enough of our chances, especially in the first half."
Scorers – Leitrim: A Hickey, J Mulligan 1-0 each, W McKeon 0-2, F Clancy, R Cox, E Mulligan (f) 0-1 each. Roscommon: N Daly 1-1, D Murtagh 0-2 (1f), N Carty, C Daly, C Murtagh, C Cregg (f) 0-1 each.
Leitrim – C McCrann; B Brior, D Wrynn, P Maguire; P Brennan, G Reynolds, W McKeon; A Hickey, D Moran; K Conlan, R Lowe, F Clancy; E Mulligan (Capt), T Beirne, R Cox. Subs: D Beck for Brennan (22, BC), J Glancy for Lowe (inj,40) G Hickey for Moran (45), J Mulligan for Cox (57), E Mahon for A Hickey (59).
Roscommon – D O'Malley; N Collins, N Carty (Capt), C Cafferky; S McDermott, N Daly, C Daly; C Shine, K Higgins; C Devaney, C Burns, M Nally; S Kilbride, C Cregg, C Murtagh. Subs: M Finneran for Burns (24), D Keane for Devaney (h-t), D Murtagh for Kilbridge (h-t), D O'Gara for Nally (46), E Smith for Higgins (57).
REF – M Duffy (Sligo).