Longford defender Barry Gilleran pictured in this tussle with Offaly opponent Peter Cunningham. Action from the recent O'Byrne Cup game in Newtowncashel. Photo: Declan Gilmore
Pitted in the most competitive Division 3 of the National League, the Longford senior footballers are facing another difficult campaign this season and manager Denis Connerton is only too well aware that his side really need to make a winning start against Offaly at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Sunday next, throw-in 2pm.
Allianz National Football League Division 3 - Round 1
The counties have become familiar foes after clashing on several occasions in recent years and Offaly currently hold the upper hand after beating Longford in both the Leinster Championship and National League last season.
The stark reality is that the losers in the latest showdown next weekend will be under pressure immediately in the fierce battle to consolidate Division 3 status while the winners will move on in the hope of mounting a strong challenge for promotion.
There is a very thin line between success and failure in this league as Longford found out last year when they ended up with eight points (four wins) in missing out on scores difference for a place in Division 2 and would have dropped down into Division 4 but for beating Westmeath in the final round fixture at Pearse Park.
Home advantage is always such a vital factor and as Connerton’s charges are away to Louth, Tipperary, Laois and Antrim a defeat in Round 1 against Offaly would be very damaging indeed in delivering a bad blow.
Victory over the faithful county, on the other hand, will boost the confidence considerably and leave Longford in good shape for what is going to be a tough task in Drogheda the following Sunday and particularly so with newly promoted Louth having gained considerable momentum in reaching the O’Byrne Cup final.
Having said that, not much emphasis can be placed on the form shown in the pre-season Leinster tournament and with that in mind the county senior mentors will be very wary indeed of the stern challenge that Offaly will surely provide at Pearse Park on Sunday next.
The teams were in opposition in the O’Byrne Cup game in Newtowncashel a few weeks ago and while a near to full strength Longford outfit recovered from a bad start to eventually come out on top by the comfortable margin of eight points (2-11 to 0-9) in the finish, Offaly manager Pat Flanagan was playing it cute on that occasion as he fielded what was basically a second string side.
None of the Rhode players were involved as Offaly opted for experimental mode but they will be fielding their strongest possible side in the National League opener with ace attacker Niall McNamee expected to lead the charge.
With long term injuries ruling out Michael Quinn, Brian Kavanagh and Michael Brady, Longford have suffered further setbacks for Sunday's vital game against Offaly.
Regular midfielder Darren Gallagher is ruled out due to the one match suspension carried over from last year’s All-Ireland Qualifiers when he was sent-off in the Round 3 clash against Cork at Pearse Park and also banned is Diarmuid Masterson.
And with Mark Hughes and Andrew Farrell also currently on the casualty list, the county are going to be hard pressed to achieve a positive result and only their best efforts will suffice in the quest to collect two valuable league points at the expense of Offaly.
The good news is that the McCormack brothers Sean and Padraig are back in the squad, along with John Keegan and Ronan McEntire, and could all feature on Sunday next.
Sean McCormack has proving to be a prolific marksman for Longford in the past and he is expected to link up with James McGivney and Robbie Smyth in the attack but unable to feature against Offaly is the versatile Diarmuid Masterson who has to serve a one match suspension after accumulating a number of cards last season.
Denis Connerton can call on ten members of the team who started in the 2-9 to 1-6 defeat against Cork in the 2016 Qualifiers - McGivney, Smyth, Paddy Collum, Donal McElligott, Barry Gilleran, Barry O’Farrell, Cian Farrelly, Barry McKeon, Dermot Brady and Liam Connerton - while Paul McGee, Dessie Reynolds and Brian Farrell were brought on in that game.
Looking further down the road and beyond the crucial winnable games against Offaly and Louth, Longford are at home against Armagh (with Jamie Clarke back in action) and Sligo but must travel to take on last year’s beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists Tipperary.
Those fixtures are followed by a tricky trip to Laois (under new manager Peter Creedon but badly hit by injuries at the moment) with O’Moore Park also the venue for the Leinster Championship first round game between the counties in May.
In taking one game at a time, the players will be firmly focused on the Offaly test in the belief that victory can be achieved and while promotion is clearly a target the absolute priority of survival in Division 3 will satisfy the supporters as Longford bid to build on the promising progress that was made in 2016.