Leinster Senior Football Championship First Round

Bernard McElvaney on the ball for Longford as he battles with Wicklow player James Stafford during the first round of the Leinster Senior Football Championship on Sunday last in Aughrim. Photo: Ray Donlon

Longford’s terrible season is going from bad to worse and after losing all seven fixtures in getting relegated from Division 2 of the National League, the serious slide continued as the county senior footballers suffered a bitterly disappointing defeat against Wicklow at the Aughrim grounds on Sunday last in crashing to a demoralising early exit from the Leinster Championship.

A well-taken goal by Wicklow’s chief tormentor, full-forward Seanie Furlong, with a couple of minutes gone on the changeover proved to be the decisive matchwinning score and at that stage Longford trailed by six points (1-9 to 0-6) after producing a very poor first half performance that left them fighting a real uphill battle.

It must be said that the midlanders cause suffered a significant setback when centre-half-back Michael Quinn was forced to retire injured with just 19 minutes gone in the game but they still had enough chances in the second half to salvage the situation and a crucial moment materialised in the 50th minute when Francis McGee had a goal attempt, only to have his shot from a very tight angle saved by the Wicklow keeper John Flynn.

McGee might have elected to pass the ball to Robbie Smyth who was in a good position in front of the posts as the chance was lost. The closest Longford got to Wicklow was a two-point margin on a few occasions but the visitors were extremely fortunate not to concede another couple of goals in the second half.

Longford keeper Damien Sheridan somehow managed to prevent the clean through James Stafford from finding the back of the net in the 44th minute when getting a vital touch to the ball while the dangerman Furlong blasted his point-blank shot over the bar with the goals at his mercy in the 59th minute after getting the better of Barry Gilleran who appeared to be impeded in this tussle.

Despite the poor run of results in the league, the general opinion was that Longford were good enough to overcome the challenge of Wicklow even at such a difficult venue as the compact Aughrim grounds but Glenn Ryan’s side blew a glorious opportunity of earning what would have been a massive home match against Meath in the next round of the provincial championship.

That honour now belongs instead to Wicklow who will welcome Meath to Aughrim for the televised quarter-final on Saturday June 15th in the hope of springing a shock while Longford, on the other hand, will get a second championship chance in the All-Ireland Qualifiers at the end of June in a bid to redeem themselves.

But morale must be at a low ebb in the camp following their failure to beat fellow strugglers Wicklow who did not register a win in Division 3 of the National League this season, a most disappointing campaign that ended in relegation to Division 4.

Regardless of what happens through the back door, it looks like the end of the road for Longford manager Glenn Ryan in his fifth year in charge but nothing really went right for his team this season and the absence of Brian Kavanagh (currently in New York) as the target man in the attack was a major blow, to say the least. Look what Seanie Furlong done in the same role for Wicklow!

At least the return of Paul Barden after a lengthy injury absence gave the Longford supporters in Aughrim a lift but they became very frustrated indeed after witnessing a dismal first half display that lacked urgency as Wicklow were allow dominate in most positions on the pitch, particularly in the half-back-line and at midfield where the powerful James Stafford was generally the key figure.

Longford lacked a gameplan and really had no shape in the first half as Wicklow boss Harry Murphy clearly won the tactical battle. It was only when wing forward Bernard McElvaney was switched to his natural position at centrefield that Glenn Ryan’s lethargic outfit eventually got their act together and McElvaney proceeded to produce a fine performance in the second half that almost saved his side from defeat.

Taking into account that they were missing their star player Leighton Glynn, out of action with a long term injury, Wicklow done really well to win this match against the odds and impressive centre-half-back Patrick McWalter led the charge as the garden county raced into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead after just nine minutes with their scores coming from five different players – John McGrath, Stafford, Dean Healy, Furlong (free) and Joey Kelly.

Longford had opened the scoring in the 2nd minute when Sean McCormack converted a free but were all over the place for some time after as Wicklow stamped their authority on the game. A terrific long range point from Paul Barden in the 12th minute gave the visitors a badly needed boost and championship debutant Robbie Smyth then landed a fine strike from a tight angle in the 17th minute.

Back came Wicklow with a cracking point from their other midfielder Anthony McLoughlin and while Longford replied when Sean McCormack fired over a free in the 24th minute, the home county continued to surge forward and extended their advantage with three well struck scores through Joey Kelly, Seanie Furlong and Patrick McWalter.

That was really putting it up to Longford but a point from Paul Barden in stoppage time eased the pressure as Wicklow went into the break holding a well deserved 0-9 to 0-5 lead after playing against the wind.

While Longford made a bright start to the second half with a fine point from Donal McElligott (who had replaced the injured Michael Quinn), they looked in serious trouble moments later when Seanie Furlong kept his composure to fire home a goal from close range.

But the pre-match favourites showed a lot of character in recovering well from this severe setback and three points in a row from Sean McCormack (two frees) brought them right back into contention despite the disadvantage of facing into the stiff breeze.

Wicklow hit back with a superb score from Furlong and James Stafford had a glorious chance of putting the issue beyond all doubt when he rounded opposing keeper Damien Sheridan in the 9th minute of the second half and a goal seemed certain – only for Sheridan to make a remarkable last ditch save.

That was a very lucky escape for Longford who replied immediately with a great score from midfielder John Keegan and after a wide by Francis McGee the gap was closed to just two points when Donal McElligott surged forward to fire the ball over the bar in the 46th minute.

But Keegan then lost possession in presenting Wicklow with a chance and John McGrath proceeded to land a mighty point under pressure. Then came the Francis McGee goal opportunity which unfortunately was not converted and soon after the Dromard player capitalised on a mistake by the opposing keeper John Flynn to register a point in the 52nd minute.

A Paul Barden shot then dropped short and after Wicklow wing back Dean Healy kicked over his second point of the game, Sean McCormack failed to convert a free and this proved to be a costly miss.

While Longford substitute JJ Matthews weaved his way through to fist a point in the 58th minute, Seanie Furlong almost scored his second goal when blasting the ball over the bar and the ding-dong battle continued when Bernard McElvaney, forever in the thick of the action, fired over a well struck score in the 61st minute when a badly needed goal was very much on his mind.

But Wicklow pulled away again with a brace of scores through their main men Stafford and Furlong (the latter fisting the ball over the bar) and at this crucial stage of the game Sean McCormack squandered a couple of decent chances for Longford that he would normally convert but it just did not happen for him on this occasion.

In battling it out to the bitter end in their frantic attempts to engineer a late goal, the losers had to be content with a point apiece from Francis McGee (69th minute) and Sean McCormack (second minute of stoppage time) to close the gap but time ran out for Longford as their hopes for an extended run in the 2013 Leinster Championship race came crashing down at the first hurdle.

WICKLOW: John Flynn; Ciaran Hyland, Damian Power, Alan Byrne; Darren Hayden, Patrick McWalter (0-1), Dean Healy (0-2); Anthony McLoughlin (0-1), James Stafford (0-2); Joey Kelly (0-2), Rory Finn, Darragh O’Sullivan; Brendan McCrea, Seanie Furlong (1-5, one free), John McGrath (0-2).

Subs:- Paddy Dalton for J Kelly (53 mins); Austin O’Malley for B McCrea (53 mins).

LONGFORD: Damien Sheridan (Dromard); Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Declan Reilly (Colmcille); Colm P Smyth (Abbeylara), Michael Quinn (Killoe), Shane Mulligan (Mullinalaghta); John Keegan (Mullinalaghta, 0-1), Michael Brady (Longford Slashers); Bernard McElvaney (Ballymore, 0-1), Paul Barden (Clonguish, 0-2), Padraig McCormack (Killoe); Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara, 0-1), Francis McGee (Dromard, 0-2), Sean McCormack (Killoe, 0-6, four frees).

Subs:- Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta, 0-2) for M Quinn (injured, 19 mins); Aidan Rowan (Cashel) for M Brady (29 mins); Fergal Battrim (Abbeylara) for CP Smyth (41 mins); JJ Matthews (Mullinalaghta, 0-1) for R Smyth (54 mins); Niall Mulligan (Longford Slashers) for D McElligott (68 mins).

Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry).