The half-parish of 400 people looking to make history with Leinster football final spot

THE OPPORTUNITY TO create history is not something that is often afforded to Longford GAA clubs.

The Mullinalaghta players standing for the national anthem ahead of the 2016 Leinster club SFC semi-final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

And when it comes to the provincial stage of the season, the general expectation is that they can only aim to be competitive.

Their senior inter-county side has only ever managed to capture one Leinster SFC title in its history, while the senior clubs have struggled to reach that feat.

But the reigning county champions Mullinalaghta are aiming to break a long-standing tradition and become the first Longford club to contest a senior Leinster decider.

The club, situated in the north of the county, comes from a rural area of roughly 400 people and half of the parish stretches across the border into Cavan.

Prior to claiming the 2016 Longford SFC title, Mullinalaghta went 66 years without winning the top honours in the county.

In short, they shouldn’t have the credentials. They shouldn’t be able to bring a meaningful challenge to the Leinster heavyweights who have a bigger pick in the urban areas.

But later today, they will contest their second Leinster SFC semi-final since 2016 having recently collected their third county title on the bounce.

They face a Leinster semi-final clash against Carlow champions Éire Óg, a side they defeated in last year’s provincial championship. And if the players can draw some psychological edge from that result, they could be standing on the brink of history later this afternoon [Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, throw-in 1.30].

No Longford club has reached a Leinster senior final and we’re 60 minutes away from changing that,” Mullinalaghta manager Mickey Graham tells The42.

“There’s great excitement around the club and the parish at the moment. The bunting and flags are nearly still there from the county final and I think people have put up some fresh stuff in the last day or two so there’s a great buzz about the place at the moment.”

The Cavan Gaels clubman insists that reaching this stage of the club calendar is still ‘new territory’ for Mullinalaghta, but they have walked this path before.

Two years ago, they picked off Stradbally of Laois and Westmeath side St Loman’s before confronting the then-Dublin champions St Vincent’s in the Leinster semi-final.

Diarmuid Connolly playing for St Vincent’s against Mullinaghta.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It truly was new ground for Mullinalaghta on that occasion, and they gave an admirable account of themselves at the first time of asking against a star-studded outfit.

“With five minutes to go I think we were only a point down,” says Graham, who is a former Cavan footballer.

“The lads really went for it in the last four or five minutes and we actually had a goal chance that was saved on the line. They went down and got a goal and it was game over. 

“The big difference was they were able to call on quality players to come off the bench and they’d inter-county players from other counties. That’s a huge difference when you get to this time of the year.

A small rural club like Mullinalaghta or a small rural club anywhere doesn’t have that luxury unfortunately.”

That defeat may have brought their fairytale journey to an end, but it also built a resolve within the team which they have had to draw upon countless times on their way to becoming three-in-a-row Longford champions under Graham’s watch.

“It gave them the confidence and belief to be competitive against any team,” Graham explains.

“We showed that last year when we got beat by a point in the [Leinster] quarter-final against Loman’s. They went on to the final and probably should have won.

“I think those two games gave the lads confidence and belief that they could go far. They learned so much from those games and it’s all about on the day. It’s brought the team on leaps and bounds.

They know that this isn’t going to last forever and want to make the most of it while you can.”

Mullinalaghta’s stock has been rising appreciably at provincial level, but as many teams have come to discover in the club championship, the tests they face at home are often the most difficult.

Mullinalaghta boss Mickey Graham.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

That’s something that Mullinalaghta can identify with.

Graham’s side may be the three-in-a-row champions, but they came close to losing their grip of the Longford crown earlier this year when they played out a 0-6 0-6 draw against their neighbours Abbeylara in poor weather conditions.

Crucially for Mullinalaghta, they survived that challenge in the replay, and their Leinster SFC quarter-final against Rhode was an equally sticky assignment.

A Jayson Matthews goal proved to be the crucial score which helped propel the Longford side through to the Leinster semis, and it came at a pivotal moment in the game.

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“We went to Tullamore with nothing to lose and knew we’d have to give it everything we had,” says Graham.

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“Rhode have been around the Leinster club final scene for the last number of years and have been in a number of finals.

“We knew it was going to be a huge ask to get a result but we went down with the attitude that we were going to leave nothing on the field.

“It was a wet day. The pitch was heavy and it was real winter football. There were a lot of turnovers which you would expect at this time of year.

They put the ball in the back of the net just before we scored and it was a square ball. I think they were still arguing the case and we got the next kickout and went up and ended up scoring. How many times have we seen that happen in games before?

“There was a wee bit of luck involved as well too. Sometimes you have to make your own luck.”

Rural depopulation is a scourge that has depleted several clubs around the country over the years, with many players being forced to migrate to the cities or venture abroad for work.

Francis Mulligan and Donal McElligott battling for Mullinalaghta in the 2018 Longford SFC final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Their reasons for leaving are all understandable but GAA clubs in small communities struggle to survive as a result.

Mullinalaghta however, have managed to keep the majority of their players at home, and those who are based elsewhere happily commute home for training. The distance factor has never discouraged them from committing to the cause.

Graham is fortunate to live just a 20-minute drive away from the club and he appreciates those players who undertake the long car journeys to serve their club.

I think we’ve only lost one player in the last three years. We have everybody that has been there for us in 2016. That’s been Mullinalaghta’s strength in the last few years that there’s been such a strong core group of players that get on so well. 

“You need every single player committing to the cause because one or two players drifting away could really hamper the team’s progression. It’s a testament to the players that they all get on so well with each other. 

“They’ve stayed and they’ve rolled up the sleeves. It’s no surprise that the club is in the position it is now because those lads have made such sacrifices. They come down to training from Dublin and Galway, Dundalk, Drogheda, Ashbourne and other places where they’re working. 

It’s great to see and it’s an inspiration for every other clubs to take note of.”

Graham first came on board with Mullinalaghta following a stint in charge of fellow Longford side Clonguish.

He was back in Cavan when the club’s chairman made an approach and informed him that the players were eager to have him at the helm. Since agreeing to take the reins, he has found a happy home in their maroon and white colours.

His duties in Longford are his primary focus at the moment, but he was recently appointed as the new Cavan manager. That’s a mammoth job that carries its own set of tasks and the team has already started their pre-season work for the upcoming campaign.

He was linked to the vacant manager’s position in Longford too after Denis Connerton stepped down. But the opportunity to take charge of his native county was one he could not decline.

Graham will be taking charge of his native county Cavan next year.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“When it came around and was offered to me, it was something I couldn’t say no to,” says Graham, who has also managed the Cavan minors in the past.

“I felt it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m looking forward to cracking into that as soon as Mullinalaghta finishes up. 

“It’s a huge privilege to manage your own county and it was something that wasn’t on my radar this year until this year.

“It’s a bit of a juggle at the moment trying to keep the two of them going because Cavan are back training now. It’s about getting the balance right over the next number of weeks. Hopefully we can keep it on the road for the next four or five weeks or even better again.”

It would be a great headache to have. Mullinalaghta have been brilliant to me the last three years and the least I can do is make sure I give them everything I have and the commitment I’ve shown the last three years.”

Graham and the rest of the Mullinalaghta club appreciate what it would mean to achieve a victory today. But it’s not something they openly talk about in the dressing room. They acknowledge the significance of the game in their own way.

Their Carlow opponents are chasing some history too having previously collected five Leinster SFC titles between 1992 and 1998.

Mullinalaghta understand what awaits them in Glennon Brothers Pearse Park this afternoon and it’s not often that this opportunity comes to a Longford club.

“We know we’re still as far away as ever,” says Graham.

We’re just concentrating on the job at hand. We know what’s at stake, it would be great if Mullinalaghta could break that trend.”

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