The great escape
We thought of Leitrim as inherently Division 4 and maybe they thought that of themselves too
This wasn't one of those two-men-and-a-dog days. Leitrim footballers are well acquainted with days like that, where the ground is abandoned by all but the players and a few hardy souls. Relatives, friends, and not a bandwagon to be seen.
This was different. The crowd was up around 4,000 and at the end there was an RTé camera and mic pointing towards the Leitrim captain, Michael McWeeney, as he explained to the nation as best he could what this meant to his county, winning promotion from Division 4.
We know Division 1 to be cut-throat and Division 2 to be zany and Division 3 to be a bit nondescript. But Division 4 has become a prison, a place where you wear the convict's clothes unless you make quick your escape. A long incarceration can sap the will and the pool of players willing to give that commitment can suddenly begin to thin. America looks good in the summer. Lads start building houses. The travelling becomes too much.
It becomes easier to write down the negatives on the blank page with the line drawn down the middle, where the reasons for and against are on either side. Since the National League was restructured into the four divisions we have now, Leitrim's footballers, apart from the first season, have lived in the basement. They had a year in Division 3, 11 years ago, suffered relegation, and never returned.
We have come to think of Leitrim as inherently Division 4. And maybe for a while they had to come to see themselves as that way too. A couple of years ago John O'Mahony, who worked with the former manager Brendan Guckian, explained the challenge numerically, estimating that the pick is around 300 footballers in the whole county, including junior and intermediate players.
Five years ago, speaking on the 20th anniversary of Leitrim's last Connacht senior football title, the former county secretary Tommy Moran touched on this impediment. "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," stated 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."
The year before Moran spoke those words, Leitrim had crashed out of the Connacht Championship at London's hands, losing a golden opportunity to reach the provincial final. But true horror and appalling indignity awaited them in the qualifiers. On July 13, 2013, before an attendance of 4,371 in Carrick-on-Shannon, they were demolished by Armagh by 8-13 to 0-10.
London stood between them at Carrick last Sunday and promotion to Division 3 with two rounds to spare. They were at home, on a roll after defeating Wexford, Wicklow, Antrim and Limerick, but nothing can be taken for granted. Sharp disappointment has been a conspicuous part of Leitrim's history. The loss to London in 2013 is still vivid. Older followers remember the shock loss to London in the 1977 championship.
That year their under 21s had beaten Roscommon in the Connacht final and lost by only two points to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-finals. The previous year the senior team beat Mayo in a Connacht Championship replay. But in '77 London had their first ever Connacht championship win, at Leitrim's expense. Noel Crossan, goalkeeper that day, spoke of a "terrible silence" in the dressing room afterwards.
"Seldom has a Leitrim team failed so dismally," the Leitrim Observer lamented at the time. "Adjectives fail to describe such a sub-standard performance. It certainly was diabolical and one which the team should feel ashamed of. There appeared to be nothing to motivate them, not even the ignominy of a defeat by complete outsiders."
And there was the infamous scare in June 1997 when, with seconds left, Leitrim trailed by three points and were headed for defeat in Ruislip. A controversial penalty allowed Declan Darcy the chance to score an equaliser and Leitrim won in extra-time. A report in a London GAA match programme some years later referred to the penalty call as one of the "greatest travesties" in GAA history.
Writing for the Leitrim Observer since 1990, and with a broad and intimate experience of Leitrim's football travails, John Connolly betrayed understandable relief when reporting on a "hard fought and nervous victory" over London which sealed their escape last Sunday, relishing their freedom after 11 seasons in the bottom tier.
But the game was tight and tense. The dazzling play that put Wexford to the sword at the same venue in round one was missing. Leitrim led just 1-4 to 0-4 at half-time and there was just one score registered between the two teams for the next 15 minutes. But they came through and the feeling afterwards was one of relief more than anything else, as it often is when something is achieved after great effort and disappointment along the way.
In an encouragingly young squad, Gary Reynolds is now one of the veterans, along with Emlyn Mulligan and goalkeeper Cathal McCrann. Reynolds, a former captain who has been injury-plagued in recent years, didn't get a run in any of the recent league games, while Mulligan's input has been restricted and McCrann is now deputy 'keeper. Reynolds was on the field when they were routed by Armagh.
He is back with his home club Carrigallen, after three years playing with Oliver Plunketts in Dublin where he works. On Friday last he left work at 4.0pm to head to training at the Centre of Excellence in Annaduff, picking up Eoin Ward in Maynooth on the way. He was aiming to be at Annaduff by 7.20 for training at 8.0, depending on the traffic. On Tuesday nights, due to the high number based in Dublin, up to 20 Leitrim footballers train collectively in Blanchardstown.
Reynolds is the youngest of five. The day before they got destroyed by Armagh in 2013, he was at his eldest brother's wedding. "It was a weird experience for me because obviously I could not have a late night. I sacrificed everything to go out and get well beaten the next day. I was questioning whether or not I'd play football any more after that one.
"The reception was in Carrick, which was only down the road from the ground. I went to bed early that night and got up early to head to the Armagh game. It was a kind of double whammy, because all my cousins and family were down for the wedding and they all ended up heading off to the game after, so they didn't get a good time out that day unfortunately."
That season began brightly when they won the FBD League and came through their opening Connacht Championship match in New York convincingly. But a panel dispute led to several players withdrawing and the season went into a tailspin.
Holding on to the players is a constant challenge. "There was a study done a few years ago on the turnover of players in counties and I think ourselves and Carlow might have been up at the top over ten years, I think it was from 2006-'16, and Dublin was the least (affected)," says Reynolds. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, the more lads you keep together the more chance you have of building a winning mentality.
"Unfortunately, Leitrim, since I have been there, have had maybe seven or eight managers. It is an awful lot of managers for that period of time. It was a mixture of lads being unable to commit and unable to see what they were getting out of it and it is marrying that with getting managers in on a one or two years basis instead of having a sustained period of commitment.
"The main one would be all the commitment you put in, what exactly do you get out of it? As a young lad growing up, all I wanted to do was to play for Leitrim so when I came into the panel I suppose I was lucky, there was a massively experienced team who felt they deserved to play in a Connacht final and maybe win one and over the years that passed.
"You'd have a lot of lads chopping and changing. Couple of lads deciding to go to America mid-season. I don't blame those young guys but maybe let that be known earlier in the year instead of having collective training and all of a sudden when the bubble bursts everyone heads off. But of course you would (have doubts). After suffering a harrowing defeat you would be on the phone for hours the following day trying to make sense of it. Wondering is it worth coming back."
He has looked at Mayo being seen as a hard case deserving of sympathy for not landing an All-Ireland. "Some of those guys had won five Connacht titles in a row, I don't think they were taking it for granted but I felt like saying, why wouldn't they go back? Like all the positive press that they get, all the highlights that they get, and we are here, Emlyn, myself and Cathal, Paddy and Mick McWeeney are playing 10 or 12 years, and we couldn't even hold a light to some of the success Mayo have had. So I think it is more difficult for the likes of us coming back than it is for those guys."
Reynolds will soon turn 32 and has been with the squad since 2006, the year after he played county minor, with the exception of 2012 which he spent in Australia. Everything is relative. His trouble with hamstrings in recent years, which he puts down to rushing recovery and playing through injuries, is set alongside the three cruciate injuries that befell his contemporary Mulligan. It could always be worse, if you look at things a certain way.
But now, they have Derry in Croke Park in the Division 4 final, where he last set foot in 2006 in the Tommy Murphy final but didn't play. "Huge," he says, "it's huge. From a competitive point of view I think it will mean more to us to go up there and win the thing. We don't want to go and have a day in the sun. We are going there to win and to try and bring the trophy home."
That day in 2006, the Murphy Cup final was a curtain-raiser to the epic All-Ireland semi-final between Mayo and Dublin. Leitrim were a fleeting part of a truly big day.
Last Sunday they repaired to Cox's in Dromod after the match, and then Reynolds travelled back to Dublin by car with his girlfriend. Around the midlands they were hit with a snowstorm that led to major traffic delays and added a few hours to the journey. He laughs at the idea of being stuck on the N4 in the cold of early March on such a momentous day but it didn't matter. He mightn't have been going anywhere soon but Leitrim were going up.
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