Monday 19 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Class divisions stoke intense local rivalry

Footballers of Leitrim and Roscommon have different expectations every time they meet

Roscommon got a shock against New York and Cathal Cregg will be doing his best to make sure that they don’t get another one this afternoon against Leitrim. Photo: Sportsfile
Roscommon got a shock against New York and Cathal Cregg will be doing his best to make sure that they don’t get another one this afternoon against Leitrim. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There's a famous British comedy sketch from the 1960s featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. Cleese, wearing a bowler hat, looks at Barker, wearing a panama, and says, "I look down on him because I am upper class." Barker says, "I look up to him because he is upper class," and, looking at Corbett who's wearing a flat cap, "And I look down at him because he is lower class. I am middle class."

Corbett says, "I know my place. I look up to them both. But I don't look up to him (Barker) as much as I look up to him (Cleese)." And so on.

It's a perceptive piece about the class system which also functions as a neat description of the hierarchy of Connacht football. Here Mayo and Galway are the aristocracy, Leitrim and Sligo are the proletariat and Roscommon are anxiously perched in the middle, striving to be regarded as an equal by the top two while worrying that they may be dragged down to the level of the bottom pair.

The series of games between these two counties in the 1990s when they won three of the first five provincial crowns of the decade were as compelling in their way as the higher profile Meath-Dublin clashes in Leinster. And it was common at the time to hear Roscommon fans describe the prospect of losing to Leitrim as a doomsday scenario and Leitrim fans proclaim that the one county they couldn't stand losing to was Roscommon.

Why so? Well, when Galway and Mayo get their acts together they can regard victory over Sligo and Leitrim as pretty much automatic. Roscommon never have that luxury, as was shown by their defeat against Sligo last year and the colossal fright they got in New York a couple of weeks back. Even though they are 1/12 favourites to win in Carrick-on-Shannon today they can't be entirely sure.

For Leitrim, as for Sligo, Roscommon are something of a standing rebuke. No-one can seriously criticise a county that size for failing to match Mayo or Galway but Roscommon's population is only twice that of Leitrim and no-one can deny that the Rossies have achieved much, much more than two times the success of their neighbours. No county in the GAA, apart from Kilkenny, punches above its weight like Roscommon and that's made them the neighbours you love to hate for not just Leitrim but Sligo and Longford as well.

Add in the fact that the counties are close enough geographically to have been on several occasions forced into an unwilling embrace at election time and you have a rivalry whose spice might be surprising to those who don't know the territory. This closeness is perhaps personified by John McGahern, often described as a Leitrim writer when Roscommon folk can claim with some justification that he grew up over the border in Cootehall and set much of his best work there.

When the sides lock horns there is a sense that Roscommon feel it's a bit infra dig to have to be worrying about a scrap like this and that Leitrim know they feel this and regard it as the height of condescension and arrogance. In these games Roscommon have everything and Leitrim nothing to lose.

Perhaps the most memorable encounter between the counties was the 1994 clash at Hyde Park when Leitrim, who'd been put out of the championship four years running by Roscommon, finally laid the bogey as Declan Darcy scored a last-gasp long-range free to get them over the line. Leitrim went on to win a first Connacht title in 67 years and it was perhaps that victory which convinced them that a breakthrough was finally imminent.

Even after the end of the halcyon days under John O'Mahony Leitrim have still had an odd shock in store for Roscommon. Their 2000 win in Hyde Park was probably the biggest shock of that year's championship, while four years later they earned a dramatic draw in Carrick, wing-back Barry Prior storming up the field for an inspirational equaliser at the death.

The tensions between Leitrim and Roscommon are those of a relationship which means different things to the two participants. For Roscommon their meeting is a brief encounter, a distraction to be indulged in before getting back to what really matters. For Leitrim on the other hand, it's hugely important, a chance to make Roscommon admit that they belong together. Think Fatal Attraction.

Today Leitrim will hope to rise up out of the bath one more time and frighten the living daylights out of their old partners. Roscommon, on the other hand, will look around Carrick, wonder what they're doing here and try to engineer a painless exit which lets them get on with the rest of their championship life.

That shouldn't be any problem. Should it?

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