As Longford await the All-Ireland Qualifier on Saturday June 25th, the attention on the local GAA front is now firmly focused on the 2011 County Senior Football Championship which starts this weekend with a total of eight first round games down for decision at six different venues.
Title holders Longford Slashers will start the ball rolling in Group 1 against Cashel at the Clonbonny grounds in Lanesboro on Friday evening and the general opinion is that the sky-blues will be hard stopped as they seek another success under the guidance of Denis Connerton.
Connerton got Slashers first past the post in the race for the Connolly Cup last year (ending a long wait of 16 years for the coveted county crown) and the townies are approaching the current campaign in a confident frame of mind on the back of some impressive league results.
Slashers are unbeaten to date in Division 1A with six wins and a draw (against Killoe) and should prove too strong for Cashel who are struggling this season. New manager Joe Mulvihill is finding it difficult to make an impact and his native club could be hard pressed to avoid automatic relegation into the Intermediate Championship. That will be the fate of the four teams who finish bottom in each group.
While Slashers have lost the services of defender Dominic Glennon (no longer playing with the club) and will also be without injured forwards Mark Smith and Stephen Phillips along with the currently unavailable Adrian Murphy for the first round fixture, a winning start should still be made by the champions even though there are doubts about other injury hit players Paul Kelly, Philip Dobson and County U-21 Sean Flynn.
Two teams will qualify from each section for the quarter-finals and thus there is a lot at stake in the other Group 1 game between Fr. Manning Gaels (coached by Leitrim native Liam Higgins) and Carrickedmond at Michael Fay Park (Slashers grounds) on Sunday evening.
Last year’s Intermediate champions Carrickedmond will be quietly confident of making an impact in the top flight with the inspirational Eugene McCormack in charge but the Drumlish/Ballinamuck outfit are backboned by a number of promising young players and look to have enough quality to win this match on their way to making it through to the knock-out stages along with Slashers.
Having suffered the bitter disappointment of losing the last two finals (2009 v Clonguish and 2010 v Slashers), Dromard (with county players Diarmuid Masterson and Francis McGee leading the charge) will be hoping to go one better this year and should emerge from Group 2 in fairly comfortable fashion.
Sean Hagan is back at the helm and the north Longford side are strongly fancied to overcome Rathcline in the first round clash at Michael Fay Park (Slashers grounds) on Sunday evening. Walter Burke from Ballyleague is the new Rathcline manager but he is facing a tough task and a relegation battle will probably materialise for the Shannonsiders.
The other teams in Group 2 are Colmcille and Ballymahon who clash in the opening round at Devine Park in Edgeworthstown on Saturday evening and the winners here will be the favourites to advance to the quarter-finals along with Dromard.
Fr. Manning Gaels clubman Gary Brady is the new manager of Colmcille, who scored a big win over Rathcline in the last round of the league, and with county player Declan Reilly expected to make a big impact it looks like Ballymahon will be beaten with a relegation struggle looming under new manager Eamon Mahon from Shannonbridge in Co Offaly.
The leading contenders to qualify in Group 3 are Mostrim and Killoe, who clashed in the quarter-final last year with the Edgeworthstown side scoring a slender win. Thus the Young Emmets will be hoping to gain revenge when the neighbouring clubs renew rivalry at Maguire Park in Ballinalee on Sunday next.
Former Leitrim star Seamus Quinn is still in charge of Killoe after guiding them to a Leader Cup triumph and the Division 1 league title last season but the loss of a couple of key players in Thomas Nolan and Peter Maguire (both emigrated) is a significant blow, not forgetting that Michael Quinn is playing professional football in Australia.
After coaching Cashel last season, Gerry Lynn has returned to his roots in Mostrim to take charge of his native club and even if they happen to lose against Killoe, wins should follow in their other group fixtures against Sean Connolly’s and St. Mary’s.
Locals lads are also at the helm in Ballinalee (Gerry Fox) and Granard (Sean Hynes) and the clubs clash in the first round at Oliver Lynch Park in Abbeylara on Friday evening. The losers here will be facing the serious threat of automatic relegation from the senior championship and St. Mary’s look the best bet to come out on top in this crucial game.
The most attractive first round game this weekend is the meeting of Abbeylara and Mullinalaghta at the Higginstown grounds in Granard on Saturday evening (a very tight contest is in prospect) and with Clonguish also pitted in the most difficult group of all, the battle for the two quarter-final places is expected to be intense.
After amalgamating at underage level in the guise of Northern Gaels, winning many titles in the process, many of those players will now be in opposition but St. Columba’s have suffered a severe setback with talented forward JJ Matthews out of action with a long term injury and he will be sorely missed.
Cavan native Sean Finnegan (who hails from Lacken) is the new Mullinalaghta manager and while Donal McElligott, John Keegan and James McGivney and the Mulligan brothers Kevin and Shane can make a big impact for their club it appears that Abbeylara are the better-balanced team. Abbey will be hoping to build on last year’s U-21 ‘A’ Championship success under the guidance of another Cavan man Dessie Brady from Gowna but they will miss the vast experience of Enda Ledwith who has transferred back to the Na Fianna club in Dublin.
There is a major Cavan influence in Group 4 with Mickey Graham from the Cavan Gaels club the current trainer of Clonguish and the other members of the management team are Enda Barden and Pat O’Brien. Some good news for the 2009 champions is that Enda Williams, out injured since early February, could be back in action for his club when their senior championship campaign begins against Ardagh at Devine Park in Edgeworthstown on Saturday evening.
After coaching Granard last season, former Fr. Manning Gaels and Longford footballer Colin Hannify is now in charge of St. Patrick’s who are highly unlikely to spring a shock against Clonguish and are also facing defeats in their remaining group fixtures (Abbeylara and Mullinalaghta) in a massive uphill battle to avoid automatic relegation.
In the final analysis of the overall 2011 senior championship picture, the main contenders to capture the Connolly Cup are Longford Slashers and Dromard and a repeat of last year’s final might well materialise on Sunday September 11th.
The qualifiers for the quarter-finals will probably work out as follows:
Longford Slashers and Fr. Manning Gaels from Group 1
Dromard and Colmcille from Group 2
Killoe Young Emmets and Mostrim from Group 3
Clonguish and Abbeylara from Group 4
The clubs most likely to suffer the dreaded automatic relegation from the senior championship (teams that finish bottom of each of the four groups) are Cashel, Rathcline, Sean Connolly’s and Ardagh St. Patrick’s.
The third placed teams in each group – possibly Carrickedmond, Ballymahon, Granard and Mullinalaghta - will play-off (two semi-finals and a final) with the losing team set to relinquish their senior status if the 2011 Intermediate champions decide to move up into the top flight.