It does not get much better than this! What a wonderful feeling for the thrilled Longford supporters in Clones on Saturday evening last as the county senior footballers scored a famous win, producing a magnificent performance to shock the red-hot favourites Monaghan in a cracking contest that unfolded in front of the 5,262 attendance.
In getting through to the last 16 of the All-Ireland Championship against all the odds, Longford stuck rigidly to a master defensive game plan devised by shrewd manager Denis Connerton and continually hit Monaghan hard on the quick counter-attack with the lethal Robbie Smyth getting the crucial second goal with eight minutes of normal time remaining.
That proved to be the killer blow as the stunned home side now trailed by four points and their frantic efforts to salvage the situation came to nothing as the complete outsiders stood firm to withstand a lot of pressure from there until the finish. The tension was unbearable in the fierce excitement and particularly so when Monaghan closed the gap after Conor McManus converted a free in the third minute of stoppage time.
There was still time for last year’s Ulster champions to engineer a dramatic last gasp equalising goal that might well have materialised but for braveheart defending by Barry Gilleran who blocked down the Drew Wylie attempt to find the back of the net and the danger was cleared as referee Ciaran Branagan eventually blew the final whistle in what was a action-packed and highly entertaining Round 2B Qualifier.
The Down official was the subject of some severe criticism from the furious Longford fans for a number of harsh decisions he made against the midlanders throughout the game, and was booed off the pitch at half-time. But there was just no stopping Connerton’s charges who showed tremendous spirit to beat one of the strongest sides in the country and overcame the handicap of losing Donal McElligott (32 mins) and Barry McKeon (60 mins), both of whom received black cards.
Winners of the Ulster SFC title in 2013 and 2015, this was supposed to be a stroll for Monaghan according to the pundits in the National papers but they were unable to match the fierce intensity of a fired up Longford team who have now taken out two Division 1 sides in their remarkable progress in the championship qualifiers.
Down were the first to fall in Newry a couple of weeks ago but getting the better of such a highly rated outfit as Monaghan was a sensational success and Longford can now look forward with a fair amount of confidence to the Round 3B clash against Cork at Pearse Park on Saturday next (3pm) in their bid to make further progress through the back door.
There were heroes all over the pitch in Clones with a huge workrate in what was a tremendous team display, hailed as one of the greatest ever wins by Longford, but it must be said that Diarmuid Masterson stood out in making a major impact against Monaghan.
The courageous Dromard man lined out in the half-forward-line and was switched to midfield at the start of the second half after Michael Brady was forced to retire injured. Even the pain of a groin strain sustained in the first half failed to prevent the mighty Masterson from exerting a huge influence on the game and he also dropped back to help out the defence on numerous occasions.
James McGivney, operating a similar role to Masterson, was another shining star to play a leading role in this terrific triumph and as they had also done against Down the key duo fired over three excellent points apiece.
Although he took up the totally unfamiliar position of centre-half-forward at the start of the match, the so versatile Dermot Brady quickly reverted to the role of an extra defender and even full-forward Brian Kavanagh got behind the ball as Longford built a solid defensive wall for most of the fascinating second half.
Whether it was just sheer complacency or a necessity to freshen things up in the aftermath of the two very tough games against Donegal in the Ulster semi-final, Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke opted to make five changes to the team that appeared on the programme whereas Longford started Paul McGee and Liam Connerton who replaced Barry O’Farrell and Dessie Reynolds.
The vital factor of getting off to a good start saw the visitors lead by 1-1 to 0-0 with Connerton having his goal attempt saved by Rory Beggan and creating the opportunity for Michael Quinn to scramble the breaking ball over the line in the 4th minute after Robbie Smyth had fired over a free.
While Monaghan hit back with a brace of points from their tightly marked dangerman Conor McManus (free and play), they were slow to settle and Longford (playing against the wind) quickly regained the upper hand to land three points in a row through a couple of fine strikes from James McGivney with Brian Kavanagh (free) also on target.
That left the Division 3 underdogs leading by 1-4 to 0-2 and they managed to maintain this comfortable five points lead until the 27th minute thanks to two scores from Robbie Smyth (free and play), the second of which was a great effort from a tight angle.
Jack McCarron and Conor McCarthy replied for Monaghan, who gradually awoke from their slumber to dominate the remainder of the first half and enjoyed a glorious spell that yielded 1-5 without reply.
After a further point apiece from McCarthy and McCarron, the impressive McCarthy shot over the bar again before the farney county hit the front when defender Colin Walshe finished his shot to the net in the 35th minute after McCarron (who appeared to pick the ball off the ground) had his goal attempt blocked.
That was a cruel blow for Longford and when they conceded two more points in stoppage time, with Conor McManus (free) and Ryan McAnespie on target for Monaghan, it was not looking good for Connerton’s so committed side who certainly did not deserve to be trailing by 1-9 to 1-6 at the break.
Few can argue with the fact that Longford should have been ahead but they refused to be rattled and a brilliant start to the second half yielded a fine point from Diarmuid Masterson after just 20 seconds.
Brian Kavanagh then landed a glorious sideline kick to give the wind assisted away county a great lift and while Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan converted a cracking 60 yards free in the 40th minute, his side failed to register another score until the 57th minute when Conor McCarthy fired over his fourth point.
While enjoying most of the possession, Monaghan were guilty of squandering several chances (kicking nine wides throughout the second half as compared to just three for the opposition) and were becoming very frustrated in the face of fierce resistance from a superb Longford defence.
After the Beggan score, the issue swung back in favour of Longford who played some great football to clock up four points in a row between the 42nd and 55th minutes through Diarmuid Masterson, James McGivney, Brian Kavanagh (landing a tremendous long range effort from play) and Liam Connerton to lead by 1-12 to 1-10.
Monaghan managed to engineer a goal chance in the 52nd minute, only for Conor McCarthy to blast the ball wide, but they got back on level terms with a couple of points in quick succession from McCarthy and substitute Shane Carey.
A great score followed from the inspirational Diarmuid Masterson in the 59th minute and the Longford supporters went wild with joy when Liam Connerton put Robbie Smyth through for the matchwinning goal in the 62nd minute.
Hard to believe really but the county are on a high with the current squad just one more win away from emulating the team of 2006 who ended up meeting the might of Kerry in the last 12 of the All-Ireland Championship down in Killarney.
MONAGHAN: Rory Beggan (0-1, free); Colin Walshe (1-0), Drew Wylie, Conor Boyle; Neil McAdam, Vinny Corey, Fintan Kelly; Dermot Malone, Karl O’Connell; Thomas Kerr, Ryan McAnespie (0-1), Jack McCarron (0-2); Conor McCarthy (0-4), Darren Hughes, Conor McManus (0-4, three frees).
Subs:- Owen Duffy for D Malone (half-time); Shane Carey (0-1) for K O’Connell (half-time); Dessie Mone for T Kerr (49 mins); Kieran Hughes for J McCarron (56 mins); Stephen Gollogly for O Duffy (63 mins).
LONGFORD: Paddy Collum (Fr Manning Gaels); Cian Farrelly (Killoe Emmet Og), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Paul McGee (Dromard); Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St Columba’s), Michael Quinn (Killoe Emmet Og, 1-0), Barry McKeon (Colmcille); Michael Brady (Longford Slashers), Darren Gallagher (St Mary’s Granard); Diarmuid Masterson (Dromard, 0-3), Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), James McGivney (Mullinalaghta St Columba’s, 0-3); Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara, 1-3, two points from frees), Brian Kavanagh (Kilmacud Crokes, 0-3, from free, sideline kick and play), Liam Connerton (Rathcline, 0-1).
Subs:- Barry O’Farrell
(Carrickedmond) for P McGee (25 mins); Dessie Reynolds (Sean Connolly’s) for D McElligott (black card, 32 mins); Mark Hughes (Killoe Emmet Og) for M Brady (injured, half-time); Rory Connor (Kenagh) for B McKeon (black card, 60 mins); Brian Farrell (Mostrim) for D Gallagher (65 mins); Seamus Hannon (Mostrim) for R Smyth (two minutes into stoppage time).
Referee: Ciaran Branagan (Down).