Wednesday 13 December 2017

The team who disappeared

Donnchadh Boyle and Paschal Mooney

IF ever a picture painted a thousand words, it's this one.

The 2010 Leitrim championship squad gathered in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada to have their team photograph taken. Two years later, only 10 of them are still involved.

It's a remarkable turnover for any county, but close to unbelievable for a county whose playing resources are as shallow as Leitrim's.

Injuries and retirements have taken their usual toll but the spectre of emigration has haunted Leitrim more than most counties, while other players have been forced to different parts of the country in search of work.

There's also the unfavourable effort-to-reward ratio. Chances of success are low and players are more likely to step away before their time is up.

While they have been particularly badly hit, none of these issues are exclusive to Leitrim.

Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick said recently that he has lost 11 players to foreign shores since he gathered his first squad of the season together in January.

And just last week, Westmeath lost their captain Gary Connaughton to Boston, while after last Saturday night's Leinster Football Championship defeat to Meath, Carlow boss Luke Dempsey was asked if he would be able to keep his squad together or if he'd lose more players before the start of the qualifiers.

He smiled and replied: "I'll tell you on Tuesday night."

The bigger counties haven't been hit to the same extent and, even when they have, they have been able to entice their players home -- as witnessed by Joe Sheridan's brief sojourn to the USA.

As Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney pointed out recently, success and silverware have become the preserve of the elite more than ever as preparation costs mean the poorer counties don't compete on a level playing field.

"If you look at the teams that are winning All-Irelands over the past 10 or 15 years, are they the biggest counties? Are they the richest counties? The answer is yes," McGeeney observed.

For avid observers of Leitrim football, it's nothing new.

The story goes that in the week after the county's minor footballers were beaten in the 1956 All-Ireland minor final by Dublin, 12 of the starting 15 left the country.

Ironically, that swathe of emigration would coincide with the county's most consistent periods when they reached consecutive provincial finals from 1957-60, but fell to Galway on each occasion.

More recently, 25 footballers from the county travelled to Kilmallock to take on Limerick in the spring of 2008.

The current National league format had just been introduced and Leitrim needed a point to preserve their Division 3 status and guarantee themselves a shot at the qualifiers later that summer.

Leitrim lost by a point and were confined to the Tommy Murphy Cup once their Connacht championship interests had ended.

By the time the teams met last February in the first round of the league, a scan of the names in the match programme showed that none of the 25 that had travelled in 2008 were still involved.

Martin McGowan has been involved with Leitrim county sides since 1999 when he and Jimmy Holohan took charge of the U-16s.

He has worked with Leitrim teams at every level since and guided the county to a Connacht minor final where they lost out to Michael Meehan's Galway side.

He served as a senior selector for the past couple of seasons until stepping down "to charge the batteries."

However, resources are scant, meaning that didn't last too long and he is back involved with the U-14 development squad.

"Things are particularly bad now because of the recession," McGowan concedes. "Even going back to the team that beat Sligo last year, a handful of them have moved on, for a variety of reasons but it's mostly work.

"There are lads who are not in that picture who have emigrated or left Leitrim for work.

"In the three years I served as a selector with Mickey Moran and John Morrison, I would say the actual number of players (who have left) who would have been involved in the senior squad at different stages is around 30.

"That's a whole panel. And it means that every year you're going back to square one and you're rebuilding."

McGowan concedes that the emphasis on physical preparation that helped the likes of Kildare and Dublin see off Offaly and Louth has widened the gap between the 'haves and have-nots' and that, for the time being at least, days like 1994 -- the last time they secured the Connacht title -- seem as far away as ever for Leitrim.

disadvantage

"We're at a disadvantage -- no doubt. There's no real population centre and therefore no industry and employment that we can get people," admits McGowan.

"At underage level there is work going on in the physical side of things, and that wasn't happening before. So while we're a little behind in that regard now, that's a gap we can close."

In the meantime, Leitrim will have to deal with the reality of how the rest of the country sees their team.

London were favourites to repeat their 1977 -- and only -- Connacht championship success over Leitrim when the teams met at the start of the month.

But Leitrim found a way to set up Sunday's showdown with Mayo in Castlebar, where they'll be underdogs again.

"First of all, Leitrim have to deliver a performance that does themselves justice and just see where that takes them. After that the result will take care of it self," says McGowan.

"We face a challenge against them, and in the general sense, but that's the thing about Leitrim people, they'll meet it head on."

Irish Independent

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