Fielding just seven members of the team that started against Limerick in the All-Ireland Qualifier defeat last July, Longford manager Glenn Ryan availed of the opportunity to experiment against Meath in the O’Byrne Cup Round 1 game at the Ballymahon grounds on Sunday last and the home county ended up losing the opening game of the 2013 season.
A big crowd in the region of 700 for a low-key fixture gathered at Leo Casey Park and with Meath, under new manager Mick O’Dowd, also in experimental mode the match – played in difficult wet conditions - developed into a rather scrappy encounter. A penalty goal converted by Damien Carroll in the 22nd minute of the first half proved to be the decisive score as the visitors scored a slender win with just two points separating the sides at the final whistle.
All of which means that Longford must now win their remaining two fixtures and even at that are depending on Louth beating Meath in Navan this Wednesday night to remain in contention for top spot in Group A and a place in the semi-final of the annual senior football tournament.
However, the management team (with former county board chairman Pat Cahill appointed a new selector) will not be too worried taking into account the number of players currently on the injured list – most notably Paul Barden - while another Longford All-Star nominee Michael Quinn is currently lining-out with his college DCU in the O’Byrne Cup.
Thus a number of newcomers to the squad got their chance against Meath but unable to feature were John Paul Reilly (Colmcille) and Ballinalee native Enda Dalton who now plays his club football with St. Judes in Dublin. Reilly and Dalton were selected to start in the attack but were ruled out completely as both were suffering from the flu.
Particularly prominent for Longford on Sunday last was full-back Barry Gilleran who produced a commanding performance with centre-half-back Kevin Diffley also a prominent figure in the heart of the hard working defence.
But it was the powerful presence of the versatile Joe Sheridan at centrefield for Meath that made the difference in the eventual outcome and the royal county ran out deserving winners. Having said that, Longford were guilty of kicking no less than eight wides during the course of the second half and might have avoided defeat but for the poor finishing.
Meath also missed a number of decent scoring chances on the changeover in their inability to pull away despite enjoying a lot of possession and could have been caught in the tight finish. But they just done enough to come out on top and must now be strongly fancied to qualify for the O’Byrne Cup semi-finals.
Meath opened the scoring with a well struck point from full-forward Peadar Byrne in the 5th minute but Longford were soon back on level terms as Sean McCormack converted a free in the 8th minute.
Mickey Newman then shot over the bar to regain the lead for the visitors but Longford grabbed a goal in the 14th minute when Donal McElligott got the vital touch from close range to flick the ball to the net after connecting with a pass from Kevin Diffley.
Points were then exchanged between Sean McCormack (free) and Mickey Newman before Meath were awarded a penalty after Longford keeper Paddy Collum was penalised for a foot block in stopping a point-blank shot from Paddy Gilsenan.
Up stepped Damien Carroll with a well struck kick to get the crucial goal and it gave Meath a lead (1-3 to 1-2) that they subsequently never surrendered. Longford managed to register just one more score during the remainder of the first half when Donal McElligott shot over the bar in the 28th minute after Shane Doyle wasted a great chance of a goal.
Newcomer Doyle shot straight at the opposing keeper David Lyons, who was guilty of making a bad mistake with a very poor clearance and this was certainly a lucky escape for Meath who ended up leading by 1-6 to 1-3 at the break with their other points coming from Jamie Queeney (2) and impressive left-half-back Stephen Crosbie.
And it could have been even worse for Longford when their defence was split wide open just before the break but fortunately a pass from Graham Reilly went badly astray across the face of the goalmouth and the danger was cleared.
A point apiece from Paddy Gilsenan and Francis McGee (a fine strike from the Longford corner-forward) kept the scoreboard ticking over in the early stages of the second half before a second point from Meath defender Stephen Crosbie left his side leading by 1-8 to 1-4 with eleven minutes gone on the changeover.
But all Meath could manage from there until the finish was a rather dubious point from the boot of the other wing back Cormac Rowe whereas Longford showed a good bit of character to gradually close the gap with three scores through Sean McCormack (on target from play in the 54th minute) and late efforts from McCormack (free) and JJ Matthews.
The introduction of another newcomer, Conor Quaine, in the final quarter of this keenly contested game improved matters at centrefield and the big Legan lad made his presence felt in setting up a couple of scores.
But time ran out for Longford who failed to engineer the opportunity of snatching a dramatic last gasp winning goal as Meath held out to emerge victorious.
Glenn Ryan will experiment further in the next group fixture against UCD at the Killoe grounds this Wednesday night (throw-in 7.45pm) and it will probably be the same case against Louth in Drogheda on Sunday next as the build-up continues to the National League Division 2 campaign which starts on Sunday February 3rd away to Wexford.
LONGFORD: Paddy Collum (Fr. Manning Gaels); Peter Foy (Cashel), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Fergal Battrim (Abbeylara); Colm P Smyth (Abbeylara), Kevin Diffley (Ballymahon), Shane Mulligan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); John Keegan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Michael Brady (Longford Slashers); Shane Doyle (Kenagh), Aidan Rowan (Cashel), Sean McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-4, three frees); JJ Matthews (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 0-1), Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 1-1), Francis McGee (Dromard, 0-1).
Subs:- Bernard McElvaney (Ballymore) for S Doyle (46 mins); Conor Quaine (Legan Sarsfields) for J Keegan (52 mins).
MEATH: David Lyons; Caolan Young, Donal Keogan, David Dalton; Cormac Rowe (0-1), Eoghan Harrington, Stephen Crosbie (0-2); Graham Reilly, Joe Sheridan; Paddy Gilsenan (0-1), Damien Carroll (1-0, penalty), Jamie Queeney (0-2); Dalton McDonagh, Peadar Byrne (0-1), Mickey Newman (0-2).
Subs:- Caoimhin King for D Keogan (injured, half-time); Brian Farrell for D McDonagh (55 mins); Mark Collins for P Gilsenan (55 mins); Brian Sheridan for G Reilly (60 mins); Sean Curran for C Young (67 mins).
Referee: Paul Kneel (Louth).