The 2019 GAA season will go down in memory for a lot of reasons.
Mayo ending a hoodoo of nine straight Croke Park final defeats, Galway’s mid-summer exit one week after beating Kilkenny, Cavan’s run to a first Ulster final in 18 years, Carlow’s participation in the Liam MacCarthy Cup and who can forget the incoming five-in-a-row, something that looks like a sure-fire bet.
However, there is one story, or indeed one county that has captured the imagination of Gaels around the world due to their exploits across both sporting codes. Leitrim GAA have given their devoted fans multiple reasons to celebrate over the course of the last six months and it is richly deserved for a county who seldom find themselves hogging the limelight.
It started with the footballers march to Croke Park and ended with the hurlers climbing the famous steps of the Hogan Stand for the first time in the county’s history.
Terry Hyland came on board with the Leitrim footballers late last year and with him brought a huge sense of expectation that the O’Rourke County could propel themselves to the next level given Hyland’s Division 1 experience.
They started creating history early on, January 6, to be precise. In Terry Hyland’s opening game, Leitrim faced a wounded Mayo and a returning James Horan in the FBD League and Leitrim showed everybody their intent for 2019 by drawing with the perennial All-Ireland contenders 2-13 apiece. The fact that it finished honours even meant that the two teams made history by taking part in Gaelic football’s first-ever penalty shootout.
They may have lost the match but it was most definitely a psychological win for the Leitrim men as they carried this form into a Division 4 campaign that saw them secure their first promotion in over a decade.
For the early part of the season, Leitrim were the country’s most dominant side winning their first five games to clinch promotion and the county’s first trip to Croke Park in 13 years. Unfortunately, it ended in a narrow four-point defeat but Leitrim’s run captured the imagination of the country and the stories regaled in the build-up to the final of patrons flying home from all corners of the globe so they could be there exemplified what the GAA is all about.
In the build-up to their league final Pundit Arena spoke with Gary, Noel & Mark Plunkett, three brothers who have been putting their shoulder to the wheel for the Leitrim cause over the past number of years with the ‘quiet’ brother, Gary, summing up exactly what getting to Croke Park meant for these players.
“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,” Gary told Pundit Arena.
“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.”
The Division 4 final wasn’t Leitrim’s only trip to HQ in 2019. Saturday saw their hurling counterparts travel to Dublin full of expectation that they could realise a dream and lift an All-Ireland title following their Lory Meagher Cup final heartbreak two season’s ago.
They entered the game as slight underdogs but came away with a thrilling 2-23 to 2-22 victory after extra-time. They had to dig deep, however, to get the win as it looked as though Lancashire were cruising to their own maiden crown until James Glancy’s injury-time goal forced 20 additional minutes.
They pushed on in extra-time to see out the win, realise the dream and be crowned Lory Meagher champions. A truly remarkable end to the season for Leitrim GAA. Not only that but their win provided spectators with one of the most heartfelt and emotional Croke Park speeches to date from captain, Declan Molloy.
“Am I dreaming, or am I awake? Finally, we’ve got up the steps of the Hogan, it’s absolutely unbelievable for Leitrim hurling…
“We’re going to take our time, it’s taken us a long time to get here so we’re going to relax for a second now. We have an unbelievable panel of players. For the first time in Leitrim hurling this year, we heard the words ‘cutting a panel. We said, with respect, that we are cutting no panel. Every single man on that panel is as important as the goalie, or the corner forward, or the free-taker. Every single one of those guys down there have sacrificed family occasions, social occasions.
“They never miss training, they have put as much into every single Leitrim training session to get here, to represent Leitrim, because they’re absolute legends…
“We had a new addition to the coaching team this year. When we were here the last time, his father cried below the Hogan, not because we were beat, but because he was so proud to see Leitrim taking to the field in Croke Park. He’s not here today. He knew at the time how sick he was, but none of us did. He came to every single training session, and he is represented today unbelievably by an amazing, organised and structured secretary in Hillary Phelan.”
Last week, we spoke to Hilary Phelan about the rise of Leitrim hurling and the role his father, Paddy, played on the growth of the ‘small ball’ in the county. It’s clear from speaking to Phelan just how much yesterday’s win meant to the people of Leitrim.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses for Leitrim as a spate of players exited the panel following their league run and they shipped a couple of heavy defeats to Roscommon and Clare, however, there can be no doubting that 2019 will go down as one of the greatest seasons ever in the history of Leitrim GAA.
They have made their families, fans and patrons proud and they’ve given us all the good news story we love so much.