When the rare opportunity drops to write about Leitrim, you might think the starting point would be John McGahern, and some devastating quote about love, loss and the tragic beauty of rural Ireland.
Instead, we begin with a table; and not one you would sit around drinking poitin, but rather a league table posted this week by rather Ronseal- titled twitter account @GAALeagueTables, which listed every inter-county team in order of win/loss and points differential after the first two rounds of the National Football League.
There, sitting atop the Dublins and the Mayos and the Kerrys, with two wins from two and a bucket load scored, are Leitrim.
Lovely Leitrim. A David above the Goliaths.
This table will not count for anything tangible come the end of the league, but it does serve a purpose in capturing who across the divisions is on form, and most crucially scoring. Leitrim’s two opening wins — home against Wexford and away to Wicklow — saw them rack up 4-31. Quite impressive given it is still very much winter in the air and underfoot. We all know enough to realise two swallows does not a summer make, but this Leitrim story is as good as any, and the attention Terry Hyland’s charges have garnered is as deserved as it is refreshing. We habitually get blinded by the Division One lights, but the best stories are often in the margins.
Two wins from two in a seven-round competition and the talk of promotion has started. Should it be achieved it would be truly remarkable for a county that has been in the bottom division since the league was restructured in 2004.
But, if the rest of the country is getting excited, feet are remaining firmly on the ground in the county itself.
Former team captain James Glancy played each of his 12 inter-county seasons in Division 4 before retiring in 2014 and is well placed to recognize the brutality involved in attempting to escape the bottom tier.
“It is easier to survive in one of the other divisions than it is get out of Division 4. It’s suffocating,” say Glancy. “Many times, over those seasons we were going well and thinking ‘this is it! We have a shot...’ and all it took was one injury, one bad refereeing decision, and the game was up.”
Glancy worked for years as a Games Promotion Officer in Ballymun and Round Towers in Dublin, before returning home to take up the role as Games Development Officer in his native county. Glancy, now a firefighter with Leitrim County Council, is very encouraged by the direction the county is headed.
“The two key things Leitrim have going for them is having an excellent manager and most crucially their best players available.”
And having one has clearly brought about the other.
“One of our biggest problems the last few years is having our best footballers actually out on the park, playing. Terry Hyland is an experienced and pragmatic guy. He will be realistic in his expectations for the group and will have set clear goals. And promotion will be one of them. The players will have bought into this.”
Hyland stresses that it’s a two-year goal, but as Glancy says, if the opportunity presents itself this year, they have a group capable of taking it.
“We have talent at the right age. Hungry talent. Ryan O’Rourke and Jack Heslin are serious players, and we have Emlyn (Mulligan) coming back in which is a huge plus. But when you are hoping to beat the likes of Derry and Limerick, you need everybody.”
The obvious comparison is the success once-lesser counties Carlow and Tipperary have recently enjoyed, but Glancy is quick to identify one key difference: “Those counties are good models for us, sure, but a lot of the success they are having now is a result of dominant underage teams fulfilling their potential at senior, especially Tipperary. We just don’t have that. For us the challenge is identifying good young players at underage, and though they might be taking heavy beatings at minor and U20, keeping them playing and giving them something to aim for at senior.”
This point is reiterated by Fergal McGill, a Bornacoola native, who, in his role as GAA Director of Player, Club and Games Administration could easily be forgiven for spending his days off in a deep meditative state, far away from anything remotely related to a dressing room.
For McGill though, still waters run deep, and his involvement in the Bornacoola management team and with the Leitrim supporters club keeps his finger firmly on the pulse.
“When it comes to underage, getting two good lads per crop that we can nurture is huge.”
And for this current team?
“It is never a single thing that goes right,” says McGill. “It’s always a combination. The coaching structures are good. The Centre of Excellence is in place and working. And they have the right guy in charge in Terry Hyland. But above all else it’s having the right talent at the right time. That, more than anything is what Leitrim people should be excited about. The fact that a lot of that talent are scoring forwards is an added bonus.
“Ryan O’Rourke was born to play for Leitrim. It’s in his blood. He is one to watch out for. Jack Heslin the same. Dara Rooney is playing centre-forward on a serious DCU Sigerson team, and he hasn’t nailed down a starter’s spot for Leitrim yet. With these guys there. It’s massively encouraging.”
But McGill, like Glancy and Hyland, remains realistic.
“We are a proud football county. Club football is strong. The county team doing well would be great for everybody. Winning promotion will be tough, but it would be a huge boost.”
The odyssey continues, with Antrim the visitors this weekend.
So, no McGahern. No misery, no desolation. Just a good news story. A team for you to keep an eye on and root for as winter turns to spring.