In the aftermath of the shattering single point defeat against Wexford in the Leinster Senior Football Championship quarter-final replay when Longford somehow managed to let victory slip from their grasp despite dominating most of the game, the players are now facing a real test of character against Derry at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Saturday evening next, throw-in 7pm.
Having home advantage for the All-Ireland Qualifier is certainly a boost in their quest to recover from the devastating blow of losing in Leinster after enjoying a tremendous ten-match unbeaten run this season and while Longford have a great record at ‘fortress’ Pearse Park, it remains to be seen whether progress can be made through the back door in the championship.
Providing key defenders Michael Quinn and Barry Gilleran can figure prominently as they have done throughout the year and that the midfield pairing of Bernard Mc Elvaney and John Keegan manage to make their presence felt, Longford have enough quality in attack to make it extremely difficult for the Derry defence.
Chief marksmen Paul Barden, Brian Kavanagh and Sean McCormack will pose a major threat if they receive a proper supply of the ball and the Longford team in general have a lot of hard workers who are putting in a serious effort to operate a disciplined defensive strategy which is proving to be a most effective gameplan.
A packed defence with a willingness to break at pace in a speedy counter-attacking game will trouble a Derry side who are apparently on the slide and their confidence took a real battering in a heavy defeat by impressive Donegal in the recent Ulster Championship quarter-final in Ballybofey.
The wide margin of ten points (2-13 to 0-9) separated the sides in the finish and the most disappointing manner of the Derry defeat was the subject of some severe criticism from the pundits. Described as their worst performance in years, the pressure is now on John Brennan’s side to redeem themselves but let us not forget that last year’s beaten Ulster finalists still have a lot of very good footballers.
The main man is unquestionably full-forward Paddy Bradley and while he struggled to make the desired impact against Donegal in the constant company of two markers a couple of weeks ago, the Derry star still ended up with six points to his credit with five of those scores coming from frees.
The same class act that is Paddy Bradley clocked up the magnificent total of 2-7 when Derry crashed to a shock defeat against Longford in Round 3 of the All-Ireland Qualifiers at Pearse Park back in 2006 and revenge will be very much a motivating factor at the same venue on Saturday evening.
Longford achieved a famous victory by the minimum of margins (1-16 to 2-12) six years ago with the winning point coming from a Paul Barden free in the final minute of normal time and another tight contest could be in prospect on this occasion.
While Derry may be struggling at the moment, they did manage to retain their status in Division 2 of the National League this season and were always going to be the underdogs in their latest outing against a Donegal side who almost beat the eventual champions Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
Having said that, it is interesting to note that some members of the National media were actually tipping Derry to run Donegal close or even scoring a surprise win in a repeat of the 2011 Ulster Final but as it turned out there was never any chance of that happening.
At least there is some good news for deflated Derry in that Eoin Bradley (younger brother of Paddy) made his long awaited comeback from a cruciate injury that kept him out of action since he played in last year’s Ulster semi-final win over Armagh, a most emphatic 3-14 to 1-11 success and that result is a clear warning for Longford.
Quality forward Eoin was brought on in the 53rd minute of the recent defeat by Donegal, at a stage when Derry were dead and buried in trailing by ten points, and the younger Bradley can make a big difference up front if fit enough to play from the start in the intriguing clash against Longford.
Mark Lynch is another dangerman in the Derry attack while the Longford defence will also need to keep a very close watch on the threat of Conleth Gilligan. The probable midfield pairing are Joe Diver and Michael Friel, who started in those positions in the previous game, while another option in this crucial sector is Patsy Bradley who was introduced with ten minutes gone in the second half against Donegal.
While Derry have a fine full-back in Chris McKaigue and other solid defenders in Gerard O’Kane, Charlie Kielt and Sean Leo McGoldrick, the slick Longford attack have the potential to clock up the vital scores but will have to improve on their finishing and particularly in relation to the clear-cut goal chances they squandered in both games against Wexford.
The biggest fear for Glenn Ryan’s side is a Derry backlash in their bid to make amends for a dismal display against Donegal but Longford are so hard beaten at Pearse Park with the backing of the enthusiastic home support among the expected big attendance.
It must be said that Derry are sorely missing the aerial power of attacker Enda Muldoon and the tough defensive presence of Kevin McCloy, both of whom have retired from inter-county football, and the current squad would seem to be in a vulnerable state.
However, when you take into account that injury forced both the Bradley brothers Paddy and Eoin to miss last year’s Ulster final defeat by Donegal (1-11 to 0-8) their overall ability to compete at a high level could possibly still be there. So it would be foolish to write off the chances of Derry in the All-Ireland Qualifiers and the northerners are a real ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ outfit, to say the least.
John Brennan’s charges should be going all out to keep their championship hopes alive on the road to redemption. Thus if Longford are to register another major victory through the back door they will need to produce a performance of the usual high intensity with the emphasis on containing the serious threat of Paddy Bradley who has proven to be the Derry matchwinner so often in the past.
Footnote: Longford and Derry are meeting in the All-Ireland Qualifiers for the third time with the score standing at one win apiece. Longford, as already mentioned in the preview, emerged victorious against the odds in 2006, but Derry were the superior side when the counties also clashed at Pearse Park back in 2002. In that second round tie, the visitors came out on top with ten points to spare at the final whistle, 2-13 to 0-9, after the midlanders sprang a surprise in the opening round to beat Down 1-16 to 0-14.