Leitrim holding on to that dream despite all the odds

Both Leitrim and Roscommon go into the championships with confidence

The last thing they need reminding of right now is their championship odds: 150/1 to win the Connacht title; 2,000/1 to win the All-Ireland.

Such is the unbearable lightness of being Leitrim.

Because if every county starts out in the football championship dreaming of winning at least something, then Leitrim clearly need to dream big. It’s now 21 years since they last won a Connacht title, and the only other time before that was in 1927. They have never won the All-Ireland.

On Sunday, the Leitrim dream begins all over again against Galway, a team they haven’t beaten since that successful provincial run in 1994. Last year, they lost to Roscommon, then to Down, in the qualifiers. The year before that they lost to London – a defeat which no one in Leitrim could take lightly.

Home advantage

About the only thing they have going in their favour on Sunday is home advantage, at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada. If anything, their load is even lighter than in recent years, as last year’s captain and top scorer Emlyn Mulligan has taken a year’s sojourn, while

Paul Brennan

, one of their more versatile players, has moved north of the border to join the Donegal club Bundoran.

For manager Shane Ward, Sunday also marks his first championship outing, having taken over at the end of last year from Seán Hagan, who only lasted one year in the position. There wasn't a whole lot of joy in their recent division four campaign of the league, either, although Leitrim did win their last three games in succession (finishing fourth), which has at least restored some confidence.

Yet they may also take some confidence from Roscommon forward Senan Kilbride, who in surveying the landscape of the Connacht football championship ahead of Sunday’s game, suggests the province is perhaps at its strongest – and with that at its most open – in several years.

“It’s probably a bit more open, in that teams have a bit more belief that they can actually win it,” says Kilbride, who certainly puts Roscommon in that category.

“We have three teams now, in the top two divisions of the league [Mayo, Roscommon and Galway]. Galway are very strong, they beat us in the league. Sligo are a very strong team. And Leitrim are going well enough, and are always dangerous, especially in Páirc Seán MacDiarmada.

“So I would say other teams feel they have a chance this year, that they mightn’t have had for the last couple of years. So certainly, overall, I think Connacht is getting stronger. It’s very strong underage, and all that is starting to bear fruit at senior level now. But then, until somebody else does win it, Mayo are still favourites.”

Indeed Mayo are seeking a fifth Connacht football title in succession (and sixth in seven years), with Roscommon the last team to land the title before them, back in 2010. Kilbride didn’t feature in that campaign, wearing “number 33” instead as he recovered from a groin injury. So, while he did actually collect a provincial medal for being part of the panel, he’d clearly rather win one on the field of play.

All the way

At age 29, Kilbride’s own confidence is soaring right now, helped in no small part by Roscommon manager

John Evans

, who boldly claimed after Roscommon’s division two victory in Croke Park last month that he was now dreaming of bringing Roscommon all the way to the top.

“I was kind of going through the motions a bit a couple of years ago. I thought I was giving everything, but then in the last couple of years, there has been a great set-up with John Evans and the management team. They are expecting higher standards of every player and the young lads coming through, they are winners.”

So, with Roscommon now dreaming big, might that help the likes of Leitrim, too?

“Yeah, John Evans is putting that message out a good bit,” says Kilbride. “He’s very positive about our chances of progressing this year, and over the next couple of years, into a very competitive team in the All-Ireland. He knows what it takes to win, coming from Kerry. He sees the talent that is here in Roscommon, and he believes that we have the talent and commitment to make it to that All-Ireland.

“We won a club championship in 2010, and our captain came out and the commentator asked him where he wanted to go this year. And he said he wanted to go to the All-Ireland final. Everyone said, ‘what’s that about, a Roscommon team that’s just won a county championship talking about going to an All-Ireland final?’ And we got to the All-Ireland Final that year. So it’s no harm putting it out there, as long as you can back it up with the work rate.”

Which is what dreaming big is all about.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics