Showing remarkable resilience in battling their way back into contention after trailing by four points midway through the second half, Longford just missed out in a brave bid to capture the Leinster U-21 Football Championship title for a historic first time with Wexford winning a highly entertaining floodlit final by the minimum of margins at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise on Wednesday night last.
The concession of a gift goal with 11 minutes gone in the first half proved to be the decisive score and while few among the official attendance of 3,123 could argue with the fact that Wexford were the better team, mainly due to their dominance at centrefield, Longford fought so hard to keep their hopes alive in producing the usual never-say-die spirit and a famous victory was almost achieved.
Trailing by 1-7 to 0-6 entering the final quarter of the contest and looking in big trouble, Longford proceeded to stage a tremendous comeback and after John Keegan kicked the ball over the bar in the 46th minute, another three points quickly followed from current minors James McGivney (free) and a brace from Robbie Smyth.
Smyth landed a cracking score from play and when the accurate Abbeylara lad converted a free in the 52nd minute, awarded for a foul on influential substitute James Noonan. The sides were all square and Wexford were suddenly in a state of panic after holding the upper hand for the best part of this thrilling encounter.
Wexford then kicked a bad wide in a frantic attempt to regain the lead and the action quickly switched to the other end of the pitch with James McGivney off target for Longford with a wayward shot.
Moments later, the revitalised midlanders launched another attack, only for Kevin Diffley to drop the ball when completely unchallenged, and directly from this costly mistake a vital Wexford point materialised when Emmet Kent fired over a terrific long range strike in the 55th minute.
That proved to be a real sickening blow for Longford but with Wexford wasting a couple of good chances of extending their slender lead, the tenacious team that Padraic Davis built still had a chance of avoiding defeat with James Noonan having a shot blocked out for a ‘45’. The danger was eventually cleared by a resolute defence so splendidly marshalled by full-back Sean Gaule and pacey wing backs Conor Carty (wearing the No. 4 jersey) and Derek Butler.
Powerful Wexford midfielder Michael O’Regan capped a terrific performance when landing a brilliantly struck long range free from near the sideline in stoppage time and while Longford closed the gap with a fine point from Kevin Diffley the final whistle was eventually blown to signal a first ever Leinster U-21 title for the Slaneysiders.
There were scenes of wild celebrations and while Wexford can now look forward to a crack at Cavan or Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final, the Longford players and their large contingent of supporters were left to reflect on what might have been as the county suffered the bitter disappointment of yet another Leinster U-21 Final defeat, now six in total.
The main difference between the sides on this occasion was the superiority that Wexford enjoyed in the battle for midfield supremacy, through the formidable pairing of Michael O’Regan and Matthew O’Hanlon, while their lively attack also posed plenty of problems, particularly left-half-forward Paudie Kelly with right-corner-forward Kevin O’Grady very much the dangerman in the first half.
While James Carroll was rock solid in the right-corner-back position, Longford’s best players were in the forward division with JJ Matthews and Robbie Smyth a constant threat and that was clearly reflected in the seven points (six from play) they scored between them from a fairly limited supply of the ball such was the fierce struggle at centrefield.
The workrate of the impressive James McGivney at centre-half-forward was immense as the rising young star from Mullinalaghta tormented the Wexford defence and both he and fellow 17-year-old Smyth will be in action for the Longford minors against Kildare in the Leinster Championship first round clash in Newbridge on Saturday next.
The Longford U-21 side in the provincial final featured seven of the county minor team that won the Leinster title last year and while youth certainly got a fling last week there was a lot of nerves out on the O’Moore Park pitch with the older Wexford outfit having the edge in experience and they looked a lot more comfortable on the ball.
The loss of the injured Padraig Gill, on his last year with the Longford U-21s, was a big blow for Longford as his absence reduced the options in making positional changes – particularly at centrefield. Gill lined-out at centre-half-forward in the first round clash against Meath, scoring four points from play, and he was sorely missed against Wexford.
The enthusiastic Longford supporters turned out in force in outnumbering the Wexford followers by about three to one and really got behind the team in the final quarter of this exciting Leinster title decider. But most of the damage was inflicted in the first half and the general opinion was that Longford were fortunate to be only trailing by 1-5 to 0-5 at the break.
Having said that, they got off to a flying start with a great point from JJ Matthews with less than a minute gone on the clock but Wexford were soon back on level terms with Paudie Kelly blasting the ball over the bar when a goal was there for the taking.
The Longford defence continued to live dangerously under a lot of pressure and would have conceded a goal in the fifth minute but for a point-blank save by keeper Paddy Collum, who kept out a shot from Emmet Kent and while Kevin O’Grady planted the breaking ball in the back of the net the umpire had already signalled for a ‘45’.
Collum came to the rescue again in the 11th minute when saving so well to deny Kevin O’Grady from point-blank range but a high ball came back in immediately to put the Longford keeper under pressure and there to punish the subsequent fumble was full-forward Killian Kehoe, who got the vital touch to score the crucial only goal of the game.
Moments later, Robbie Smyth looked all set to grab the equalising goal when put through by Diarmuid Cooney but the ball was taken off his foot in spectacular fashion by right-corner-back Michael Furlong. Smyth quickly made amends to fire over a couple of great points in the 13th and 16th minutes, only for Wexford to hit back with a brace of scores from Kevin O’Grady (play and free) to restore the goal advantage.
The ding-dong battle continued with a cracking point from prominent Longford corner-forward JJ Matthews in the 26th minute and following an equally fine strike by impressive Wexford wing back Conor Carty, two further scores were exchanged before the break with James McGivney converting a free for Longford, while man-of-the-match Michael O’Regan finished off a well-worked Wexford move with a good point in the 29th minute.
Playing against the wind in the second half, Longford were facing a real uphill battle and after John Keegan kicked a wide his side fell further behind when Paudie Kelly raced through to land a point but the score should have been disallowed as the Wexford wing forward clearly hopped the ball twice.
Longford replied with a terrific point from JJ Matthews with six minutes gone on the changeover and after Robbie Smyth failed to convert a free another slick Wexford attack yielded a point from Paudie Kelly in the 43rd minute to leave them 1-7 to 0-6 ahead and seemingly in control.
Right throughout the game Wexford were working equally as hard as Longford but the latter found a new lease of life in having much the better of the exchanges in the final quarter to outscore the opposition by 0-5 to 0-2. But it was not enough to swing the issue in Longford’s favour and Wexford were worthy winners of the Leinster U-21 title.
LONGFORD: Paddy Columb (Fr. Manning Gaels); James Carroll (Rathcline), Fergal Battrim (Abbeylara), Aaron Quinn (Fr. Manning Gaels); Shane Mahon (Abbeylara), Colm P Smith (Abbeylara, captain), Diarmuid Cooney (Fr. Manning Gaels); Kevin Diffley (Ballymahon, 0-1), John Keegan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 0-1); Padraig McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets), James McGivney (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 0-2, frees), Marty Mulvey (Carrickedmond); Robbie Smyth (Abbeylara, 0-4, one free), Darren Gallagher (Granard St. Mary’s), JJ Matthews (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s, 0-3).
Subs:- James Noonan (Fr. Manning Gaels) for D Gallagher (21 mins); Fergal Reilly (Fr. Manning Gaels) for S Mahon (54 mins).
WEXFORD: Richard Farrell; Michael Furlong, Sean Gaule, James Breen; Derek Butler, John Leacy, Conor Carty (0-1); Matthew O’Hanlon, Michael O’Regan (0-2, one free); Liam Og McGovern, Emmet Kent (0-1), Paudie Kelly (0-3); Kevin O’Grady (0-2, one free), Killian Kehoe (1-0), Brendan Halpin.
Subs:- Declan Murphy for B Halpin (42 mins); Tiernan Rossiter for K Kehoe (56 mins); Barry O’Gorman for K O’Grady (60 mins).
Referee: Gary McCormack (Dublin).