Wednesday 18 September 2019

Longford club of just 114 adults on the brink of provincial history

Mullinalaghta seeking to become first side from county to contest Leinster senior final

Mickey Graham is double-jobbing at the moment, juggling his role with Mullinalaghta and the Cavan senior position. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Mickey Graham is double-jobbing at the moment, juggling his role with Mullinalaghta and the Cavan senior position. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The 2016 Census recorded a population of 305 in Mullinalaghta. Longford GAA records the local club, St Columba's, membership at 155 - of which 114 are adults.

And yet here they are, back in a Leinster senior club football semi-final for the second time in three years, brimming with hope that they can be the first club from their county to reach a provincial decider.

Only the Wexford and Longford champions from the 11 competitive Leinster counties have failed to progress that far in the competition's 48-year history.

Mullinalaghta haven't allowed scale to deter them from being ambitious about a third successive provincial campaign.

The other three remaining teams have strong urban roots; Dublin's Kilmacud Crokes, Portlaoise and their opponent's on Sunday, Éire Óg from Carlow town.

They are three of the four most successful clubs in Leinster with 16 titles between them.

Trace back through the roll of honour and you won't find too many past champions drawing on a rural population.

So, whatever way they turn, Mullinalaghta are already swimming against the tide.

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Under the careful stewardship of former Cavan player Mickey Graham they have become the dominant force in Longford, winning the last three titles with final wins each time over Abbeylara - a neighbouring parish in the north of the county close to the Cavan border, with whom they merge to play underage under the banner of Northern Gaels because neither have the playing resources to go it alone.

Graham has been double-jobbing in recent weeks after taking over from Mattie McGleenan as Cavan manager.

So a week like this he is found either in Kingspan Breffni Park where Cavan have resumed training for a Division 1 campaign or 20 miles west and just over the border in Mullinalaghta.

Ironically, Mullinalaghta is one part of a parish that also incorporates Gowna in Cavan but support has traditionally been two-way.

Graham says the team are driven by losses in successive years in Leinster to St Vincent's and St Loman's.

They led Loman's by six points down the home straight before losing by one, with the Mullingar side themselves losing a subsequent final they should have wrapped against Moorefield the next day.

"It's one game that haunted us for a long time afterwards.

"We all felt it was one we were in control of coming up to the last 10 minutes," he reflected.

"We were turned over, they went down the field, got a penalty and the whole game swung on that.

"It was a harsh lesson to learn but we gained a lot of confidence knowing that we are well able to compete.

"If you look at the last three provincial campaigns, Mullinalaghta have held their own, the year before we got to a semi-final after beating Loman's and Stradbally and with 10 minutes to go against St Vincent's we were only two points down, right in the game at that stage."

Graham says the same 25 or so squad members have been involved in all three Longford successes, such is the scarcity of resources.

"We don't take anything or anybody for granted because we are such a small club.

"Every day we go out we have to be on top of our game, we don't have a huge panel and everyone that starts a game has to be performing.

"We felt in the last number of years that's what cost us, we don't have a lot of players to call on when a game is in the balance."

Beating Rhode in the quarter-final was their first win away from home over the three provincial campaigns.

Graham managed the Cavan minors for a few years having taken over in 2008 at the age of 32.

His Cavan appointment sees him, in his own words, "going in at the deep end" as they find themselves back in a most competitive Division 1, just two years after being relegated in the company of many of the same teams.

"We're looking forward to it and the players will not be long figuring out the level they need to get to.

"Cavan is a small county and you just have to make sure you have all the best players available to play and get them committed and that's one of the biggest challenges we have in the next few weeks."

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