It’s a long time since there was so little optimism about Longford’s chance of making further progress in the Leinster Senior Football Championship and while they succeeded in crossing the first hurdle when beating Offaly by four points at Pearse Park 12 months ago, a lot has changed since then with a number of key players gone from the squad for different reasons.
Few can argue with the fact that it will be a weaker Longford team that will take the field in Tullamore on Saturday evening next (throw-in 7pm) and after suffering a severe setback in the heavy defeat against Offaly in the recent National League Division 4 title decider, the confidence levels are low going into the most important match this season.
The wide margin of 13 points (4-16 to 1-12) separated the sides at Croke Park, which was a serious reality check for all concerned with the current Longford set up, and while the general opinion suggests a closer encounter when the counties clash again in the championship at O’Connor Park the shrewd observers think Offaly look a good bet to make amends for their early exit at this same stage last year.
A big difference has been the appointment of the influential Pat Flanagan as the new manager of the faithful county footballers, who appear to be enjoying a new lease of life, but the former Westmeath and Sligo supremo knows that the league title and promotion success this season will mean little if they fail to get past the first round in Leinster.
Offaly, like Longford, will be judged on their championship form but is it really a ‘no win’ situation on Saturday as the eventual winners must face the daunting task of taking on the All-Ireland title favourites Dublin in the quarter-final at Croke Park on Sunday May 31st - part of a double header with the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship clash between the Dubs and Galway.
That scenario certainly did not bother Pat Flanagan when he spoke about the prospect in a recent interview and he is certainly not lacking in ambition in his efforts to awake a ‘sleeping giant’, such is the great tradition of Offaly football who last won the Leinster Senior title back in 1997.
On their way to that provincial triumph, the midlanders hammered Longford in a preliminary round tie in Tullamore and while a much tighter contest is expected on this occasion the bookmakers have installed Offaly as the odds on 4/7 favourites and home advantage is a definite plus in that regard.
A year ago it was the complete opposite but the brilliant Paul Barden is no longer there to inspire the county team (as he done so often in the past) and with another long serving player, goalkeeper Damien Sheridan, also deciding to retire from the inter-county arena the cracks were starting to appear.
Then came the news that Mullinalaghta clubmen Shane Mulligan and John Keegan were no longer able to commit to the cause for 2015 and next to depart during the current season were Killoe duo Mark Hughes and Sean McCormack - the latter playing his part in achieving the target of an immediate return to Division 3 after the bitter disappointment of relegation the previous season.
McCormack was on the team that beat Offaly in the Division 4 game at Pearse Park at the end of March, a result that clinched promotion out of the dreaded Division 4, but he has since opted out due to college commitments and then suffered the sad bereavement of losing his father Terry who died suddenly.
Slashers men Niall Mulligan and Michael Brady also featured in the championship showdown against Offaly last year as second half substitutes but they too are no longer members of the Longford squad. Thus that is a total of eight players who will not be facing the faithful county on Saturday - having done so in 2014 - on which occasion injury ruled Barry Gilleran out of action but he is fit to play this weekend.
18 players were used against Offaly in Leinster last year with Dermot Brady (the current captain), Barry O’Farrell, Colm P Smyth, Enda Williams, Michael Quinn, Francis McGee, Brian Kavanagh, Shane Doyle, Fergal Battrim and Aidan Rowan back for the rematch which is not creating much of a buzz in the county.
It appears that most of the supporters are not happy with the current state of Longford senior football, despite the fact that manager Jack Sheedy guided the team to promotion in the league this season, but the possibility of a win over Offaly in the championship for the second year in a row will surely lift the downbeat mood.
Working with a limited squad at this moment in time, there could be more bad news for Sheedy as both Francis McGee and Peter Foy were forced to retire injured in the recent Division 1 League game between Dromard and Slashers while Paul McKeon sustained serious shoulder damage in last week’s challenge game draw against Louth in Lanesboro.
McGee, Foy and McKeon all played in the Division 4 final a few weeks ago but whatever team starts in the latest duel against Offaly will be hard pressed to prevent an early exit from the Leinster Championship.
With Dublin waiting in the wings, some might say that defeat in Tullamore would probably be the better option but try telling that to the players who have trained hard all year in preparation for the big game on Saturday and who will surely be very determined to redeem themselves after what happened in Croke Park at the end of April.
Whether Longford are capable of reversing that demoralising result in the league final remains to be seen and will certainly have to improve greatly on the poor finishing that day when they were guilty of kicking no less than 15 wides.
Needless to say, Offaly will be approaching the championship game in a confident frame of mind and look set to start with ten of the players that lined out against Longford in the corresponding fixture a year ago - most notably top quality forward Niall McNamee who is still a class act.
Other key figures in centre-half-back Johnny Moloney and midfielder Graham Guilfoyle are also back for more in the bid to gain revenge for last year’s setback while a worrying factor for Longford is that none of the current Offaly full-forward-line featured in the Pearse Park clash in May 2014.
The lethal trio of Bernard Allen, Nigel Dunne and William Mulhall inflicted a lot of damage in the recent Division 4 league final, clearly reflected in the total of 2-10 they clocked up between them, while full-back and captain Paul McConway is another valuable added asset after injury ruled him out of action against Longford in the championship meeting last year.
Make no mistake about it, Offaly are a better-balanced and stronger side this season and a lot of that improvement is down to the considerable impact being made by their manager Pat Flanagan who will feel that his native county have the measure of Longford in the battle to earn a crack at Dublin in the next round.