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Can Leitrim become the best Division 4 team of this decade?

Leitrim have got off to a flying start in the league, can they keep it up and become the best side to grace Division 4 in the past few years?

Leitrim’s form during the first two weeks of the 2019 national league has come at us like a size five square in the nose during a January training session. They may be wallowing out of the national sight-line in Division Four, but across the past two weeks, they have amassed a total scoring tally of 4-31 – 43 points – easily the highest in the country. Dublin are next with 34 points.

Maybe we should pump the breaks on the hyperbole considering it’s early February, but that’s not an approach I’m willing to consider right now. Let’s face it, bar victory every few years over in New York – when they have the Gaelic football Twitter timelines all to themselves during a Sunday night in early May – when else do Leitrim get to hog the limelight?

We need to strike while the iron is at least lukewarm: pound for pound, the Connacht side is currently the best performing team in the country and there’s one question we’ve all been asking since the final whistle blew to signal their victory in Aughrim last Sunday – are Leitrim on course for a record-breaking season – by Division Four standards, at least?

The simple answer is: quite possibly.

Let’s delve a little further. The chart below shows the highest scoring teams in Division Four this decade.

A couple of side notes:

  • Firstly, the chart excludes any scores involving Kilkenny, who haven’t togged out as a footballing unit since 2012. And who can blame them? Limerick knocked 8-13 past them in 2010, while Leitrim themselves held them scoreless – yes, 0-00 – a year later. But Fermanagh took the cake – with a tally of 9-23 in 2012 – that’s FIFTY points – more than three points every two minutes. Which, when you think about it, is barely possible. Had I included Kilkenny, the data would have been skewed significantly.
  • Secondly, the chart concentrates on scores from this decade only (the 2010s). In prior years, the league structure changed a number of times – high skew potential – but since the end of the 2000s, it has settled into its current highly democratic four division structure. So I’ve used the 2010s only as it provides a large enough sample size to apply a semblance of historical context.

As you can see, Tipperary’s tally of 164 points in 2014 is the benchmark. In fact, 2014 was a vintage year, with two appearances in the top three and four in the top nine.

That Tipp outfit – aided by a super campaign from forward Conor Sweeney, who registered 6-49 in eight matches – averaged 20.5 points per game. Like a three-year-old who can recite Dr. Seuss backwards or the Millenium Falcon Lego set that finds its way into the basket of Duplo, they had simply outgrown the division. A team who has real designs on going places doesn’t get bogged down by the level of opposition around them; they tear it apart – and Tipperary did it with some style that year, en route to winning Division Four, where they squeezed past Clare by a sinlge point in the decider. Two years later they reached the last eight of the All-Ireland championship.

But surely Leitrim can’t match those heroics? It may seem unlikely, but as of now, the Connacht-men are on track to do just that in 2019. The biggest question is can they sustain it?

New manager Terry Hyland has clearly concentrated on getting his side fit and sharp for the early part of the league, to help give them a head start in the race to get out of football’s basement – and perhaps to curry a bit of early favour with the locals. There have also been promising noises coming out of Hyland’s camp, around the setting up of training sessions in Dublin to help those players living and working in the capital. He’s trying to build a spirited squad.

So far it has paid off, with Ryan O’Rourke, with a tally of 3-10 in two games, particularly prominent in front of the posts, helping his side rack up a scoring difference of +17, also the best in the country. The start they have made and the exposure it has generated might just energise them further as they attempt to win promotion for the first time since 1990.

One would expect the other teams in the division to catch up to Leitrim in the coming weeks as the pressure mounts in a division where more than one loss can suddenly scupper any notions of going up. Outside of Leitrim’s wins, the division has already been tight and they have difficult trips to Limerick and division favourites Derry to negotiate after they play Antrim this weekend.

A tail-off is likely, but still, it will be interesting to watch. With the confidence they currently possess, Hyland’s side actually has a chance of at least breaking into the top three highest-scoring Division Four teams of the decade, and they should certainly surpass their own record of 111 points in 2015. For now, let’s just enjoy Leitrim’s breakout while it still exists.

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