For many, Leitrim’s final Connacht title was a classic of the blitz-in-the-pan genre of 1990s Gaelic football, rivaling Clare and Donegal in 1992 or Derry in 1993.
We were in Division 2 for ten years,” countered Aidan Rooney, the man who scored the decisive point in a win that effectively ushered in the county’s last period of true competitiveness.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not just a single successful season in a province that had not produced an All-Ireland winner since the 1960s.
“Leitrim has probably been in the top 12 teams in the country since the late ’80s,” recalls Rooney.
“We played against Cork, Tyrone and Kerry regularly. They were the venues where we played our league football. We wouldn’t have talked about ourselves like that, but we really were an elite team.
“People have now regularly asked me what would have happened if we had had the qualification system back then. And it’s a valid point. We would have been a Monaghan or something like that: always competitive, always with a chance of provincial honor. There we are.”
In 1993, a season before he had just won his second provincial title in county history, Rooney scored the winning goal as Leitrim defeated Galway for the first time since 1949 in front of 7,000 spectators in Tuam.
A series of games between the counties began – five in four years – in which the spoils were shared; two wins apiece and a draw, with Leitrim losing by just one point in 1995 and two in 1996.
“I know that grown men cried that day in Tuam, including my father,” he recalls today. “But we went there expecting to win those games. ‘Johnno’ (John O’Mahony) had come in and there was an expectation that second place wasn’t good enough.
“We had that mindset. We had an inner confidence that we should win those games. We won the 1993 and suddenly that belief went further.
“We had the upper hand on them for a couple of years and then in 1995 we screwed up with Carrick. Absolutely screwed up.”
Although it may seem unlikely now, in 1995 Leitrim considered himself a full All-Ireland contender. “We felt in 1995, and that was a real feeling at camp, that we had the potential to win the All-Ireland that year,” says Rooney (below). “Galway went on and lost to Tyrone in the semi-finals but we would have felt that we had more experience than Galway and that we had a great chance of beating Tyrone because we had beaten them in the league.
“People might say that’s crazy. But it wasn’t crazy. We had done the calculations and it was very strong on our radar.
“And that was probably the mistake we made at Carrick when we had it on our radar. And there was no back door. We were 11-0 to 9-0 and Galway took the last three points to win by one win. It was the most deflationary day. That burst the bubble.”
And it really was. Leitrim acted in a Connacht final again in 2000 when Rooney and some of the other 1994 survivors were on their own last gallop.
But most importantly, it was one last cheer for the county before fading to a point in the side mirrors of Galway and Mayo.
Rooney now lives in Sligo, where he coached the county’s minors in 2015, and he sees a direct parallel in the issues now affecting both counties. “My dad used to say to me, ‘What’s the difference between you and a guy from Kerry?’ And the answer is: nothing. Why can’t I be as good as him? And that’s where my thoughts are on all of this. People say I’m naive. I’m not.
“I don’t know if the players realize how much work that means,” he insists.
“I don’t think players nowadays put in as much work as they think they do. There’s a gray area in there. Players in the lower leagues are now not performing at the same consistent level as the top teams.
“Because ultimately the players look at resources – but they are the resource.
“Players don’t always realize that they can eat right, they can condition themselves, they can practice the skills, they can get the job done. They don’t need resources from the GPA or the county board because they are the resources. If you can be the strongest, the strongest, the fastest – what can stop you?”
That’s not to say that Rooney thinks the chasm that’s become a chasm can be bridged anytime soon. He’s a pragmatist, albeit one with a glass that’s half full. “If you want to do it, you still have to do it,” he insists. “You see, Galway on Sunday is going to be tough. Will Leitrim come out of this with credibility, or learn anything from it?
“There you are right now. You don’t go to Salthill with confidence that you’re going to win the game. That’s not realistic. Even though the wind changed at half-time and you had it in both halves, that’s just reality at the moment. The challenge is to get Leitrim into Division 3. And then if you can stabilize in Division 3, Division 2 becomes a possibility.
“Then the train will start again. It takes effort, it takes work. But what is to stop you? Sure, isn’t that the big Cinderella story everyone wants?”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/people-might-say-that-was-mad-but-it-wasnt-leitrim-great-recalls-time-when-all-ireland-was-a-possibility-41615911.html “People might say that was crazy. But it wasn’t’ – Leitrim has a great recall of the days when All-Ireland was a possibility