For the first time since 2006, the O’Moore county worked their way into the fourth round of the qualifiers, just one step away from an All-Ireland quarter-final.
But Justin McNulty’s side came desperately close to repeating the failures of the previous five seasons as they used all their guile to escape from Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada on Saturday, breathing a sign of relief as they boarded the bus home.
“We are very lucky to get into the next round because it was an unbelievable performance by Leitrim,” said McNulty.
“I have to commend them for the effort they showed throughout in terms of their performance.
“We like to keep you on the edge of your seats. We like to keep you entertained and biting your fingernails.”
The entertainment value was indeed high, but much of it stemmed from the home side’s refusal to let go of the coattails of Laois.
After Leitrim deservedly moved into a five-point lead before the break thanks to a cracking goal from Kevin Conlon, the balance swung in Laois’s favour in first-half injury time.
Barely on the field, substitute MJ Tierney took on a speculative point attempt, but it failed to carry the requisite distance. After emerging unscathed in a previous challenge, Leitrim keeper Cathal McCrann decided to boldly attack the ball instead of holding his ground.
However, the move proved fatal as Conor Boyle was quickest to gather the scraps after McCrann spilled possession under duress from the Laois attack and the wing-back’s goal proved crucial.
It was a tough error to take, conceded Leitrim boss George Dugdale.
“We are obviously proud but devastated I suppose,” he said.
“Moral victories are really no good to us. We made a few mistakes and it cost us dearly and we paid the penalty in the end.
“We possibly lost it more than they won it. We made the mistakes and got punished. We could have gone in six points up at half time and we didn’t.”
Leitrim had worked that advantage after the outstanding Emlyn Mulligan proved unflappable from frees early on and Conlon’s goal after 24 minutes.
But instead of taking a healthy lead at half time, Leitrim held a 1-8 to 1-5 advantage.
It was something to defend, but Laois soon set about cutting that deficit.
One area of concern for McNulty will be the 17 wides his side kicked and, after four in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, points from Colm Begley and Billy Sheehan were a welcome boost for the eventual winners.
The impressive Conlon drilled over a point as Leitrim took a step towards another unlikely upset in the 49th minute, but four unanswered points in six minutes gave Laois the belief they could shake off their stubborn hosts.
Two of the four came from Ross Munnelly while his team-mates began to pass on the responsibility, but from then on there could only be one winner.
With the losing Leinster finalists waiting in the wings next weekend McNulty will have plenty to ponder. His insistence at employing Sheehan as a sweeper caused a vacuum in the full-forward line on occasion, but a style that worked well against Monaghan looked flawed against a Leitrim side that worked the ball in quickly to their inside forwards.
In the privacy of the dressing room the wides tally will surely infuriate the manager, but in public he was steadfast in defence of his forwards.
“No, I’d be concerned if we stopped going for it: we kept going for it.
“That shows courage, when the boys keep going despite the fact that they missed several easy chances before, that takes courage,” said McNulty.
“We knew coming up here it was going to be a battle.
“We were not under any illusions about the hunger and desire that Leitrim would show and our lads, when the game was in the melting pot, they had to dig really deep and the boys showed tremendous character to be able to do that.
“To keep their composure when the poker was in the fire and go out and dig out the result they really did that.”
Scorers for Laois: C Boyle 1-0, R Munnelly 0-3, G Walsh, C Kelly (1f), MJ Tierney (2f), C Begley 0-2 each, P Clancy, B Sheehan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Leitrim: E Mulligan 0-6 (6f),K Conlon 1-2, R Cox 0-2, C Clarke 0-1.
Subs for Laois: P O’Leary for Kavanagh (24), MJ Tierney for O’Connor (31), D Strong for McMahon (59), D Conway for Kelly (61), D O’Connor for Sheehan (69).
Subs for Leitrim: R Lowe for Moran (58), C Ryan for Brennan (58), B McDonald for Conlon (63), K Conlon for Glancy (65).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare).