There is a big buzz around the county in the build-up to the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 2 Qualifier at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Saturday next (throw-in 2pm) and the general opinion among the local GAA followers suggests that Longford have a strong chance of making further progress through the back door in the exciting aftermath of the excellent win over Derry.
Limerick, after all, struggled in Division 4 of the National League this season but a closer look at their championship pedigree in recent years is a warning for Glenn Ryan’s side who certainly cannot afford to be complacent even with the boost of home advantage. Playing at Pearse Park has proven to be such a decisive factor in favour of Longford along with the always electric atmosphere that the qualifiers generate at the compact county grounds.
The GAA pundits nationwide are expected to predict that Longford (currently the odds-on 4/9 favourites with Paddy Power bookies to beat Limerick) will be in the drum for the third round draw on Monday morning next but the county players are only too well aware that another serious effort of the usual high intensity will be required to extend the championship season to a remarkable six games.
The win over Laois and the two games against Wexford in the Leinster campaign; the defeating of Derry and now a second game in the qualifiers against Limerick has earned Longford a lot of praise and while the packed defensive strategy can be frustrating to watch it is a gameplan that is definitely working as the terrific results this season have shown – just one defeat in 12 games between the league and championship.
While midfielder John Keegan is expected to recover from the neck strain that he sustained in the opening minute of the second half of the showdown against Derry with the Mullinalaghta man subsequently stretchered off after the lengthy injury stoppage that lasted almost 11 minutes, there is some bad news for Longford in that Paul Kelly remains on the casualty list with a ruptured quad muscle (swollen leg) keeping him out of action for the next number of weeks.
Kelly, of course, was ruled out of the Derry game and it remains to be seen whether David Barden will start against Limerick as he battles to deal with his ongoing injury problems. Barden was replaced by Francis McGee on the team that faced Derry but the Clonguish clubman was brought on at the start of the second half when the unfortunate Keegan was forced to retire.
Longford manager Glenn Ryan and his fellow selectors Padraic Davis and John Fay have basically stuck to much the same first fifteen throughout the season. While hopes will be high in the latest chapter of the current success story after receiving what is generally regarded as a kind home draw, Limerick could make it a tough task for the home county.
Coping with the long term loss of their powerful midfielder John Galvin (cruciate ligament) has been a bad blow for Limerick and he was sorely missed in the surprise defeat by Clare in the recent Munster Championship semi-final. Conflicting reports suggested that Galvin was going to feature at some stage of that game but it did not materialise as he continued to struggle with his fitness and decided to undergo a recent operation to repair the damage, thus ruling him out for the rest of the season.
Against their fellow Division 4 rivals, Limerick found themselves ten points down in the early stages of the second half but proceeded to stage a remarkable revival and actually took the lead with four minutes of normal time remaining.
Classy corner-forward Ian Ryan was very much the star of the show in shooting a total of ten points (five frees) but Clare battled back to snatch victory (1-13 to 0-15) thanks to a couple of late points from David Tubridy.
It was a shattering setback for the Limerick players who were confidently expected to reach yet another Munster title decider through the easier side of the draw after hammering Waterford 2-12 to 0-7 in the first round. Former Mayo footballer Maurice Horan is the current Limerick manager and he will undoubtedly endeavour to lift his team on the road to redemption.
Let us not forget that Limerick reached the All-Ireland quarter-final last year through the qualifiers by virtue of beating Offaly (3-13 to 0-15), Waterford (0-14 to 0-9) and then Wexford by a point (1-18 to 1-17) in controversial circumstances at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise.
They then headed to Croke Park but proved no match for Kerry who cruised to a comprehensive 1-20 to 0-10 win to reach the All-Ireland semi-final. But Limerick have built up a lot of big match experience in recent years and one significant result springs to mind - Round 1 of the 2008 Qualifiers when they trounced Meath 4-12 to 4-3 at the Gaelic Grounds.
Ian Ryan clocked up the magnificent total of 3-7 on that occasion and there is plenty of scoring power in the well established Limerick attack with other dangerous forwards in Seanie Buckley, Stephen Kelly and Ger Collins likely to pose problems for the Longford defence.
Kelly was selected on the Ireland squad for the International Rules Series in Australia back in 2003 and featured for the losing Limerick side in four Munster Football Finals – 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010. The defeat in 2009 was particularly hard to take as Cork were extremely fortunate to emerge victorious by a solitary point, 2-6 to 0-11, at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Limerick also had to travel for the 2010 decider at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney and they ran Kerry very close indeed with the narrow margin of three points, 1-17 to 1-14, separating the sides in the finish. In Round 4 of the qualifiers that same year Limerick almost sprang a shock against the eventual All-Ireland champions Cork who just survived after extra-time, 0-16 to 1-11.
Another near miss for unlucky Limerick came against Meath in Round 4 of the 2009 Qualifiers with the royal county winning by a point, 1-13 to 2-9, at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise and what about the 2008 Munster semi-final when they went down to Cork by just three points, 2-9 to 0-12. In that same season in the qualifiers Kildare were hard pressed to beat Limerick 1-11 to 0-11 at the Gaelic Grounds.
Thus the formbook suggests that Limerick have the potential to put it up to Longford and the visitors are a very experienced outfit in the heat of the championship battle. But the departure of key defender Stephen Lavin and midfielder Thomas Lee to the United States following the bitter disappointment of the defeat by Clare in the Munster semi-final certainly does not help their cause.
In summing up the greater pace of the talented Longford team with the quick counter-attacks getting the ball into Sean McCormack and Brian Kavanagh in the full-forward-line should spell trouble for the Limerick defence and the significant Pearse Park factor points to a home win.
FOOTNOTE: There was a very controversial finish to the last competitive clash between Longford and Limerick in Division 4 of the National Football League at Pearse Park back in February 2010 and the home county felt very aggrieved indeed as they suffered the misfortune of having a matchwinning goal disallowed. Two points behind as the game dragged on into the fifth minute of stoppage time, Longford were awarded a close range free and while the last gasp kick taken by Francis McGee was blocked down the ball ended up in the back of the net with Seamus Hannon getting the vital touch as Limerick failed to clear the danger. But referee Sean Carroll blew the final whistle after McGee’s attempt for a goal direct from the free and clearly forgot to apply one of the experimental rules (at that particular time) which stated that the game could not finish until the ball went out of play. It proved to be a costly mistake by the Westmeath official as tempers flared in the aftermath of this dramatic incident but the result stood with Limerick winning by 1-8 to 0-9. Revenge would be very sweet indeed on Saturday evening!