“From when we were knee height we were out every day as soon as we got home from school. The bags would be flung through the door and we’d be out kicking football alongside our two sisters, Claire and Shauna.
“Going hell for leather and dreaming one day we’d get to play for Leitrim and get to do it in Croke Park.” – Noel Plunkett
The dream is finally a reality for Aughawillan’s own Noel Plunkett and his two brothers, Gary and Mark, as they prepare for an Allianz Football League Final with Leitrim this weekend.
Leitrim have been the story of 2019 so far and the entire county is expected to descend upon Dublin this weekend as they make their first HQ appearance in 13 years, excitement levels are at fever-pitch.
For younger brother Mark, the buzz that has grown within the county is an indication of just how far this team has come.
“It’s definitely exciting, there’s a great buzz around the county now, the friends and family are all talking about it. It’s an indication of how far we’ve come in the last couple of years and that’s the biggest thing, you know?”
“The transformation we’ve made over the last year and a half, to finally put that into work is probably the best thing. The hard work is paying off and just a little bit more focus and attention to detail probably gave us the extra edge we were looking for.
“It’s great to be rewarded and now our friends and family get a day out in Croke Park.”
Leitrim have stormed their way to the Division 4 final winning six out of their seven games, which according to Gary, came as no surprise given the change of atmosphere within the group.
The season started with a narrow loss to Mayo in the FBD League but going toe-to-toe with one of the nation’s best teams was the springboard they needed going into the league campaign.
“You could definitely sense there was a different atmosphere around the dressing room and I suppose the way lads are training and probably the big momentum builder was the FBD League draw against Mayo. It was kind of an iconic game, the first game to go to penalties.
“That game you could see that there was potential in this side. And then winning the first two games of the league, it kicked on from there.”
Gary, a full forward, has found himself in and out of the team this year such is the intense competition for places, however, he has more than contributed to their success popping up with a late score to defeat Limerick in a game that left them one win from promotion.
“This year I know especially, there’s a big fight on for positions in the forwards. I’ve never seen competition like it before.
“A new crop of younger players come in and they are really putting their hands up, but that is healthy and there’s nothing wrong with it.
“I suppose if there’s a lad looking over your shoulder at your place you are going to play better, so it just drives the whole thing on.”
Unfortunately, the eldest brother, Noel, won’t be lining out this weekend. The teak-tough defender made headlines across the country last year when he scored a late winner in the Bronx against New York but has since been fighting his way back from a long-term injury.
Despite missing out on the big occasion he is just happy to see his two younger brothers get the chance to go out there and represent Leitrim and the Plunkett family.
“This is what all the hard work boils down to, it’s great to be back in Croker after so long hopefully this is the start of it.”
“Unfortunately, I’m only coming back from injury so I won’t be on the panel, I’m back and training well but my fitness levels wouldn’t be up to the required standard yet.
“I’m perfectly OK (with missing out) as I am just happy to be making my way back. It’ll be a special day for the two lads running out there on Saturday and I’m just happy I’ll be there to help them.”
Like most of the Leitrim squad, none of the brothers have played in Croke Park before so the game represents more than just a national final, it’s a dream come true.
“This is my first time, I’ve never played at all. I’ve always dreamt of playing in it and wondered if the day would ever come but thankfully it has and we’ve got a great opportunity now to perform on the big stage and we’re really looking forward to it” said midfielder, Mark.
For Gary, while it is nice to get to be able to take centre stage, he knows they have a job to do and can’t let the occasion get ahead of them.
What has helped them focus and prepare is the fact that promotion was wrapped up pretty early, meaning they’ve been able to put thoughts of the tomorrow firmly to the back of their mind and just focus on the game.
“Oh yeah, my first game, I was probably only at the stadium three or four times before, there’s players probably played there more times in a month than I have been there in my life so it’s crazy.
“It’s a great occasion too, but you know, you get your one chance and you want to win. We are kind of over the stage of getting there, It’s nice to get there but it’s also nice that we’ve had a couple of weeks to get over it because we need focus on the job that we have to do.”
While the three lads may not be getting carried away with the excitement and build-up, their friends, family and supporters for sure will be and one can’t blame them given the huge achievement.
It’s a special time for the Plunkett family having three sons involved, something that even their parents, Sean and Merese, couldn’t have imagined.
“They are immensely proud and it’s great. They always dreamt that we would be going to Croker someday and now it’s actually happening its surreal.” said Noel.
“There’s lots of support coming down, all our cousins, our great uncle is getting the first train up on Friday, he’s been calling round to the house every day talking about how he’s ready for Croker.
“It’s just great, the excitement and the buzz, I’m just hoping it all works out and the team can go out and not let the occasion get to us and play with freedom.”
We’ll leave the final word to the so-called ‘quiet’ brother, Gary, as he reflects on growing up dreaming of days like this, getting to march onto hallowed turf alongside the brothers who made him.
“The three of us would have been at home watching All-Irelands when we were younger and then kicking ball outside just hoping that one day we would get to wear the Leitrim jersey in Croke Park.
“And for the longest time you were probably thinking it was never going to happen and you’d be watching these games on television forever, so to finally come through especially having my two brothers alongside me it’s definitely a special feeling.”