Mullinalagta won't bow down to St. Vincent's
By John Harrington
If there are any Hollywood producers holidaying in Ireland this weekend, they could do worse than head to Glennon Brothers Pearse Park in Longford on Sunday.
Everyone loves a triumph against all the odds sporting story, and the Mullinalaghta footballers will be hoping to deliver one when they play St. Vincent’s in the AIB Leinster Club SFC Semi-Final.
When you crunch the numbers, the Longford champions should have no chance of winning the match.
They hail from a small, rural, half-parish in the far north of Longford, whereas St. Vincent’s have a densely populated power-base on the northside of Dublin city.
Mullinalaghta won their county title for the first time in 66 years and for only third time ever, whereas St. Vincent’s are one of the most successful clubs in the country with 28 Dublin senior championships, six Leinster senior championships, and three All-Ireland championships.
Mullinalaghta manager, former Cavan footballer Mickey Graham, knows the odds are stacked against his team, but insists everyone in the club is relishing the challenge.
“Yeah, there’s no point in saying otherwise, there’s a huge contrast between the two teams,” says Graham. “We pick our team from a population of 400, whereas St. Vincent’s probably draw from an area of around 40,000.
“That’s the reality we’re facing. And when you look through the St. Vincent’s team, they don’t just have current Dublin county footballers, they also have former Dublin footballers still playing to a very high standard.
“Throw in a couple of Mayo and Sligo county footballers into the mix, and you’re looking at a lot of quality. They’re all seasoned campaigners too, they know what this competition is all about.
“For our lads it’s their first experience of it, they’re enjoying it, and everyone hopes it lasts forever. We might only ever get one opportunity at this, so everyone wants to make the most of it.
“But it’s a real David and Goliath battle, without a doubt, and we’ll have to play out of our skins to even compete and then need a real bit of luck as well.
“But our attitude is that we’re just going to go out there and enjoy it because we have nothing to lose.”
The Mullinalaghta players are entitled to go into the match in a very positive frame of mind because they’ve played some top quality football to get to this Leinster semi-final.
They were heavy underdogs in their two previous matches to date against Laois champions Stradbally and Westmeath champions St. Loman’s, but in both games out-thought, out-fought, and out-classed their opponents.
“Our players deserve to be where they’re at because they’ve produced two huge performances,” says Graham. “They haven’t gotten here by luck or chance, they’ve earned a crack at this game.
“If Stradbally or St. Loman’s were here they’d be fancying their chances. Sure, St. Loman’s only lost by a few points to Ballyboden last year and they went on to win the All-Ireland.
“We’re here on merit, we believe in ourselves, and we’re going to give it a good shot. We’ll have to go to an entirely new level again, but we’ve absolutely nothing to lose so we’ll go out there, express ourselves, and see where we’ll end up.
“The lads are really looking forward to it more than anything. There’s no fear factor whatsoever. There’ll be a big crowd there and we’re really excited about playing in front of them. There’s nothing to lose, everything to gain.”
When Mullinalagta won their first county title for 66 years, even their own supporters didn’t really expect them to raise much of a gallop in the provincial campaign.
They would have been forgiven for allowing their edge to be dulled by the celebrations that followed that achievement, but instead the players remained focused.
“This is an ambitious, young team and they appreciate that opportunities like this don’t along all that often so when they do you have to make the most of them,” says Graham.
“Everyone involved in this journey has really stepped up to the mark and the players have learned an awful lot from the two games they’ve played in Leinster.
“Their confidence is growing, they’ve been playing with great composure, and they’re showing everyone they can play good football.
“The younger players are growing in stature all the time and I think we’re going to see a lot of them with the Longford U-21s next year. This experience has been great for them and they’re coming along in leaps and bounds.
“They’ve learned an awful lot from playing against very good players who they know they’ll have to really perform against if they’re to compete. And, in fairness, they’ve been able to do that because they’re good footballers themselves.”
If they can put it up to St. Vincent’s on Sunday, then they’ll prove they’re very good indeed. The Marino outfit are stacked with inter-county players, and led by one of the most talented footballers of his generation in Diarmuid Connolly.
Mulllinalagta need to somehow stop Connolly from exerting his usual influence if they're to pull of another shock, but Graham believes it would be a mistake to focus too much on the big names in the St. Vincent’s line-up.
“You can’t stop these guys for an entire match, that’s the way we’d be looking at it,” he says. “They have a couple of household names but if you concentrate too much on them then someone else will do the damage.
“They’ve a couple of really good defenders, a strong midfield, and some extremely dangerous forwards. We have to be wary of their strengths and try to curtail them to a certain extent.
“But really you have to have a go at them because if you go into your shell and invite them onto you then you’ll be in trouble. We’ll work hard and keep an eye on some of their key players, but we won’t change what we’ve done all year.”
St. Vincent’s can expect a hot reception when they travel to Pearse Park on Sunday.
Mullinalagta’s success so far has captured the imagination of the entire county, and a huge crowd is expected to turn out and roar them on.
“Yeah, there will be,” says Graham. “We surprised a lot of people the first day with Stradbally. The second day a big crowd turned out because they were expecting a performance again and that’s what happened.
“Now there’s a big team coming down from Dublin so people will come out to watch out of interest in the hope we put in a performance and compete.
“We’ll just try to go out and compete and if we can on the day and if Vincent’s are having an off day, you just never know what might happen if they take their eye off the ball.
“We’ll just wait and see. We’re not going in with any fear or the attitude that we’re going to be beaten by these boys.
“Some teams might be beaten before they get to the pitch when they’re up against a team like St. Vincent’s, but I think our lads are gone way past that sort of attitude.
“They’ve never been in a situation like this before and they just want to give it a good lash and make the most of it.”