While Longford are just one step away from creating history in their quest to win the Leinster U-21 Football Championship title for the first time, they are facing a tough task against a physically strong Wexford team who scored a shock win over Kildare on their path to the provincial final and also overcame the challenge of Louth and Carlow.
That is fairly impressive form and Wexford have the advantage of playing in Portlaoise after beating Carlow by four points (1-10 to 0-9) in the semi-final. Thus they will return to O’Moore Park this Wednesday night in a confident frame of mind for the floodlit title showdown against fellow surprise-packets Longford.
Wexford are also bidding to capture the Leinster U-21 Championship crown for the first time and their key players are defenders James Breen (the team captain) and Conor McCarthy; midfielders Matthew O’Hanlon and Michael O’Regan and forwards Liam Og McGovern, Emmet Kent, Kevin O’Grady and Killian Kehoe. McCarthy, McGovern and O’Grady are members of the senior squad and were all rested for the National Football League Division 3 game against Tipperary on Sunday last.
The general opinion is that a close encounter is in prospect in the U-21 final, as was also the case when Longford raised their game to a high level in getting the better of strongly fancied opposition in Meath (after extra-time) and Westmeath in the previous rounds, and it will take another inspirational performance to cross the final hurdle.
But the obviously influential team manager Padraic Davis has instilled great belief into his players who have shown tremendous spirit and heart to get this far against the odds and Longford now find themselves in the unfamiliar favourites role which brings a certain amount of pressure.
After losing five finals in this grade (1966, 1981, 1982, 2003 and 2006), Longford might not get a better chance of winning the Leinster U-21 Championship and also at stake is a place in the All-Ireland semi-final against the eventual Ulster champions (Cavan, Tyrone or Monaghan) on Saturday April 23rd.
Although Fergal Reilly is back for the Leinster decider against Wexford after completing a four weeks suspension for a straight red card in the closing stages of the first round clash against Meath, another Fr. Manning Gaels player Padraig Gill is considered extremely doubtful as he battles to recover from the ankle injury that ruled him out of the semi-final against Westmeath.
If unable to feature in the final, centre-half-forward Gill will be a big loss and while Padraic Davis is working with a very committed squad some of the players are very young with 17-year-olds James McGivney (Mullinalaghta) and Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara) commanding places in the attack.
McGivney and Smyth are current minors and figured prominently in last year’s Leinster Championship triumph along with goalkeeper Paddy Collum (Fr. Manning Gaels), defender Diarmuid Cooney (Fr. Manning Gaels) and other forwards Padraig McCormack (Killoe) and Darren Gallagher (Granard) who all started against Westmeath in the recent U-21 semi-final at Pairc Tailteann in Navan while another minor medal winner James Noonan (Fr. Manning Gaels) was brought on late in that game.
While Wexford will have the age experience, they might not be able to match the fierce hunger of the enthusiastic Longford team but a lot will depend on the battle for midfield supremacy where the solid pairing of Kevin Diffley (Ballymahon) and John Keegan (Mullinalaghta) will need to make a big impact.
Dangerous corner-forward JJ Matthews is another key player and a lot of the ball will hopefully be heading in his direction. It would be a real shame if Longford were to slip up at this stage but with commanding captain Colm P Smith (Abbeylara) leading the charge at centre-half-back a famous success can be achieved in the Leinster U-21 Football Championship.