The exciting season enjoyed by the Longford senior footballers came to a shattering end at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Saturday last when they lacked the killer instinct to clinch a victory in the game itself as Limerick snatched a last gasp draw and things more or less collapsed for the home county in the extra-time period as the physically stronger opposition eventually came out on top to earn a deserved success.
The joy of going through the 2012 National League campaign unbeaten on their way to capturing the Division 3 title along with significant wins over Laois (Leinster Round 1) and Derry (All-Ireland Qualifier Round 1) in the championship suggested that Longford could make a big impact through the back door but those high hopes turned to despair against a stubborn Limerick side who showed the greater urgency throughout the extended contest to emerge victorious.
Most of the Longford supporters in the build up to this Round 2 Qualifier were confidently expecting their much talked out team to make further progress and particularly so as Limerick were forced to field without powerful midfielder John Galvin (long term injury) while a couple of other regulars, Stephen Lavin and Thomas Lee, departed for the United States in the aftermath of the very disappointing defeat against Clare in the Munster semi-final.
And to make matters worse for Limerick their captain Ger Collins, selected at right-corner-forward, was ruled out after failing to recover from injury and it was certainly looking good for Longford - particularly with their excellent record at Pearse Park. Unfortunately, the expected home win failed to materialise in what was a grim reality check for manager Glenn Ryan and his selectors Padraic Davis and John Fay even if it was only the second defeat in 13 games between league and championship this season.
Limerick had gathered up a lot of big match experience in recent years and used it to fine effect in basically beating Longford at their own defensive game with wing forward Paudie Browne dropping back to figure so prominently.
When things started to go wrong there was no other gameplan to fall back upon and this was clearly illustrated in the bottling up of full-forward Brian Kavanagh who was tightly marked by the excellent Johnny McCarthy. Kavanagh failed to register a score and never got going on this occasion like most of the other players in action for the home county. The absence of the long term injured Paul Kelly was certainly a big blow as his pace and energetic style of play would have posed problems for the Limerick defence.
Centre-half-back Michael Quinn tried hard to lift lethargic Longford while in attack it was left to Paul Barden and Francis McGee to provide the main threat, the latter registering a total of four points (all from play) and the Dromard man also set up the goal for Niall Mulligan just before the break.
Niall was put clean through and while his initial shot was parried by the opposing keeper Brian Scanlon, Mulligan followed through to finish the ball to the net to leave Longford on level terms, 1-3 to 0-6, and that was their first score for almost 20 minutes.
McGee and Limerick’s chief marksman Ian Ryan then exchanged points and when Sean McCormack shot over the bar in the third minute of stoppage time, the home side led by 1-5 to 0-7 at the break despite kicking eight wides in the first half as compared to just two for the visitors who now had the advantage of the tricky wind on the changeover.
Longford did manage to increase the tempo in the second half with courageous captain Paul Barden leading the charge and he fired over a point from a rasping shot in the 61st minute when the ball almost ended up in the roof of the net.
That left Limerick trailing by 1-11 to 0-11 and apparently in trouble and it would certainly have been game, set and match to the midlanders had Francis McGee managed to score a goal from a point-blank shot in the 63rd minute, only to be denied by the opposing keeper Scanlon who produced a fine save to keep his net intact.
That lucky escape turned out to be a timely boost for Limerick who dominated the remainder of the game and after resolute defender Johnny McCarthy joined the attack to kick a point, a free was then converted by Ian Ryan before substitute Mike Sheehan landed a glorious equalising score as the cliffhanger entered stoppage time.
When Longford went back in front with a cracking point from Sean McCormack with time almost up, that looked to be enough to clinch a place in the third round of the qualifiers. But Limerick were allowed launch an immediate counter-attack and another substitute Derry O’Connor slotted the ball over the bar after his first attempt was blocked down in the fourth minute of stoppage time to leave the sides all square at the final whistle, 1-12 to 0-15.
And so 20 minutes of extra-time was required to resolve the issue and Longford were feeling deflated after letting victory slip from their grasp, just as they had done in the Leinster Championship quarter-final replay against Wexford in Tullamore.
Limerick went out to outscore Longford in the additional period by 1-6 to 0-3 and few among the official attendance of 3,622 could argue with the fact that the better team won on the day with 11 of their players getting their names on the scoresheet.
Derry O’Connor, Eoghan O’Connor, Ian Corbett (2), Ian Ryan (free) and Seamus O’Carroll got the points for the visitors in extra-time while the goal was fired home by Derry O’Connor with virtually the last kick of the match when he capitalised on a poor kick-out after a Corbett score.
All three Longford points came from frees converted by Sean McCormack, who ended up scoring a total of 0-8, and the tale of woe was complete as the rattled home side finished the game with 13 players after Declan Reilly and substitute David Barden (spoiling a promising attack with his side just two points behind) were sent-off after receiving second yellow cards in the second half of extra-time.
It was a real sickening end to an otherwise successful season for Longford who can look forward to playing in Division 2 of the National League next season but the gap in the standard of the real deal that is championship football is still wide and the stronger counties will continue to dominate.
A vital factor in the surprising Limerick win was the major impact made by their substitutes and three of those – Derry O’Connor, Ian Corbett and Mike Sheehan – scored a goal and six points between them.
The same could not be said of the Longford players that were brought on and one wonders why midfielder Bernard McElvaney was withdrawn in the 60th minute, at a stage when the home side were leading by 1-10 to 0-11 and could have done with his physical strength to cross the finish line when the going got really tough in the tense closing stages of normal time.
Limerick manager Maurice Horan was a lot wiser on the line in winning the tactical battle and the former Mayo footballer deserves a lot of credit for guiding the Division 4 side into the last 16 of the All-Ireland Championship against the odds.
Rated as a sure thing at the ridiculous price of 1-3 with the bookies, the favourites tag did not rest well with Longford who failed to produce the usual high intensity despite enjoying a bright start to the game which left them leading by 0-3 to 0-1 with 16 minutes gone in the first half, the scores coming from Paul Barden, Francis McGee and Sean McCormack (free), and they should have been even further ahead but for some poor finishing.
Seanie Buckley (impressive at centrefield for Limerick when he eventually clicked into top gear) replied for the visitors who were slow to settle but they proceeded to pile on the pressure in the second quarter to fire over five points in a row through Stephen Kelly, Stephen Lucey, Ian Ryan (free), a ‘45’ converted in some style by goalkeeper Brian Scanlon with Eoghan O’Connor also getting his name on the scoresheet.
That left Limerick leading by 0-6 to 0-3 with 34 minutes gone in the first half but the Niall Mulligan goal changed the course of the game. Early in the second half a dipping shot from Paul Barden was parried to safety from under the crossbar by the Limerick netminder Scanlon and his side were on level terms when Eoghan O’Connor shot over the bar in the 42nd minute.
Longford hit back with a point apiece from Sean McCormack (play) and Francis McGee (a great score under considerable pressure) and another couple of fine scores were then exchanged between Seanie Buckley and the dangerous McGee, the latter on target in the 49th minute to leave his side 1-8 to 0-9 ahead.
Soon after came a very close call for Longford when Ian Ryan cut in from the left and his goal attempt was going wide before a wicked deflection off the inrushing defender Colm P Smyth directed the ball against the crossbar and over for what could be best described as an ‘own point’.
Then came two more Longford points from David Barden and Sean McCormack with the Killoe sharpshooter electing to fist the ball over the bar when a goal was on after receiving a pass from the effective roving corner-back Dermot Brady.
Ian Corbett replied with a point for Limerick, who now trailed by 1-10 to 0-11, and they battled back to snatch a draw before going on to win the tie in extra-time.
Much to the sheer dismay of the Longford players and supporters who really thought that another victory in the All-Ireland Qualifiers was going to be achieved, a sixth championship game this season was not to be.
LONGFORD: Damien Sheridan (Dromard); Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Declan Reilly (Colmcille); Colm P Smyth (Abbeylara), Michael Quinn (Killoe Young Emmets), Shane Mulligan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); Bernard McElvaney (Ballymore), John Keegan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Paul Barden (Clonguish, 0-2), Niall Mulligan (Longford Slashers, 1-0); Francis McGee (Dromard, 0-4), Brian Kavanagh (Kilmacud Crokes), Sean McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-8, five frees).
Subs:- David Barden (Clonguish, 0-1) for J Keegan (half-time); Padraig McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets) for D McElligott (half-time); Peter Foy (Cashel) for B McElvaney (60 mins); Noel Farrell (Colmcille) for CP Smyth (70 mins).
Subs in extra-time:- JJ Matthews (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s) for B Kavanagh (8 mins); B McElvaney for N Mulligan (13 mins).
LIMERICK: Brian Scanlon (0-1, ‘45’); Andrew Lane, Johnny McCarthy (0-1), Lorcan O’Dwyer; John Riordan, Stephen Lucey (0-1), Pa Ranahan; Jim Donovan, Seanie Buckley (0-2); James O’Meara, Stephen Kelly (0-1), Paudie Browne; Eoghan O’Connor (0-3), Seamus O’Carroll (0-1), Ian Ryan (0-5, three frees).
Subs:- Mike Sheehan (0-1) for A Lane (injured, 41 mins); Ian Corbett (0-3) for L O’Dwyer (54 mins); Damien Quaid for S Lucey (65 mins); Bobby O’Brien for J Donovan (67 mins); Derry O’Connor (1-2) for S Kelly (69 mins).
Subs in extra-time:- Eoin Barry for J O’Meara (4 mins); Darragh Treacy for S O’Carroll (16 mins).
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Armagh).