Vintage year still tastes sweet
The glories of 1994 will forever be the Leitrim benchmark, writes Dermot Crowe
WHEN the media converged on 95-year-old Tom Gannon in 1994, he had none of the advantages those being asked to reminisce on Leitrim's last Connacht title win enjoy now. Gannon had to trawl back 67 years. Tommy Moran was county secretary when Leitrim regained the title 20 years ago and much of that summer is still fresh in his mind.
He is 72, has followed Leitrim football for 60 years and is an excellent raconteur. Will he ever see another? If he's honest, he doesn't think so.
Today they travel to Hyde Park as they did in '94 for the first round of the championship but with nothing like the same players John O'Mahony had at his disposal. "Course you always live in hope," says Moran, explaining why they keep going.
"Around the 1980s we never thought we would win a Connacht final in '94. I mean out of five counties, only five tickets in the raffle and you were buying one every year for 67 years – wouldn't you imagine one year it would happen, some fluke or whatever?"
They opened at the Hyde in '94 and won by a point. Declan Darcy's '45 three minutes from the end of normal time saw them through but those last three minutes, and three more minutes of injury time, were an eternity for their followers in the 12,000 crowd. In the semi-final against Galway, they needed a Darcy point to rescue them and force a draw, the replay going to Tuam. In 1993, they had beaten Galway in Tuam which was big.
"People will say Galway and Mayo were not as strong," says Moran, "but there was a time when the Galway jersey was nearly enough to frighten us. Probably the best team Leitrim had was in the 1950s, with Packie McGarty and Cathal Flynn, but they lost four Connacht finals in a row to Galway. They were very close in 1958. We lost another in '63. There was a kind of a jinx there. The turnaround really came in '93 when we beat Galway in Tuam – we hadn't beaten them for years and years (1949) . . . we almost beat them in '83 in Carrick too.
"The team had improved. We were very, very bad in the 1980s, and towards the end of the '80s PJ Carroll came in and in fairness to him I don't think we would have won the Connacht final if he hadn't done the work. PJ was a great man to motivate a team and get them ready but he would see nothing but the ref and the linesmen – he would fuck them crossways. Everyone was wrong!"
Moran went to school in Ballinamore where Gannon was his teacher. In the schoolyard they kicked ball with the former captain – "we kicked the shins off him" – and many years later when county secretary, Moran saw to it that Gannon was in the Hyde for the money shot when Darcy went to receive the Nestor Cup. The two captains, former and present, jointly received the trophy on behalf of all those who pledged allegiance to Leitrim over the years.
One of Gannon's recollections from his time was of the team returning to Ballinamore soon after midnight following the 1927 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kerry and finding the streets empty. The next day they had a photograph taken of the team and before long some began to emigrate and the group broke up. When Darcy led Leitrim into Ballinamore at the tail-end of a county tour the day after winning the Connacht final in 1994, it was four in the morning. They were still dancing and singing on the streets.
Declan Darcy is now a Dublin senior football selector enjoying the sunny side of the street. But he knows how the other half lives. Leitrim is the home county of his parents where he visited regularly in the summers of his childhood. Leitrim's population has grown by 27 per cent since 1996 but it remains the least populous county and a formidable challenge when striving to field competitive county teams.
"There would be as many in a couple of flats in Ballymun but, as the fella says, you can only dance with the girls in the hall, you can only pick what's there," states Moran. "I'd be over in Galway and driving around, you see how the place is really built up, and you'd say to yourself how in the name of jaysus can Leitrim compete? We always have four or five players who would get on most teams and one or two who would make any team but never enough. But we had 25 good players in 1994."
Leitrim defeated Roscommon in 2000 and reached another Connacht final and have had some respectable performances in recent years. But they had taken some awful hidings too. Last year they lost to London and then in mid-July innocently ran into Armagh's blades, an 8-13 to 0-10 massacre on their home ground. "Jamie Clarke went sidestepping lads in the last minute going for a goal," Moran remarks, "when I thought he could have punched the ball over the bar."
They will go to the Hyde today with hope, having put in a competitive league in which they were strong promotion contenders until losing unexpectedly in Waterford. And because they always fancy a crack at Roscommon. "I do say that to my young fellas, they would be giving out when they go and see Leitrim beaten and I say to them I am going to matches for 60 years and seeing Leitrim beaten regularly," says Moran. "I would have to say these fellas are giving fierce commitment and they are not a bit afraid of Roscommon."
He accepts they would not have won a Connacht title in 1994 without Darcy, whose father Frank trained the several Dublin-based players in Kells. His son's juvenile career with Aughawillan led to appearances for the county minor, under 21 and senior teams. He captained the under 21s to the Connacht title in 1991. "We will never have a captain in the next 500 years," says Moran, "that will captain an under 21 team and senior team to a Connacht title."
Darcy's free three minutes into injury-time saved them in the 1994 semi-final against Galway and in the replay Pádraig Kenny scored the winner on the stroke of full-time. They hadn't qualified for a senior provincial final since 1967. They beat Mayo 0-12 to 2-4 in the poor final before a 30,000 attendance. The quality was of little consequence. Dublin stopped them in the All-Ireland semi-final, winning 3-15 to 1-9.
"When the draw was made (for Connacht in 1994) we said, 'oh jaysus we are going to have to beat Roscommon, Galway and Mayo'; normally you would say there is not a hope of that, but John O'Mahony had worked on their heads. I remember being at the Connacht final in '58, Packie McGarty was chaired off the field 'cos we had ran them to two points, and that was considered success. Because we were not crucified. Which was a funny way to look at it," Moran relates.
"We played Dublin and, well, we were hockeyed but the county was mad. Everyone was wearing jerseys and flags were on top of silage pits and haysheds, I think some are still up there. There was a great buzz in '94. Charlie McGettigan, whose son Shane played for Leitrim in later years, won the Eurovision which we thought was a good omen, and the Shannon-Erne waterway was opened after being closed since the 1800s and Masonite came to base their factory in Leitrim, they came from Canada, and the whole county was going well and everyone in great humour."
He remembers the night they presented the medals and people "kicking the door to get in" and how this contrasted with other counties whose presentations were a great deal more routine and low-key.
"I remember a fella from home, Oliver Kelleher, painted the car green and gold and he had something like 67 summonses by the time he got to Dublin (for the All-Ireland semi-final). The judge said it was a terrible state of affairs and asked if he could explain himself. 'Well judge, I did it up in the Leitrim colours and it was 67 years since we won and maybe another 67 till we'll win again'. Case dismissed."
The day of the Connacht final, Moran remembers the team doctor Declan Loftus telling him to go to the dugout because he was concerned he might take a heart-attack. He had an open-top bus ordered in case they won and parked discreetly in Carrick in case they lost. They made their way there, got on the bus and toured the town. That was when he felt the penny dropped; Leitrim were champions.
He remembers the county tour the next day and night running way behind schedule and getting to Drumreilly at 3.0am and the local juvenile band, undeterred, giving it socks.
But they had good players and a very good manager. "John O'Mahony would be ringing you at 7.30 in the morning to see did you sort out that physio, he left nothing to chance."
Joe Reynolds was a selector and a member of the first team to win a provincial under 21 title in 1977. Ollie Honeyman also served as a selector, another former player and a lively character.
Moran reels off others who played their part. "Eamonn Duignan, who played in '83 against Galway and was also on the under 21 team that won a Connacht title in '77, he was chairman of the supporters' club who did great work raising money. Leitrim would never raise enough money on their own. Around 80-90,000 (euro) comes from them every year."
What O'Mahony achieved with Leitrim was on a par with what he managed with Galway four years later, in Moran's book. The only gnawing regret is that they did not win it again in 1995 and have a real stab at Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Galway won by a point in Carrick on a hot summer's evening, Niall Finnegan's long-distance free ending Leitrim's summer. They went on to easily beat Mayo in the provincial final and came close to defeating Tyrone.
"Maybe it's a pipedream but we thought we could have gone on and reached an All-Ireland final. That's how we were thinking."
After that the team started to dissolve. Darcy left in 1996 and saw out his career with Dublin partly because the Leitrim team was changing. O'Mahony left as manager. Moran stepped down as secretary at the end of 1999. Tom Gannon passed away at 99 in 1998. Mayo and Galway began to reassert their authority with vastly improved sides which were a force not just provincially, but nationally as well.
Moran is asked if there is anything that can be done for counties like Leitrim to carry on in the face of such forbidding odds.
"The way things are going there will nearly have to be a two-tier thing. When they are knocked out enter a second tier and play the finals on the same day as the All-Ireland, something like that."
The distance between rich and poor has greatly widened in the 20 years since Leitrim won the Nestor Cup. Moran knows that. All the more reason then to treasure the rare adventure they experienced in 1994. They may never see its likes again.
Sunday Indo Sport