Ryan O'Rourke ready for Croke Park
By Paul Keane
When Ryan O'Rourke fired 2-7 for Leitrim in the opening round of the Allianz Football League, putting them on the road to a historic promotion from Division Four, he commanded national attention.
The in-form attacker helped himself to 4-22 across their seven group games in total and will be a marked man when they play Derry in Saturday's Division Four final at Croke Park.
Yet this isn't the story of a rookie or newcomer bursting onto the scene as some have presumed. It's O'Rourke's fourth season as a Leitrim senior and he's started seven of their last eight Championship games, coming on also as a sub in their two qualifier games in 2016.
The reality is that O'Rourke and a talented group of young Leitrim players have been answering their county's call for many years and arrived at the senior grade armed with confidence and ambition.
"There'd be maybe 10 lads around my age on the panel that have been playing together and doing well for years," explained O'Rourke.
"We won the Connacht minor league in 2014. It was our first time wining that since 1991. It was a huge achievement for Leitrim and the same team lost narrowly to Galway in the 2017 Connacht U-21 Championship.
"A couple of our stronger players actually had injuries that day and Galway just about got past us. They ended up playing Dublin in the All-Ireland final that year.
"When we won that minor league, there was a lot of talk about that group of players and we've got a lot of those through now as seniors. We were coming in to the setup with a bit of optimism and confidence and believing we could be competitive.
"Now that we've got promotion, we're not just going to sit back and say 'job done'. People from the outside might look at Leitrim and think it's a once in a blue moon thing, and that we'll go straight back down, but we're not thinking like that at all. We're really looking forward to the bigger challenge and we want to keep moving forward."
Terry Hyland has had a huge impact as manager too, bringing all of his knowledge and know-how to the group this year having previously managed Cavan. O'Rourke said Hyland's decision to draft in business and personal coach Robert Moorhouse to work on the players' mental conditioning was a masterstroke.
"He's kind of a life coach, he's a friend of Terry's and we'd meet up with him the odd time," said O'Rourke. "He did some activities with us, challenges you'd maybe think were impossible at first and then through team-work and trial and error you'd actually complete the task. The next thing you realise you're quicker and faster completing the challenge the next time you do it. It's very clever stuff and makes you see things differently. We did workshops with him the day before games sometimes.
"You might get a group of lads that wouldn't buy into that sort of thing but we were very much engaged with it and have benefited a lot I think."
Leitrim, who last played at Croke Park in the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup final, will literally be treading new ground on Saturday compared to Derry who contested the 2014 Division One final there against Dublin.
"It's massive, it's the dream we've all had to play there," said O'Rourke. "Who knows if you're ever going to get the chance to play there again? But we won't be getting carried away either. Once the game starts and the warm-up is over we'll only be thinking about the O'Neills ball. It's just another game of football after that."
*** Ryan O’Rourke was speaking at a recent GAA Super Games Centre in partnership with Sky Sports which aim to reduce youth drop out in Gaelic Games. The GAA Super Games Centres initiative is part of a wider plan which will see Sky Sports invest €3m in grassroots GAA over the next five years.