Longford look good enough to cross the first hurdle

Sean McCormack in action for Longford on Sunday last during their Inter County Challenge against Offaly at the official opening of the new developments at the Grattans grounds. Photo: Kevin Halvey
Leinster Senior Football Championship First Round on Sunday next, throw-in 3.30pm

Leinster Senior Football Championship First Round on Sunday next, throw-in 3.30pm

The pressure is on to end losing streak with win over Wicklow in Aughrim

After enduring a most frustrating and generally unfortunate seven-match winless run in Division 2 of the National League this season, resulting in the bitter disappointment of relegation, the pressure is on Longford to end that demoralising losing streak but they look good enough to cross the first hurdle in the Leinster Senior Football Championship on Sunday next in the quest to earn a crack at Meath in the quarter-final on June 15th.

While Wicklow are always hard beaten in Aughrim, the loss of star player Leighton Glynn is a massive blow and he has been out of action for a long time. Glynn broke his ankle against Meath in the opening round of last year’s Leinster Championship, his side losing by 0-16 to 0-11 at Dr. Cullen Park in Carlow, and while Wicklow went on to overcome Waterford after extra-time in the All-Ireland Qualifiers they were eventually beaten by Leitrim in Round 2.

Harry Murphy, the wise man who guided Rathnew to Leinster Club Championship glory in December 2001 along with a total of seven senior county titles during his very successful 12 years in charge of the club, succeeded Mick O’Dwyer as the Wicklow manager and made an immediate impact in his very first season as the garden county gained promotion from Division 4 of the National League and then scored a most emphatic 2-16 to 1-11 win over Fermanagh in the 2012 title decider at Croke Park.

But the subsequent loss of Glynn (who played for Ireland in the International Rules Series against Australia) proved to be a serious setback and complications with the recovery from injury has ruled him out for the entire 2013 season. The decision of another quality forward Tony Hannon to retire from inter-county football has really left Wicklow struggling this year and that was clearly reflected in the National League Division 3 campaign which failed to yield a victory.

At least they managed a couple of draws, away to Roscommon and at home to Antrim, in a brave battle to avoid relegation but morale is apparently low at the moment among the players and supporters. Joining Leighton Glynn on the casualty list is the promising newcomer Conor McGraynor, who recently suffered a double break to his elbow when in action for his club Avondale, but on the plus side dangerous full-forward Seanie Furlong has returned to the Wicklow squad.

Furlong really made his presence felt when the counties last clashed in the Leinster Championship back in 2009, Wicklow winning 2-12 to 1-13 in a first round tie at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, and adding further experience to the current attack is former Mayo player Austin O’Malley while the Longford defence will also need to watch out for Jacko Dalton, Darren Hayden, John McGrath and rising young star Brendan McCrea on Sunday next.

And Wicklow might have a trump card in former Tipperary ace Brian Coen, a deadly accurate free-taker who could prove to be the difference if he makes his debut for his adopted county. Coen, a Garda based in Greystones and who lives in Wicklow town, became eligible to feature in the Leinster Championship after lining-out for the St. Patrick’s club in a recent Wicklow Senior Hurling Championship game (a repeat of the Seanie Johnston scenario in Kildare).

Five years ago Coen, a native of Fethard, clocked up ten points for the Tipperary footballers in a vital league game against Wicklow and is obviously capable of posing problems should he play from the start on Sunday, depending on the state of his fitness levels.

But probably the biggest threat facing Longford is the presence of powerful Wicklow midfielder James Stafford, who was considered good enough to feature for Leinster in the inter-provincial series, and this strong player will take some stopping should he succeed in clicking into top gear.

The key figures in the Wicklow defence are Anthony McLoughlin, Patrick McWalter, Ciaran Hyland and Alan Byrne and spurred on by the vociferous home support which can be intimidating in the compact Aughrim grounds, Harry Murphy’s side will be quietly confident of getting the better of Longford to salvage something from a disappointing season.

That same statement also applies to Glenn Ryan and his players and ironically both Longford and Wicklow are the only counties who failed to win a game in the National Football League this season, even London achieved that when they beat Waterford in Division 4.

So something has got to give in Aughrim and the Longford attack is clearly not as strong without the dangerous presence of Brian Kavanagh (currently in New York) operating in the full-forward-line while the decision by David Barden to withdraw from the panel for whatever reason is another blow.

Both Brian and David are experienced players who provided a driving force in the big games and will be missed but at least Paul Barden is back in action, after returning from a long injury absence to feature for 29 minutes in the recent challenge game against Offaly.

In Paul’s case, match practise is clearly a problem as the only action he saw in the National League this season was a first half appearance in the away fixture against Armagh but the class act from Clonguish is vital to the hopes of Longford making further progress in the Leinster Championship this year.

Sean McCormack is the another main man in the Longford attack and the joint top scorer in the entire National League this season will hopefully fire the county into a winning position against Wicklow. McCormack’s ability to get the vital scores is going to be a key factor in the eventual outcome but he needs to be well supported by the rest of the forward division.

Donal McElligott, a regular in the attack, is currently on the injured list and is set to be ruled out of the big game on Sunday while Peter Foy is going to be sidelined for some time after suffering leg damage (nothing broken as was feared initially) in a recent club game with Slashers.

U-21 players Padraig McCormack (providing he recovers from a nose injury) and Robbie Smyth are in line to start against Wicklow while it will be interesting to see who teams up at centrefield with John Keegan and Michael Brady the likely pairing, particularly with the mentors preferring to play Bernard McElvaney in a wing forward position this season but generally operating as a third midfielder.

At least the Longford defence has a very settled look about it and it virtually picks itself – Dermot Brady, Barry Gilleran, Declan Reilly Shane Mulligan, Michael Quinn and Colm P Smyth along with goalkeeper Damien Sheridan – and hopefully they will be capable of containing the threat of the Wicklow attack.

When the counties last clashed in a competitive fixture, the venue was Aughrim for a National League Division 4 game in March 2011 and the game ended in a draw. While another close encounter could be in prospect on Sunday next, Longford have been operating at a higher level this season without getting the results and if things go according to plan a win over Wicklow will hopefully materialise.

If that happens to be the case then the major reward is home advantage against Meath in the Leinster Championship quarter-final on Saturday June 15th which will attract a huge attendance to Glennon Brothers Pearse Park but the Longford supporters really need to turn out in force for a tricky first round tie against Wicklow and thus play their part in getting the county past the first round.