This time last year, Leitrim ladies footballers were facing into a bleak spring.

Dwindling playing numbers saw them finish bottom of Division 3 without a point to their name - they conceded five walkovers - and they subsequently pulled out of the Connacht  and All-Ireland intermediate championships. The Westerners couldn't field a team.

A winter of solemn soul searching ensued. In January, the slate was wiped clean at a pivotal AGM.

In came IT Sligo ladies boss Gavan Cawley to take the reins. A new county executive for ladies football in Leitrim was established, and clubs committed to making players available for the county panel.

With a dire 2018 now in the rear-view mirror, there's tentative optimism. Fresh talent, fresh structures and fresh hope.

"It's promising looking at the new panel of players we have there now," forward Deirdre Moran told RTÉ Sport.

"There's a lot of new faces so it's good, and we've a good management structure again this year. It's great to see the county back up and running.

"Last year just kind of fell through. A lot of the girls who had been playing inter-county football for the past number of years decided to leave panel and the numbers just weren't there.

"With that, the interest wasn't there either but thankfully the girls have regained a bit of interest this year and with a good background team, a good county executive, it does make things a lot easier. It's worked out thank God."

Cawley hasn't had much time to prepare his side for Sunday's league opener at Antrim, but he's come into an invigorated, youthful group. He's been impressed.

"The group has been fantastic since I came on board," he said. "It's just about trying to get a team prepared for Antrim on Sunday; and it's away as well, up in Belfast. It's all about getting a team on the pitch, trying to rebuild and go from there.

"We're looking forward now to trying to progress Leitrim football. There's a good mix, a lot of young players, a lot of players who haven't tasted inter-county football yet.

"There's a couple who have been here in the past and we'll be depending on them now to show a bit of leadership and hopefully we can get off to a good start. I know it's a cliché, but it's one game at a time for us."

The consensus within the county is that there's no lack of talent. Leitrim won the Connacht intermediate championship in 2015, losing the final against Sligo the following year. They made the All-Ireland intermediate quarters in 2017 and boast a healthy, competitive club scene.

They face challenges, like a lot of smaller counties in Ireland, but the potential is there. 

"Being in the west of Ireland, a lot of our players go to Dublin, Cork, and Galway for college or work," Moran added.

"We've a very young panel this year, a lot of them are still in college. They're making a huge commitment to train and a lot of them work weekends too. You have to take that into consideration. 

"That is the biggest issue, getting them girls out on to the pitch, because Leitrim have the players there it's just about getting them together.

"Last year, because there was no county football, club football was really strong. The talent is there. Even at underage we've a lot of talent coming up. There are great structures at underage, a lot of people willing to get involved. We're seeing those girls stepping up now to the senior panel. It's good to have them."

They now head for the Saffrons, ready to embrace a fresh start but aware of the challenges lying in wait. For Moran, it simply feels good to be back. 

"Sunday will be a game that's going to get us to gel together, see how we perform as a team. 

"This year is about trying to get the county back behind the ladies again, to build a bit of confidence and get a team that's going to gel together. I think 2019 will be a building block for us. Anything that comes after that will be an absolute bonus.

"We hope to get a good National League run, work our way through Connacht and see what happens after that. We're not going to get too ahead of ourselves. We're all pretty excited to get back on the pitch and put on our county jerseys again."