Keith Beirne continues to soar as Leitrim eye promotion out of the bottom tier
There’s a good chance that four teams could finish on the same points after the final round of games and that’s what makes the conclusion of Division 4 so fascinating this weekend.
Tony McEntee’s Sligo sit atop the fourth tier on 10 points, but with a trip to Carrick-on-Shannon on the horizon to face Leitrim (eight points) on Sunday, promotion is far from certain and defeat could see them edged out on score difference.
Wicklow and Laois (eight points apiece) are also in action at the same time (1.0) with both expected to account for Waterford and London respectively – based on recent form, although the pair must travel – and that could mean a four-way tie on score difference.
Sligo (+26), Leitrim (+29) and Laois (+24) would have the upper hand over Wicklow (+6) should that materialise but the Yeats men can blow all permutations out of the water should they account for Leitrim in Páirc Seán MacDiarmada, or get a draw at worst.
That would leave the other promotion spot up for grabs between Laois and Wicklow but the wheel has turned in Leitrim’s favour in recent weeks and former captain Gary Reynolds is expecting a big performance from Andy Moran’s men, given the stakes involved.
Reynolds spent most of his lengthy inter-county career “in the basement” of Division 4 but he is relishing the prospect of a promotion bid after Leitrim got their campaign back on track against Laois last week, 2-14 to 0-18.
“If you were to give us this two weeks ago in Aughrim when the boys had let the lead slip and even down in Wexford Park when they let the lead slip in the second half, we’d have taken your hand off,” Reynolds told independent.ie.
“But the boys stood up last weekend and it’s very exciting. I was involved in 2019, the last time we got promoted, and it was brilliant around the county and it’s even more so now with Andy coming in and jazzing the thing up.
“He’s a popular figure and he’s got the vibe around the county going again. They came in for certain criticism having been ahead against Wicklow and Wexford, but they were able to grind it out the last day. As Andy said, it means nothing if we can’t go out and beat Sligo, though.”
Reynolds reckons that Sligo and Leitrim are on a “similar trajectory” under youthful managers and this is the first of two clashes between the Connacht pair ahead of a likely provincial semi-final come April 22.
London and New York will have plenty to say about that in their quarter-final bouts on April 8 but the carrot of a Connacht final is within touching distance for both after it took penalties to separate them in last year’s Tailteann Cup quarter-final with Sligo prevailing.
“It bodes well for the summer ahead if we can get one over on Sligo. It’s in Carrick and based on the performance last weekend, we’d have to be going in as slight favourites but Sligo are after winning five on the bounce as well,” Reynolds said.
In Keith Beirne, Leitrim have the most potent attacker in the country at present with his tally of 5-48 (29f, 0-2 ’45, 1m) over six games dwarfing the next highest scorer, Westmeath’s John Heslin of 3-32 (26f, 1-0 pen) in Division 3.
Reynolds knew the type of talent that was coming up through the ranks but he insists that the two-footed Beirne has “gone to another level”, the only pity is that injury has robbed them of Ryan O’Rourke alongside him up front.
“He’s not just sitting back and kicking over the bombs, he’s making the hard yards and his ability to kick and score is second to none. As regards a top-class forward, you get them once in an era and Keith is hugely important for Leitrim,” Reynolds said.
“Keith’s different gravy. He’s working hard for the team and the boys around are working hard for him. It seems to be a team effort but Keith is the main man.
“He’s being talked about a lot and that’s for a reason, his ability to finish is second to none. Those guys come along every so often, they’re not something that’s around all the time.
“His ability to find scores even when it’s not clicking for him is phenomenal and hopefully young lads around the county are looking at that and hoping to emulate him.”
Beirne will be needed at his very best once again as they bid to book their Division 4 final place on what will be a dramatic day in the league’s bottom tier.
The only pity is that the chaotic nature of events and the jeopardy involved will likely get lost in the excitement around the other three divisions and splitting the conclusion of each division at different times over the two days would have made more sense in terms of marketing each tier.