What’s rare is wonderful

CONNACHT SFC QUARTER-FINAL:

What’s rare is wonderful

On his knees in the middle of Dr Hyde Park with a horde of Roscommon players closing in, it would have been easy for Seamus Quinn to lay off a pass. Move the responsibility on to someone else. He scrambled though, got to his feet, rode another tackle. It pushed him on to his left foot 40 metres from goal. Another defender was closing in. He fired a shot off the outside of his right boot. Over the bar. Roscommon vanquished by that point. Leitrim were in just their third Connacht SFC final for the past 50 years.

The year? No, not that heady 1994 Connacht conquering summer under John O’Mahony, but the lesser known, lesser recalled 2000. There was no backdoor back then and they were beaten in the final, 1-13 to 0-8, by the best Connacht side since the ’60s. This was a Galway, two seasons after claiming Sam, that took Kerry to a replay in that year’s All-Ireland final and won it outright the following year.

“That’s a long time ago,” Quinn said this week of their last victory over Roscommon. “I don’t remember a whole pile about it but I do remember I had a bad game. Towards the end I got a chance, kicked it and it went over.

“It was a great win. We were down to 14 players and were losing by seven points at one stage. No one expected us to win.”

Just what made him get off his knees? “I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remember very little about the game but I do remember that hit. After the game I could feel it. Actually as soon as I kicked the ball I knew I was hit well.

“You would get people coming up to you alright asking you about it. I suppose when we have a good day people remember it.”

This season marks 20 years since their best. That day Dr Hyde Park played host to their Connacht SFC final upset over Mayo.

“That’s the one everyone talks about. Older people who were there always bring it up. I was so young that day that I didn’t pass much notice of it. It’s only now that I’m starting to appreciate it.”

The 1994 team have not been together as a group since that season. Time passes and priorities change. A few of the old brigade have been talking about it for this year but nothing is concrete yet.

“Hopefully this year we will meet up. It would be great if we could. Maybe after reading this someone might organise it,” he joked.

Since then there has been many a dark day. That’s to be expected in a playing environment where Dublin club Ballyboden St Enda’s produces more senior teams than the entire county combined.

But in the past 15 months Leitrim has doubled its silverware tally from three cups to six. Back-to-back FBDs were followed by a Connacht MFL title in April. And they’ve beaten Galway at senior, U21, minor and junior level this year.

“It’s given us a lift,” said county secretary Diarmuid Sweeney.

“Some of these things, it’s hard to see the benefits immediately. Going forward you’d hope it would be positive. The lads see that we can hold our own and win some silverware.

“Being realistic, we’re not going to win every year. Every so often teams come along like this year’s minors and U21s. It looks good for years ahead. They have tasted an amount of success and the challenge for them now is to keep it up.”

Tomorrow they’re not just looking for a Roscommon scalp, they’re looking to make it three Connacht titles from the four that have been on offer so far this year.

“The junior team meets our other neighbours, Sligo, in the Connacht final. That’s a mix of lads from the U21 team and older lads who gave commitment through the years. It’s a standalone team but a development one to give the U21s an opportunity to get more inter-county football under their belts,” said Sweeney.

Added to the success on the field, the €2m centre of excellence in Annaduff should be completed later this year with two sand-based pitches, a training area, four dressing rooms, a weights room and two indoor handball alleys.

“That will give us a home,” said Sweeney. “At the moment we have to rely on cooperation within and outside the county. It will allow us put guaranteed schedules in place for all our development squads. It’s on the N4, on a national route for the senior players away from home.”

That offers the stark reminder ever present in the west of Ireland. Emigration will always take its hold. This year Leitrim were lucky, only 40% of the squad are living outside the county. It’s been a lot higher in the past.

“People go on about it but here in Leitrim it’s been devastating,” said Quinn.

“Club football in Leitrim is poor because so many have left. My own club has lost two or three good players and it’s very hard to replace them.”

Some of the best Leitrim players never got the chance to play for a sustained time at senior level. The jobs weren’t there to keep them around. That’s why tomorrow’s trip will be made more in hope than expectation.

“With the help of God I’ll be going,” said Quinn. “Leitrim will get it hard because Roscommon are going well, were promoted and were in the U21 All-Ireland final. Roscommon football is improving and we are up against it. It’s a derby though so anything can happen.

“Leitrim have picked up a few injuries though and when the panel is not strong it hurts. You have to call a spade a spade, when you lose a few you’re in trouble.

“They’ll give it everything. It won’t be easy but you can’t keep crying wolf. You’ve got to go out and do it at some stage.”

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