The Longford dream of winning the Leinster U-21 Football Championship title for a historic first time is still alive but only just as they somehow managed to let a very commanding 11 points lead slip from their grasp in a fierce battle against Wexford in a tense and exciting semi-final clash at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise on Wednesday night of last week.
It almost developed into a nightmare scenario, much to the horror of the Longford supporters who comprised the vast majority of the attendance, and there was major relief at the final whistle as Eugene McCormack’s side just about managed to withstand a terrific Wexford comeback. Only a solitary point separated the sides in the finish and Wexford missed a free to force a draw with time almost up.
Longford’s reward is a place in the U-21 provincial final for the second time in the space of three years with a strongly fancied Kildare side providing the opposition in the title decider back in Portlaoise on Wednesday evening next, April 3rd (throw-in 7.30pm). Kieran McGeeney’s highly rated U-21 outfit are backboned by several players with senior experience and they issued a serious warning with a landslide 3-22 to 0-7 win over Laois in the other semi-final.
Having said that, Longford played some wonderful football to establish a very commanding 2-5 to 0-0 lead with just 16 minutes played against a stunned Wexford side who were guilty of making a lot of poor mistakes and looked dead and buried. With the excellent full-forward-line of Robbie Smyth, Mark Hughes and James McGivney causing havoc, the county were cruising and it was the deadly Hughes who scored both goals in the 9th and 11th minutes.
Smyth and McGivney were involved in the slick move that set up Hughes for the first of those crucial scores and soon after wing back Diarmuid Cooney broke from the defence to create the opportunity for the Killoe sharpshooter to find the corner of the net with another well struck effort.
Mark Hughes ended up with the impressive total of 2-2 to his credit in the first half with Robbie Smyth firing over three points (two frees). Midfielder Paddy Thompson had opened the scoring in the first minute while James McGivney also shot over the bar to leave Longford in a comfortable 2-7 to 1-3 lead at the break.
Wexford were given a glimmer of hope when corner-forward Robert Dempsey planted the ball in the back of the net in the 22nd minute, after Longford keeper Paddy Collum had produced a fine save to keep out a rasping shot from opposing midfielder Colm Kehoe, while the three Wexford points in the first half came from impressive half-backs Jack Kelly (2) and Dermot O’Keeffe.
Two minutes into the second half Robbie Smyth landed a great score from near the sideline to extend the Longford advantage but Wexford then found a new lease of life to register seven points in a row through Kelly, Ciaran Butler (two frees), Kehoe, Dempsey, Alan Tobin (free) and Lee Devereux in a glorious spell between the 35th and 42nd minutes and they were completely dominant in the battle for midfield supremacy in surging forward at almost every opportunity.
A cracking point from James McGivney from near the sideline in the 44th minute eased the pressure on Longford, only for Wexford to draw level through a brace of frees converted by Ciaran Butler and Alan Tobin, but the midlanders showed a lot of character in battling back to regain the upper hand.
Robbie Smyth kept his composure to kick two vital points (free and play) in the space of a minute (ending up with the impressive total of 0-6) and it was influential substitute Cillian Lynn who created both scores. But Longford had a very lucky escape in the 55th minute when Wexford midfielder Colm Kehoe (who was outstanding in the second half) blasted the ball over the bar from close range when a goal was there for the taking with opposing keeper Paddy Collum stranded injured on the ground after he got caught in the tangle to stop Matthew Cody getting through for another Wexford goal attempt moments earlier.
Kehoe’s point proved to be the last score of this remarkable game in closing the gap to the minimum of margins and Longford squandered some chances in the lengthy stoppage time brought about after keeper Collum was stretchered off injured.
But Wexford (now down to 14 men after left-half-back Aidan Cash was sent-off for a second yellow card offence a couple of minutes earlier) had a wonderful opportunity to snatch a draw when they were awarded what appeared to be a handy free. Longford full-back Barry O’Farrell was very harshly penalised for overplaying the ball in his attempt to clear the danger but justice was done when Ciaran Butler drove the kick wide in the fourth minute of additional time.
LONGFORD: Paddy Collum (Fr. Manning Gaels); Ronan Keogh (Killoe Young Emmets), Barry O’Farrell (Carrickedmond), Darragh Bennett (Killoe Young Emmets); Darren Farrelly (Fr. Manning Gaels), Padraig McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets), Diarmuid Cooney (Fr. Manning Gaels); Paddy Thompson (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-1), Darren Gallagher (Granard St. Mary’s); Rory Connor (Kenagh), Barry McKeon (Colmcille), Daniel Mimnagh (Killoe Young Emmets); Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara, 0-6, three frees), Mark Hughes (Killoe Young Emmets, 2-2, one point from free), James McGivney (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 0-2).
Subs:- Cillian Lynn (Mostrim) for D Mimnagh (44 mins); Cian Farrelly (Killoe Young Emmets) for D Farrelly (56 mins); Gareth Higgins (Carrickedmond) for P Collum (injured, 59 mins); Andrew Dalton (Longford Slashers) for R Connor (61 mins).
WEXFORD: Michael O’Toole; Darren Foley, Thomas Cullen, Stephen Corrigan; Jack Kelly (0-3), Dermot O’Keeffe (0-1), Aidan Cash; Colm Kehoe (0-2), Lee Chin; Eddie Shiely, Ciaran Butler (0-3, all frees), John Tubritt; Lee Devereux (0-1), Alan Tobin (0-2, frees), Robert Dempsey (1-1).
Subs:- (Blood) Matthew Cody for D Foley (24 mins); (Blood) Graham Carty for L Chin (24 mins) - Foley and Chin back on at the start of the second half; G Carty for E Shiely (half-time); (Blood) Edward O’Byrne for L Chin (33 mins) – Chin back on for O’Byrne in the 39th minute; M Cody for J Tubritt (48 mins).
Referee: David Gough (Meath).