Can Longford spring a shock in attempt to topple Tyrone?

While the general opinion is that the legendary Tyrone team are on the slide and are being written off as potential All-Ireland title contenders in the aftermath of their defeat by Donegal in the recent Ulster Championship semi-final, the task facing Longford in the Round 2 Qualifier at Pearse Park on Saturday evening next (throw-in 7pm) is definitely a difficult one and it remains to be seen whether the Division 4 league champions are capable of springing a shock.

While the general opinion is that the legendary Tyrone team are on the slide and are being written off as potential All-Ireland title contenders in the aftermath of their defeat by Donegal in the recent Ulster Championship semi-final, the task facing Longford in the Round 2 Qualifier at Pearse Park on Saturday evening next (throw-in 7pm) is definitely a difficult one and it remains to be seen whether the Division 4 league champions are capable of springing a shock.

But Tyrone have suffered a setback in that key forward Stephen O’Neill is considered a doubt and might not be fit to start against Longford after sustaining a slight tear of the hamstring that forced him to retire in the closing stages of the Donegal game. “You are talking about two weeks before he would be getting up to speed again so the timescale would leave it very tight,” said Tyrone assistant manager Tony Donnelly.

Home advantage is certainly a boost for the underdogs and after causing a major upset to overcome the challenge of Mayo in the opening round of the qualifiers last year, not forgetting the memorable win over Derry back in 2006, the optimistic Longford supporters believe that their side have a real chance of knocking Tyrone out on the evidence of the emphatic 11-point win over neighbouring rivals Cavan as the back door campaign got off to an impressive start.

The Pearse Park factor has worked well for Longford in the recent past and after running Kerry close a couple of years ago (just four points separated the sides at the final whistle), the players will be quietly confident in their attempt to topple Tyrone. Glenn Ryan’s side produced a strong second half display to demolish Cavan and the team that started in Breffni Park is likely to remain unchanged despite the fact that the maximum five substitutes were brought on in the local derby.

While a fair amount of primary possession was won the last day the midfield sector is still a cause for concern and it will take a supreme effort by the probable pairing of Bernard McElvaney and Martin Brady to achieve at least an even break against the powerful Tyrone combination of Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Hughes.

Cavanagh and Hughes may be around a long time, like most of the current squad, but their vast experience in the heat of the championship battle could well prove to be a decisive factor. The centrefield duo will take some stopping in their quest to get the ball into such quality forwards as Stephen O’Neill (if fit to play), Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan and Owen Mulligan and the Longford defence will probably be under considerable pressure.

Martin Penrose and Tommy McGuigan are other established attackers and this Tyrone team is packed full of household names. Pascal McConnell is a competent goalkeeper while Ryan McMenamin, Philip Jordan, Davy Harte, Conor Gormley and the McMahon brothers Joe and Justin are all rock solid defenders who will certainly give nothing easy away. Better news for the O’Neill County is that Joe McMahon is available after he was withdrawn when suffering concussion in the second half of the Donegal defeat.

While Tyrone must still be wondering how they managed to lose against Donegal after completely dominating the first half, some poor finishing proved very costly indeed and they had to be content with a slender 0-6 to 0-4 lead at the break when they could have been 10 or 11 points clear after creating 18 scoring chances according to the various reports on the game.

Five missed frees by Peter Harte led to the downfall as the older Tyrone team ran out of steam in the second half and the question everybody is now asking is this the end of a glorious era which yielded three All-Ireland senior titles (2003, 2005 and 2008) along with five Ulster titles, the first of which was captured back in 2001.

After all, Tyrone managed to beat Monaghan by just two points in the opening round of the current provincial campaign but they are still a team to be feared. When you take a closer look at the 2-6 to 0-9 defeat by Donegal, there were a couple of significant setbacks suffered by the reigning champions who were attempting to complete a three-in-a-row of Ulster Championship wins.

Full-back Joe McMahon, who was playing really well in containing the threat of the Donegal dangerman Michael Murphy, was forced to retire in a concussed state midway through the second half after sustaining a blow and things got worse for Tyrone when midfielder Kevin Hughes was sent-off after receiving a second yellow card with eight minutes of normal time remaining.

Down to 14 men for the rest of the game, Tyrone appeared to have snatched a draw when substitute Martin Penrose landing a late equalising point but deep into stoppage time Donegal scored a dramatic winning goal when another replacement Dermot Molloy shot to the back of the net.

And thus for the first time in 13 years, the Tyrone/Armagh stranglehold on the Ulster senior title was broken in a changing of the guard so to speak but Mickey Harte’s side will be hurting and are possibly now at their most dangerous in their desire to save their season through the back door. It is interesting to note that when Tyrone were last forced to take the qualifier route in 2008 they went on to win the All-Ireland.

That same Sam Maguire scenario is unlikely to materialise again and while Tyrone are the firm favourites (1/3 with the bookmakers) to beat Longford, they will be very wary of the challenge they are facing at ‘fortress’ Pearse Park and the element of surprise is now gone after what happened to Mayo at the same venue last year.

Apart from the impressive qualifiers record on home ground, Longford almost sprang a major shock against Dublin in the 2006 Leinster Championship quarter-final when going down by just two points and Glenn Ryan and the other selectors Padraic Davis, Liam Keenan and John Fay will have the current squad really fired up for the much eagerly awaited showdown against Tyrone that is expected to attract a very big attendance.

Davis and Keenan were playing for Longford on the previous occasion that Tyrone came to Pearse Park – a National Football League Division 1A fixture back in February 2004 when the home county paid the price for some very costly mistakes in crashing to a crushing 3-15 to 0-9 defeat in front of a 10,000 attendance.

Just three members of the current Longford team were in action in that game seven years ago, notably Damien Sheridan and the Barden brothers Paul and David, while the then All-Ireland champions Tyrone started with ten of the team that featured against Donegal a couple of weeks ago – Pascal McConnell, Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes, Sean Cavanagh, Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan, Stephen O’Neill and Owen Mulligan.

Therefore, youth is certainly on Longford’s side for the first ever championship clash between the counties but Glenn Ryan is coming up against a very shrewd tactician in Tyrone manager Mickey Harte who is a master operator of the blanket defence system.

While the ageing Tyrone side have a clear advantage in experience, they could be hard pressed to contain the threat of a strong Longford attack who clocked up 2-16 in the win over Cavan even though the opposition was poor.

Much will depend on what sort of impact Sean McCormack, Paul Barden and Brian Kavanagh can make in the scoring stakes and general play while David Barden and Diarmuid Masterson can also play a leading role in a very tough battle against the physically strong Tyrone team.

After conceding no goals in the championship games against Laois and Cavan, the Longford defence are a lot tighter unit these days but are facing their most serious test on Saturday and hopefully they will not fail in their undoubted fierce desire to keep the Tyrone attack at bay.

We will learn a lot more about the real potential of the Longford team following this massive match that is generating tremendous interest and the supposed demise of Tyrone may be greatly exaggerated!

Winners of the All-Ireland title just three years ago (beating a great Kerry team in the decider), Tyrone then lost to Cork in the 2009 semi-final and also had to settle for second best against Dublin in the quarter-final last year. That is top notch form, to say the least, and in Division 2 of the National League this season they lost just a couple of games earlier in the campaign against Derry and Donegal, the current Ulster finalists.

Subsequent wins over Sligo, Antrim, Laois (by four points at O’Moore Park) and Kildare (0-13 to 0-5) and a draw against Meath in Navan saw Tyrone just miss out on promotion to Division 1 and with that sort of consistency at a higher level it must be said that the odds are stacked against Longford scoring a sensational win but who knows what might happen amid the always electric atmosphere in a Saturday evening qualifier at a packed Pearse Park?