Longford have enjoyed a remarkable record in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifiers with a reputation gained for causing upsets and they did it again when knocking Down out in a cracking contest that yielded the tremendous total of 46 scores at Pairc Esler in Newry on Saturday last with substitutes Seamus Hannon and Mark Hughes getting the crucial goals in extra-time.
Right from the word go, the county team had the belief that they could win in capitalising on the current poor state of Down football and great credit to Longford manager Denis Connerton for plotting a superb success at such a difficult venue. And it was captain Michael Quinn who led the charge for glory in producing a powerful performance and particularly so at centrefield in the first half.
The shrewd Connerton is a vastly experienced coach and while he was the subject of a fair amount of criticism, both on and off the pitch this season, he has got his side back on track with a worthy championship victory in the aftermath of the disappointing defeat against Offaly in the early Leinster exit.
In the end it was those two goals in extra-time that settled the issue but Longford were unquestionably the better side for the best part of this action packed Round 1B clash and should have come out on top at the end of the regular 70 minutes.
Leading 0-11 to 1-4 at the break despite kicking eight wides in the first half, Longford lost their way for a while in the second half with dangerous Down full-forward Donal O’Hare shooting a couple of goals - the first with just 30 seconds gone on the changeover and that piled the pressure back on the midlanders.
With ten minutes of normal time remaining, Down were three points in front (3-9 to 0-15) and Longford would have been in serious trouble but for two excellent point-blank saves by keeper Paddy Collum as wide gaps continued to appear in the visitors defence.
But the Division 3 side, showing no fear against a Down team who were relegated from Division 1 this season, found a new lease of life in the tense and exciting closing stages to fire over over five points in a row through Michael Quinn, James McGivney, a brace from Diarmuid Masterson and a Brian Kavanagh free to regain the lead with time running out.
Masterson, starting in the half-forward-line, played really well for Longford throughout this cliffhanger of a game. Regular attacker McGivney was also most prominent as he and Masterson drifted between the attack and defence (the pair shooting six points between them) but Down were not done for yet and closed the gap when Ryan Mallon blasted the ball over the bar with the goals at his mercy.
Then a speculative kick from substitute Sean Dornan yielded the equalising point and after Down wing back Darragh O’Hanlon shot wildly wide, Longford launched an immediate counter-attack with Michael Quinn racing through to fire over what appeared to be the winning score in the first minute of stoppage time.
The magnificent tally of 21 points would win most games but there was still time for Down to snatch a draw and that's what happened with the last kick of the game when Longford player Michael Brady was rather harshly branded with a black card for stopping Mark Poland in front of the posts and Donal O’Hare made no mistake from the handy free to force extra-time.
That was hard to take for the small contingent of loyal Longford followers who made the trip to Newry to witness the season saver and it was the Down supporters who were doing most of the shouting in the first half of the additional 20 minutes period when they shot three points in succession through Ryan Mallon, Mark Poland and Donal O’Hare (free).
Longford had made a bright start to extra-time when Brian Kavanagh converted a free and just when it appeared as if their chances of winning might be slipping away the ball broke kindly for unlikely hero Seamus Hannon who planted the ball in the back of the Down net after Robbie Smyth (always a threat in attack throughout the game) had his goal attempt blocked.
That came in the 9th minute of extra-time and moments later Longford suffered the setback of losing James McGivney to a black card (replaced by Mark Hughes) before Donal O’Hare fired over another free for the home county.
Both sides were getting very tired at this stage with Down trailing by just a solitary point but it was Longford who found that little bit of extra energy to engineer a terrific move that led to the matchwinning goal with four minutes of extra-time remaining.
Robbie Smyth, Darren Gallagher and Donal McElligott linked up with the Mullinalaghta man providing the perfect pass for Mark Hughes to finish the ball to the net from point-blank range and just for good measure it was another substitute Seamus Hannon who landed a point late on.
Right at the very end the gallant losers got a consolation score when Donal O’Hare fired over another free to bring his total to a most impressive 2-9 but it was not enough to save a Down team who are currently in disarray and were there for the taking.
But this is still a major result for Denis Connerton and the other members of the management team - Ciaran Fox, Enda Macken and Derek Ryan - and it is fair to say that it has been a good season for Longford with a win in the championship and the retention of their Division 3 league status.
The county senior footballers are now entering bonus territory as they look forward to the All-Ireland Qualifiers Round 2B clash against the losers of Donegal v Monaghan on Saturday week, July 9th, even though the odds are stacked against them making further progress through the back door.
Longford were very determined to make amends for the failure against Offaly in the opening round of the Leinster Championship and Connerton’s rejuvenated side had much the better of the first half exchanges. They led by four points at the break with their eleven scores (some excellent efforts) coming from Brian Kavanagh (3, two frees), Barry McKeon, Robbie Smyth (3, one free), Michael Quinn, Diarmuid Masterson and James McGivney (2).
Dessie Reynolds had a decent goal chance saved by the opposing keeper Marc Reid as early as the 5th minute of the game and it was proving to be a fierce struggle for Down (shooting just one wide in the first half) who were surviving on scraps but managed to remain in contention thanks to a goal from Conor Maginn in the 21st minute.
However, the second half turned out to be a rather different story with Down, spurred on by their vociferous supporters, tearing into Longford who conceded two more goals and were restricted to just four scores through Barry McKeon (41st minute), Dessie Reynolds (47th minute), Michael Quinn (50th minute) and Brian Kavanagh (free, 53rd minute) before they produced a storming finish to eventually triumph in a thriller.
And so for the 8th season in a row Longford have succeeded in winning the first round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers which is a great achievement and the current crop of county players will hopefully give it their best shot when they take on the might of Monaghan or Donegal away in the next round of the All-Ireland Championship.
DOWN: Marc Reid; Conall McGovern, Gerard McGovern, Darren O’Hagan; David McKibbin, Aidan Carr, Darragh O’Hanlon; Peter Turley, Kevin McKernan; Ryan Mallon (0-4), Mark Poland (0-1), Joe Murphy; Conor Maginn (1-1), Donal O’Hare (2-9, eight points from frees), Barry O’Hagan (0-1).
Subs:- Gerard Collins for D McKibbin (42 mins); Mark McKay for K McKernan (52 mins); Damien Turley for J Murphy (53 mins); Sean Dornan (0-1) for B O’Hagan.
Subs in extra-time:- Henry Brown for M McKay (black card, 8 mins); K McKernan for C Maginn (14 mins); Brendan McArdle for A Carr (19 mins).
LONGFORD: Paddy Collum (Fr Manning Gaels); Cian Farrelly (Killoe Emmet Og), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Barry O’Farrell (Carrickedmond); Barry McKeon (Colmcille, 0-2), Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St Columba’s); Michael Brady (Longford Slashers), Michael Quinn (Killoe Emmet Og, 0-4); James McGivney (Mullinalaghta St Columba’s, 0-3), Darren Gallagher (St Mary’s Granard), Diarmuid Masterson (Dromard, 0-3); Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara, 0-4, one free), Brian Kavanagh (Kilmacud Crokes, 0-6, five frees), Dessie Reynolds (Sean Connolly’s, 0-1).
Subs:- Paul McGee (Dromard) for B Gilleran (47 mins); Liam Connerton (Rathcline) for D Gallagher (54 mins); Seamus Hannon (Mostrim, 1-1) for B McKeon (60 mins); Brian Farrell (Mostrim) for D Reynolds (67 mins).
Subs in extra-time:- D Gallagher for M Brady (black card, right at the end of normal time); Mark Hughes (Killoe Emmet Og, 1-0) for J McGivney (black card, stoppage time in first half of ET); Rory Connor (Kenagh) for R Smyth (17 mins); David McGivney (Mullinalaghta St Columba’s) for M Quinn (19 mins).
Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry).