On a high after enjoying a very successful National League campaign which yielded the main objective of promotion along with the sweet bonus of beating Roscommon in the Division 4 title decider at Croke Park, Longford would appear to be in great shape for the match that really matters and will be in a confident frame of mind in their quest to score a surprise victory over Laois in the Leinster Senior Championship first round clash at O’Moore Park on Sunday next, throw-in 2pm.
The good news for those Longford supporters who cannot make the trip to Portlaoise is that the game is being televised live on RTE along with the other first round tie between Kildare and Wicklow that follows at O’Moore Park (throw-in 4pm) and with the spotlight now firmly focused on Glenn Ryan’s side it remains to be seen whether they are good enough to advance a stage further in Leinster and thus earn a crack at Dublin in the quarter-final at Croke Park on Sunday June 5th.
The league final victory over Roscommon and subsequent challenge wins over Cavan and Meath has carried a lot of momentum into the championship and while there are injury concerns over Diarmuid Masterson and David Barden, the Longford management team will hopefully be in a position to field their strongest side with the notable exception of long term casualty Enda Williams who has been out of action with a shoulder injury since early February.
Masterson is expected to be fit to take his place at centre-half-back in a very settled defence that will also feature Dermot Brady, Barry Gilleran, Declan Reilly, Shane Mulligan, Noel Farrell and goalkeeper Damien Sheridan, while Barden is apparently winning the battle to recover from a hamstring strain and thus is set to start in his regular wing forward position. David has been a most influential figure this season, popping up all over the pitch in operating an effective roving role.
Longford are particularly strong in attack with players of real quality in Paul Barden and Brian Kavanagh leading the charge while Sean McCormack has figured most prominently in the scoring stakes this season and the Killoe sharpshooter is also capable of making a big impact on Sunday. Despite struggling in the league campaign, Paddy Dowd will hopefully produce his true potential on the big occasion as he has succeeded in doing in the past while the hard-working Donal McElligott is in contention to make his senior championship debut.
Francis McGee is back in action after a long injury absence and could also feature up front from the start. But definitely out is JJ Matthews, the promising U-21 corner-forward who was brought on at the start of the second half in the league final against Roscommon. However, a couple of days later the Mullinalaghta man sustained a serious knee injury while playing with his club and he will be sidelined for some time.
For the third year in succession, Longford must travel to Portlaoise for their opening game in the Leinster Senior Football Championship – not a happy hunting ground - and will be hoping that their luck will change after suffering the bitter disappointment of narrow defeats against Wicklow (2009) and Louth (2010) with Glenn Ryan at the helm, not forgetting the one-point loss against Wexford in the recent Leinster U-21 Final at O’Moore Park.
Home advantage could prove to be a decisive factor and the current Laois team will be extremely hard beaten, particularly after the big boost of gaining promotion to Division 1 of the National League under the guidance of new manager Justin McNulty who has already made considerable progress in his first season in charge.
The former Armagh player, who coached Mullahoran to win the Cavan Senior Football Championship a few years ago, is getting the best out of the Laois players who have coped well since adopting the blanket defence system – clearly reflected in their successful league campaign in a most competitive Division 2 that included Donegal, Tyrone, Kildare, Derry and Meath.
It mattered little that Laois ending up losing by the minimum of margins against Donegal in the league final at Croke Park and they showed a lot character in staging a determined comeback after trailing by eight points in the early stages of the second half, although their cause was certainly helped when the opposition had a player sent-off.
The introduction of influential substitutes Paul Cahillane and Donie Kingston into the attack on the changeover was a big positive for Laois in that they fired over seven points between them (just one free) and with that sort of talent on the bench the competition for places on the first fifteen must be extremely keen indeed.
“Getting promoted and reaching a League Final is just a bonus really,” said Justin McNulty in a recent interview. “The best thing about it is that it was great preparation for the championship.” The Laois fans were obviously pleased with what they saw. The defence was well organised, their midfield hard-working and their attack imaginative and clinical.
Therefore the home support in O’Moore Park on Sunday next is expected to be substantial and could be worth a few points to Laois, as would also be the case if Longford were playing at Pearse Park and that fact was proven with the shock win over Mayo in the opening round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers last year.
Laois have a fairly formidable record at O’Moore Park and they managed to score a sensational win over the reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the 2006 All-Ireland Qualifiers. But the following year they were rather fortunate to beat Longford in the Leinster Championship quarter-final at O’Connor Park in Tullamore when Padraig Berry had a goal wrongly disallowed at a crucial stage of the second half when only a point separated the sides.
It is interesting to note that just four members of the Laois team who started that game in 2007 will line-out against Longford on Sunday next – notably powerful midfielders Padraig Clancy and Brendan Quigley and razor sharp forwards Ross Munnelly and MJ Tierney, their deadly accurate free-taker. A worry for them is that Clancy was forced to retire injured at half-time in the recent Division 2 League decider and is considered a doubt for the latest championship clash between the counties. Laois are also sweating over the fitness of Paul Cahillane (who pulled his hamstring in training) while Donie Kingston and defender Mark Timmons got injured in a challenge game against All-Ireland champions Cork in Portlaoise last week.
There are a number of other quality players on the current Laois team including attackers John O’Loughlin and Colm Begley, the latter returning home after spending some time playing football in Australia. The new-look defence is commanded by full-back Kevin Meaney (a converted midfielder) and centre-half-back Shane Julian who is expected to be flanked on the wings by the attack minded Darren Strong and Peter O’Leary. Back in light training after a long injury absence is Padraig McMahon but the defender is highly unlikely to feature against Longford.
Regular full-forward Billy Sheehan is another member of a strongly fancied Laois team who are rated the red-hot 1-3 favourites with Ladbrokes to cross the first hurdle while those who want to back the underdogs Longford can trade at the attractive price of 3-1.
But the bookmakers odds will count for nothing in the heat of the championship battle and while Longford are stepping up considerably in grade against a team two divisions above them there is a growing belief among the players that suggests that the opportunity is there to cause an upset.
A winning mentality certainly helps (just one defeat against Clare in the league this season) and maybe Longford will gain revenge for recent championship setbacks against Laois, most recently at Pearse Park in July 2008 when a Donie Kingston goal in the 55th minute earned the visitors a lucky 1-10 to 0-11 victory in the opening round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers that marked the resignation of Luke Dempsey after four years in charge.
The records state that Longford have failed to beat Laois in the Championship since the historic 3-9 to 1-4 Leinster Senior Final triumph way back in 1968 and the ‘blue and gold’ were subsequently hammered in first round games by the O’Moore county in 1975 (3-13 to 1-8), 1980 (5-12 to 1-10) and 1994 (4-15 to 2-4).
The moment of truth has arrived for the current Longford team (eleven of whom started against Laois in the 2007 Leinster Championship quarter-final in Tullamore) and with that sort of experience the indications are that the county players are capable of producing a big performance in really putting it up to Laois with a fair chance of scoring a famous win but much will depend on the battle for midfield supremacy where Bernard McElvaney and Martin Brady really need to make the desired impact.