Longford stage terrific second half comeback to cross first hurdle

For the first time since 2007 Longford managed to cross the first hurdle in the Leinster Senior Football Championship and the so spirited manner in which they came from six points down at the break to stage a terrific second half comeback to eventually beat Laois was a joy to behold for the thrilled home supporters among the official attendance of 5,587 at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Sunday last.

A Paul Barden goal with five minutes gone on the changeover gave Longford the belief to rescue the situation after appearing to be in big trouble and while Laois then consolidated their grip on the game with a point apiece from Ross Munnelly (free) and Gary Walsh, the latter converting a well struck ‘45’ in the 46th minute, the visitors faded out of contention in failing to register another score until virtually the last kick of this remarkable encounter.

After producing a very poor first half performance that looked like leaving their Leinster Championship hopes in tatters for yet another season, Longford woke up to finally get their act together and played some excellent football at a fast pace in the process of scoring seven points in a row – three from Sean McCormack (one free) with David Barden, Paul Barden, Michael Quinn (a tremendous strike) and Brian Kavanagh also on target.

Kavanagh kicked the ball over the bar from a tight angle in the 70th minute to leave Longford leading by two points, 1-10 to 0-11, but then came a real dramatic moment as Kevin Meaney finished a Colm Begley free to the net in stoppage time. However, joy quickly turned to despair for the Laois players and their supporters as Sligo referee Michael Duffy rightly disallowed the goal as the change to the square ball rule only applies to a delivery from open play.

Meaney was in the square when he got the touch to the set piece, as was Padraig Clancy in a crowded goalmouth, and Clancy then had a flicked goal attempt saved by Longford keeper Damien Sheridan in a hectic finish. While there was still time for Laois to close the gap to the minimum of margins when substitute Colm Kelly fired over a close range free in the third minute of stoppage time, the final whistle was sounded moments later as the home county held out for a famous win in earning another crack at Wexford in Croke Park on June 3rd.

While it remains to be seen whether never-say-die Longford will succeed in making further progress in the Leinster Championship and the probable prospect of a semi-final showdown against the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin (who meet Louth in the other quarter-final tie at GAA Headquarters on Sunday week), the win over Laois was something to savour and particularly so for manager Glenn Ryan who had tasted the bitter disappointment of defeat in the first round for the previous three years of his regime.

Having said that, a lot of mistakes were made on Sunday last and the Longford players cannot afford to get carried away with their latest success in the match that really mattered. Unbeaten in the National League on their way to winning the Division 3 title, a championship win is another step in the right direction but beating Wexford again is going to be a difficult task.

When you consider that Longford were outplayed at midfield for most of the game against Laois, it took a serious effort in other areas to achieve a somewhat surprising victory against a side who were operating in Division 1 of the National League this season and class act Paul Barden at centre-half-forward certainly played a real captain’s part.

After from scoring the crucial goal that threw Longford a lifeline, the inspirational Paul also fired over a couple of cracking points in really making his presence felt up front while the other key attackers Sean McCormack and Brian Kavanagh also made a significant contribution in accounting for a total of six points between them.

David Barden (back in action after a lengthy injury absence) certainly improved matters when he was switched to centrefield at the start of the second half while Michael Quinn came a lot more into the game on the changeover and his equalising point in the 59th minute was a wonderful effort.

Determined duo Colm P Smyth and Shane Mulligan in the half-back-line played particularly well during the course of the contest and the entire defence were resolute in the second half in restricting Laois to just three points and their poor finishing over the 70 minutes plus left a lot to be desired.

Longford full-back Barry Gilleran was involved in a tremendous tussle with the Laois target man, full-forward Padraig Clancy, who was generally a threat but failed to register a score while the competent goalkeeper Damien Sheridan did well to keep his net intact. Sheridan got vital assistance from a couple of courageous corner-backs in Dermot Brady and Declan Reilly while the introduction of influential half-time substitutes Paul Kelly and Padraig McCormack made a big impact.

Laois got off to a flying start to lead by 0-4 to 0-0 with the points coming from Colm Begley, Ross Munnelly, right-half-back Darren Strong and Gary Walsh (free) but Paul Barden went very close to scoring a goal for Longford when in a quick turn of foot he weaved his way through in the 9th minute, only to shoot inches wide.

Both sides were guilty of some missed chances in the early stages of the game and Longford had to wait until the 16th minute for their opening score when Colm P Smyth set up Paul Barden for a fine point. Moments later, Donal McElligott appeared to have shot over the bar from a tight angle but the ‘point’ was not allowed to stand as the umpire waved a disputed wide.

Laois got back on top with a good point from play by Gary Walsh but proceeded to squander a few decent chances before Walsh was just wide with a goal attempt in the 22nd minute in what was a very lucky escape for Longford.

Shane Mulligan was then fouled in surging forward and Sean McCormack converted the free to close the gap in the 24th minute but Laois defender Darren Strong joined the attack once again to fire over a superb point.

Brian Kavanagh was then on target from play in the 28th minute for what proved to be Longford’s last score of the first half as some other chances were missed including a couple of McCormack frees.

Laois finished the first half strongly in adding a further three points to their tally through Kevin Meaney, Gary Walsh (free) and left-half-back Conor Boyle (a great strike) to hold a comfortable 0-9 to 0-3 lead at the break but Longford made a promising start to the second half, only for David Barden to squander a decent chance of a goal.

But his brother Paul made no mistake in finding the back of the net in the 40th minute, flicking the perfect pass from Sean McCormack beyond the opposing Laois keeper Eoin Culliton with Michael Quinn also involved in this slick move.

When Laois hit back with a brace of points and created another goal attempt - Damien Sheridan making a fine save to keep out a shot from Kevin Meaney - Longford appeared to be fighting a losing battle. But Glenn Ryan’s side just refused to accept defeat and superior fitness was a vital factor as they tore into the opposition to clock up seven points without reply in a glorious spell between the 48th and 70th minutes that swung the issue in favour of the home side.

Laois were left reeling on the ropes and some panic shooting when scores were there for the taking in the tense and exciting closing stages of the game led to their eventual downfall with a terrible miss by powerful midfielder John O’Loughlin (his fourth wide in total) adding to the sheer frustration as they somehow managed to let victory slip from their grasp.

LONGFORD: Damien Sheridan (Dromard); Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Declan Reilly (Colmcille); Colm P Smyth (Abbeylara), Michael Quinn (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-1), Shane Mulligan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); Bernard McElvaney (Ballymore), John Keegan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); Niall Mulligan (Longford Slashers), Paul Barden (Clonguish, 1-2), David Barden (Clonguish, 0-1); Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Brian Kavanagh (Kilmacud Crokes, 0-2), Sean McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-4, two frees).

Subs:- Paul Kelly (Longford Slashers) for J Keegan (half-time); Padraig McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets) for N Mulligan (half-time); Francis McGee (Dromard) for D McElligott (50 mins); Kevin Diffley (Ballymahon) for D Barden (66 mins); Noel Farrell (Colmcille) for B McElvaney (72 mins).

LAOIS: Eoin Culliton; Cahir Healy, Peter O’Leary, Kieran Lillis; Darren Strong (0-2), Shane Julian, Conor Boyle (0-1); John O’Loughlin, Brendan Quigley; Colm Begley (0-1), Billy Sheehan, Kevin Meaney (0-1); Ross Munnelly (0-2, one free), Padraig Clancy, Gary Walsh (0-4, two frees, one ‘45’).

Subs:- Mark Timmons for S Julian (41 mins); Colm Kelly (0-1, free) for R Munnelly (63 mins); Damien O’Connor for G Walsh (66 mins).

Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).