Longford are in great shape coming into the Leinster Senior Football Championship on the back of some serious momentum gained on their way to winning Division 3 of the National League but a victory over Laois in the match that really matters at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Sunday next has been very much the main objective since the start of the season and hopes are high that further progress can be made.
Seven wins and a draw in another successful league campaign that yielded the most significant achievement of back-to-back National titles suggests that Longford are capable of making a big impact in the championship this year in their attempt to improve on a very poor record in Leinster with a win over Westmeath back in 2007 the last time that the county managed to cross the first hurdle.
Glenn Ryan was in charge when Longford suffered the bitter disappointment of narrow defeats against Wicklow (2009), Louth (2010) and Laois (2011) and thus he is still searching for his first win in the Leinster Championship as the Longford manager, a frustrating bogey that needs to be broken and home advantage is certainly a boost.
The three significant setbacks in the Ryan regime were all at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise but with such a fine record at Pearse Park in recent years the general opinion is that Longford will be difficult to beat in their bid to earn another crack at Wexford in the quarter-final at Croke Park on Sunday June 3rd on the same bill as All-Ireland champions Dublin who take on Louth or Westmeath.
A terrific first half performance against Wexford paved the way for the recent Division 3 league title triumph but after building up a commanding 1-10 to 0-3 lead at the break, Longford faded right out of contention on the changeover and only succeeded in adding another couple of scores to their tally in holding out for a slender two-point win.
That is certainly a cause for concern and Glenn Ryan does not need to be told that his players cannot afford the same sort of lapse against a decent Laois team who were operating at a higher level in Division 1 of the National League this season. Although they ended up getting relegated from the extremely tough top flight, a win away against Donegal was impressive while they also got the better of Armagh (minus the Crossmaglen contingent) at O’Moore Park, 1-15 to 0-10.
Laois were defeated by Mayo, Dublin, Cork, Kerry (in Killarney by only four points) and Down and the experience gained against such strong opposition could well stand to them on Sunday in their quest to beat Longford in the opening round of the Leinster Championship for the second year in succession.
Just a solitary point (0-10 to 0-9) separated the sides in a scrappy encounter at O’Moore Park in 2011 that was littered with very poor finishing, Longford shooting 16 wides with Laois kicking 11 wides and the home side also squandered some goal chances in the second half.
Laois also came out on top when the counties clashed in the 2007 Leinster Championship quarter-final in Tullamore and the 2008 All-Ireland Qualifier at Pearse Park (1-10 to 0-11) and the records state that Longford have failed to beat their bogey team since the historic 3-9 to 1-4 provincial senior final success way back in 1968. Longford were hammered by Laois in first round Leinster Championship games in 1975, 1980 and 1994 but surely the time has come for a change of fortunes and the current squad will be really fired up in their fierce desire to gain revenge for last year’s unlucky defeat.
But injuries to David Barden and Paul Kelly (the latter struck by a recurring hamstring strain in a recent club game with Slashers) is certainly not helping the cause and both are considered major doubts to start on Sunday with Barden sidelined since the National League game against Tipperary in Thurles on March 24th.
Also on the casualty list is JJ Matthews, recovering from a broken bone in his hand that ruled him out of the league final against Wexford, and at this stage the indications are that the Longford management team may well stick to the same side that started at Croke Park on April 28th if David Barden is ruled out.
The absence of Barden would be a big blow with Padraig McCormack the probable replacement in the roving right-half-forward position (as was the case in both games against Wexford) while another of the promising U-21 players James McGivney must be pressing hard for a place on the first fifteen.
Midfield is proving to be a problem area but the experienced Bernard McElvaney at his best can make a big impact along with the other key figures in the attack – notably Paul Barden, Brian Kavanagh and Sean McCormack and their scoring power is so vital to Longford’s chances of a rare victory in the Leinster Championship.
Barry Gilleran (despite a slight knee injury) and Michael Quinn will be going all out to command the crucial central positions in the defence with their usual efficient authority but the probable presence of Padraig Clancy in the target man role at full-forward for Laois is clearly a danger and Longford may experience some difficulty containing this big threat – particularly with the change to the square ball rule from open play.
Clancy (who did not start against Longford last year) is just one of a number of quality players on the Laois team and apart from the strong midfield pairing of Brendan Quigley and John O’Loughlin who will take a lot of stopping, assisted by former Australia FL recruit Colm Begley in a roving role, established attackers in Ross Munnelly, MJ Tierney and Billy Sheehan are all capable of posing considerable problems.
At least the Longford backs will not have to worry about Donie Kingston, who is apparently no longer part of the Laois squad, but manager Justin McNulty (the former Armagh player) will be expecting a victory even if he must be concerned about a somewhat suspect defence.
But McNulty, in his second season in charge, generally operates the blanket defence system but whether this frustrating tactic can close down the slick Longford attack remains to be seen. Glenn Ryan has been doing something similar with his side to fine effect and while another close encounter is in prospect, home advantage could prove to be a decisive factor in the drive to knock Laois out of the Leinster Championship.