Hop across the lake has Melvin Gaels in full sail

Sat, Oct 27, 2012, 01:00

CONNACHT CLUB SFC Melvin Gaels (Leitrim) v St Brigid's (Roscommon):The Kinlough club turned to their Donegal neighbour for help to reverse their fortunes

THERE HAVE been years when Kinlough was more famous for its fishing than its football, and it could be argued that the north Leitrim village lies indecently close to the Donegal border. But the remarkable rise of Melvin Gaels from junior ranks to winning the senior championship in just two seasons is in part due to that proximity.

Two years ago, a delegation of Melvin Gaels men made the short drive over Lough Melvin and into neighbouring Bundoran to ask Billy Gavigan if he would consider taking over the team. Gavigan had just guided his local club to its first Donegal intermediate championship since 1977 but he stepped down shortly afterwards.

“Being honest, I didn’t know all that much about the team, even though they are fairly near to us,” Gavigan says. “But it was the best decision I made. I couldn’t have asked more from the Melvin Gaels lads. I always felt that good teams that bond well together are successful. ”

They believed him in spades. The Leitrim county final marked the completion of a stark reversal of fortune for Melvin Gaels. Under Gavigan, they won the intermediate title in their first season and reached the senior league final. This year they won the senior championship for the first time since 1998, bringing Glencar-Manorhamilton’s four year reign to an end.

“It is good for the county in general,” Gavigan says. “When a team wins the whole time, others get disillusioned so it is good to see teams coming through and it encourages other teams to come through.”

The north Leitrim club are specialists at coming out of the blue. Their 1998 championship bridged a gap of 33 years. Liam Gilmartin and Aidan Curran, selectors for Gavigan now, both played on that side. Colin Regan had an outstanding Leitrim career ahead of him then but his days in county colours were halted by a knee injury in 2010.

Perhaps the high point of the county final from a Kinlough perspective was the sight of Regan warming up with 15 minutes remaining in the game. His presence was vital: the one black spot of the day for Melvin Gaels was the loss of their captain David McSharry with a dislocated knee early in the second half. So Regan’s presence was vital.

“He was just able to slow the ball game down and control it for us,” Gavigan says.

“It was a brilliant moment for me personally,” Regan says of that 15-minute period. “I had played a few matches and I knew the knee was up to it. It wouldn’t have been the same if I didn’t get time on the field because that was my goal for the past two years. And it was 20 years since I won my first title with the club, the intermediate in 1992. So it was a nice stop-gap.”

Regan made his Leitrim debut as a teenager in 1995 and was a constant presence in the half-back line for 15 years, except for two years he spent in Boston. But apart from that hiatus, he was a consistently excellent performer on a Leitrim team unlucky not to claim a few big scalps.

A collision in training ended a blessed injury-free spell. “I dislocated my knee and did the two cruciates, posterior, anterior and the medial ligaments so it was just a devastating injury. At the time I was told that was it.

“So I found it very difficult to watch the club that year. It was easier to watch the county boys. But I watched the Gaels playing the intermediate final and they actually weren’t at their best but still eked out a win. And when this season started, I knew that this was the best prepared Melvin Gaels team since 1998. And from the get go, I knew there was a steeliness about them.”

The run of victories has done much to revive interest in the club around the community.

“I would have seen heads at games I wouldn’t have seen before and I think the final was the biggest attendance at a Leitrim final for years,” Regan says.

“It was that local derby element and the support from Bundoran and Ballyshannon was something that a lot of us commented on afterwards.”

If Melvin Gaels have seasoned experience in Regan, they also have probably the best free taker most of Ireland has never seen in Emlyn Mulligan. The Longford- based Garda announced a prodigious talent in his Leaving Certificate year.

“I think Mulligan would make any county team,” Billy Gavigan says. “His free-taking is immense. But he is great to work with. Ask him to do things and he does it. We play him at centre-half forward. But he practises a lot. He couldn’t come down to training the other night and he trained away himself in Carrick-on-Shannon. Just very dedicated.”

Tomorrow’s game is the classic contrast of clubs. St Brigid’s, beaten in last year’s All-Ireland final, are old hands at these provincial championship games. For Melvin Gaels, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“In 1998 we played Roscommon Gaels and people said it was the worst draw. But it as a yardstick,” Regan says. “But we weren’t mentally prepared for that game. In 1998 we hadn’t won the title for 35 years. And the celebration probably went on – the cup was even taken to the mart, never mind the school.

“This year, Billy had the boys back out on the Thursday after the final. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have their celebration, but they are looking forward to the game.”

Still, two years ago, Melvin Gaels were light years from this position and they have grafted against expectations since Gavigan came along.

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