After losing six Leinster U-21 Football Championship finals over the years (1966, 1981, 1982, 2003, 2006 and 2011), Longford now have another chance to win this elusive title for a historic first time and the current squad will be quietly confident of causing a major upset against a highly rated Kildare outfit on the basis of their serious achievement in beating the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin.
Longford were given little chance of crossing the first hurdle at Parnell Park but dug really deep in producing a courageous performance that got them over the line by a single point and the same high intensity will be required to give them a chance in the U-21 title decider at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise this Wednesday evening, throw-in 7.30pm.
Providing goalkeeper Paddy Collum (Fr. Manning Gaels) has recovered from the knee injury that saw him stretchered off in the closing stages of the narrow win over Wexford in the previous round, Longford will start with six members of the team that suffered the bitter disappointment of losing the 2011 final and that experience should stand to them on this occasion.
Diarmuid Cooney (Fr. Manning Gaels), Darren Gallagher (Granard St. Mary’s), Padraig McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets), James McGivney (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara) and Collum all featured in the shattering one-point defeat against Wexford in the final two years ago and hopefully their luck will change.
While the odds are stacked against that happening in the showdown against a seriously strong Kildare side who scored a landslide 3-22 to 0-7 win over Laois in the semi-final, Longford can point to the fact that they were generally regarded as no hopers when the counties clashed in the Leinster minor semi-final at Pearse Park on July 4th 2010 but somehow the home county managed to emerge victorious by the minimum of margins, 3-5 to 0-13, thanks to the crucial goals.
That shock defeat hurt Kildare badly and will make the current crop of U-21 footballers very wary indeed in their quest to win this provincial title for the first time since 2008 when their manager was none other than the present Longford senior supremo Glenn Ryan.
The bulk of the same players who were in action in that remarkable U-18 game three years ago will be in opposition again in the U-21 final with no less than ten members of Longford’s 2010 Leinster minor championship winning team set to start at O’Moore Park this Wednesday evening.
While Longford U-21 manager Eugene McCormack will have his charges really fired up in their fierce desire to come out on top, the Kildare team are backboned by several players with senior experience – ten in total- and will take some stopping such is their overall high quality.
Apart from the runaway win over Laois, another emphatic 2-15 to 1-9 victory was registered when they brushed aside the challenge of Meath in the quarter-final clash in Navan with full-forward Podge Fogarty scoring 1-4.
With other exceptional forwards in Fionn Dowling (an injury doubt after he was forced to retire against Laois in the semi-final) and the regular senior trio of Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy, the Longford defence could find themselves under a lot of of pressure and the usual gameplan will have to operate most effectively indeed in the hope of containing the massive threat of the razor sharp Kildare attack.
Rising stars Kelly, Flynn and Brophy were all rested for the recent National League Division 1 clash against Tyrone but former Aussie Rules rookie with Collingwood, Paul Cribben, was brought on to make his first senior appearance and made a major impact to score three points from play.
Also introduced against Tyrone was Sean Hurley, who fired over a point, and he will partner the captain Tommy Moolick in a powerful midfield pairing on the Kildare U-21 team. Tommy, who has also featured for the county seniors in the recent past, is a son of former Clonguish footballer PJ Moolick who was corner-back on the Longford U-21 team that were well beaten 4-14 to 2-5 by Kildare in the 1966 Leinster Final.
Wing back Cribben, who returned from Australia before Christmas, is regarded as a real exciting prospect and scored four superb points from the No. 5 position against Laois in the U-21 semi-final. Goalkeeper Mark Donnellan and corner-back David Hyland have also featured for the seniors in the current National League campaign which has yielded a semi-final spot and Kildare football is certainly on a high at the moment.
A key link between both teams is the same manager, Kieran McGeeney, and that continuity is clearly working well. But while there are some top class players on the Kildare U-21 team, the county are not comfortable in the hot favourites role and may become frustrated if things do not go according to plan against Longford who possess a never-say-die attitude. Make no mistake about it, there is also a lot of quality on the Longford team but the probable midfield pairing of Paddy Thompson (Killoe Young Emmets) and Darren Gallagher will need to make a big impact in order to get a decent supply of the ball into the dangerous full-forward-line of Robbie Smyth, Mark Hughes (Killoe Young Emmets) and James McGivney who are capable of causing havoc, as they did in the first quarter of the semi-final against Wexford.
Kildare apparently have the greater physical strength overall with wing forward Daniel Flynn described as a player with pace to burn and a physique to match while his fellow senior colleague Niall Kelly is the playmaker on the ‘40’ with his ability to pick a pass and get a score.
A lot of positive stuff has been written about the star-studded Kildare U-21 team who will be extremely hard beaten in their quest to capture the Leinster title and therefore progress to the All-Ireland semi-final against the eventual Connacht champions Galway or Roscommon on Saturday April 20th.
But the mighty have fallen in the past and the Longford U-21s will relish the role of the underdogs as Dublin found out in their eventual demise. A repeat performance of the same blanket defence resistance and the quick counter-attacks on the break will have to materialise for the midlanders if Kildare are to be brought crashing down.