Longford’s tremendous unbeaten run this season will hopefully continue at Croke Park on Sunday next as they seek a semi-final spot in the Leinster Senior Football Championship but will need to be very wary of Wexford who will be really fired up in their attempt to gain revenge for the somewhat surprising defeat in the recent National League Division 3 title decider at the same venue.
For the third time in the space of just eight weeks the counties will clash and while Longford won the two league encounters in April with just a couple of points separating the sides on each occasion, the heat of the championship battle is a completely different situation and Wexford have gained a lot of Croke Park experience during the past few years.
After hammering Offaly (2-16 to 0-8), Westmeath (1-24 to 0-15) and Carlow (4-12 to 0-10) to reach the provincial decider last season, Wexford almost sprang a major shock against Dublin in their unlucky 2-12 to 1-12 final defeat and will be anxious to build on that significant progress.
In the 2010 Leinster Championship quarter-final at Croke Park, there was another close call for Dublin when Wexford let a comfortable lead slip as the game ended in a draw but the underdogs were eventually beaten 2-16 to 0-15 after extra-time.
Wexford lost out to Kildare 2-12 to 0-11 in the 2009 quarter-final but beat Meath (2-14 to 2-13) and Laois (0-18 to 0-12) to make it through to the Leinster Final in 2008, only to suffer a demoralising 3-23 to 0-9 setback against Dublin in the decider.
Ironically, Wexford staged a remarkable recovery in the qualifiers and came through the back door to beat Down (2-13 to 0-12) and Armagh (1-14 to 0-12) in reaching the All-Ireland semi-final but their great run in the race for Sam Maguire was ended by the eventual 2008 champions Tyrone who emerged victorious by six points, 0-23 to 1-14.
Those three games were all played at Croke Park in what was Jason Ryan’s first season in charge of the Wexford footballers and the Waterford native is still their manager. Ryan was among the attendance at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park a couple of weeks ago to watch Longford win a game in the Leinster Championship for the first time since 2007, showing serious resilience in storming back from six points down at half-time to beat Laois by the minimum of margins, 1-10 to 0-12.
While Wexford have become very familiar with Croke Park and are generally considered to be the third best team in Leinster (behind Dublin and Kildare) on the basis of the championship results in recent years, the tame manner in which they allowed Longford establish a commanding 1-10 to 0-3 half-time lead in the Division 3 League Final at GAA Headquarters is clearly a cause for concern.
But Wexford battled back in the second half with the introduction of substitutes Rory Quinlivan and Shane Roche making a big difference and Longford were hanging on in the end as the gap was closed to just two points (1-12 to 0-13) before the final whistle was eventually blown.
Back-to-back league titles was a great achievement, to say the least, for a small county like Longford and while the pressure is off to a certain extent after gaining that elusive first round win in the Leinster Championship to give the growing confidence a further boost, the players will firmly believe that they can beat Wexford for the third time this season.
But they do not need to be told that a big overall improvement will be required, particularly on the evidence of a very poor performance in the first half against Laois, if a rare appearance in the provincial semi-final is going to be achieved at the expense of a Wexford team who will feel that they are peaking at just the right time for their entry into the championship race.
The indications are that Jason Ryan will probably make a couple of changes to the team that started in the league final taking into account the significant impact made by the substitutes on that occasion. Wexford, like Longford, are backboned by a number of quality forwards with the scoring power of Ben Brosnan, Ciaran Lyng, Redmond Barry and PJ Banville posing a big threat.
Longford’s well documented midfield problems were exposed by Laois whose superiority in this crucial sector was not reflected fully on the Pearse Park scoreboard and if the same scenario materialises at Croke Park on Sunday then the midlanders will be in big trouble.
Wexford will be looking to the powerful presence of Daithi Waters to give them a decisive edge at centrefield and while question marks remain about the real quality of their defence, it must be said that full-back Graeme Molloy and centre-half-back David Murphy are capable of making the desired impact with wing back Adrian Flynn another key figure.
Make no mistake about it, Longford are facing a difficult task against a strong Wexford team packed with championship experience and it will take a supreme effort by Glenn Ryan’s charges to make further progress and the probable prospect of a semi-final showdown against the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin who meet Louth in the second quarter-final tie at Croke Park on Sunday next (throw-in 4.30pm).
The Longford management team must do something to improve matters at midfield and may decide to play David Barden there from the start alongside Bernard McElvaney. Barden certainly made a considerable difference at centrefield in the second half against Laois in using his pace and power to fine effect but a bigger impact will need to be made by McElvaney who is capable of playing a lot better.
The vital factor of not conceding a goal stood to Longford in the wins over Wexford (league final) and Laois and Barry Gilleran has developed into a very commanding figure at full-back this season in front of the confident keeper Damien Sheridan who will be hoping to keep his net intact yet again on Sunday.
While the half-back-line of Colm P Smyth, Michael Quinn and Shane Mulligan are playing consistently well, they are coming up against a dangerous Wexford attack but Longford are also strong up front with Paul Barden in outstanding form this year.
Inspirational captain Paul will take some stopping in the wide open spaces of Croke Park and if Brian Kavanagh and Sean McCormack can make their presence felt in the full-forward-line Longford will hopefully get enough scores in producing the usual so determined bid to come out on top.
Paul Kelly and Padraig McCormack, influential substitutes against Laois, certainly improved matters when brought on at the start of the second half and both must be strongly in contention to play from the start against Wexford on Sunday.
Whatever happens on the second visit to Croke Park this season, the Longford squad have given the supporters and the entire county a huge lift with the success they have enjoyed and the players will be quietly confident of extending the impressive unbeaten run that has captured the attention of GAA followers all over the country.
Footnote: When Longford last played Wexford in the Leinster Senior Football Championship back in 2000, they suffered the bitter disappointment of a 3-9 to 0-12 defeat at the New Ross grounds in their opening game of the preliminary round-robin that also included Carlow and Wicklow.
Playing at centre-half-forward on that Longford team 12 years ago was none other than Paul Barden and the Clonguish clubman will occupy the same position when the counties clash once again in the championship at Croke Park on Sunday next.
Also in action for Longford in 2000 was current selector Padraic Davis, who lined-out at left-corner-forward and scored five points (two frees) in the setback against Wexford.