Longford captain Michael Quinn pictured in action against Louth in the recent All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers Round 1A game in Drogheda. Photo: Declan Gilmore
After producing a very positive performance to score a terrific championship win over Louth in Drogheda, the Longford senior footballers are back on the road again as they travel north to take on Division 1 opponents Donegal in Round 2A of the All-Ireland Qualifiers.
Ballybofey is the venue this Saturday (throw-in 5pm) for Longford’s latest attempt to create a giant-killing act and all the pressure is on the red-hot favourites Donegal (1/8 with the bookmakers) who crashed to a most disappointing nine points defeat (1-21 to 1-12) against Tyrone in the recent Ulster semi-final.
While it could have been even worse for Donegal, fielding several championship newcomers and whose inexperience was exploited, the sides were locked together at five points apiece with 23 minutes gone on the clock before Tyrone turned on the power to establish a commanding 0-12 to 0-5 lead at the break.
Whatever hopes Donegal had of staging a dramatic comeback on the changeover were dashed when Mickey Harte’s machine scored a goal in the early stages of the second half to put the issue beyond all doubt and on the evidence of this impressive display the general opinion is that Tyrone are serious All-Ireland contenders.
While it was a demoralising setback for Donegal, who were tipped by many pundits (including Colm O’Rourke in the Sunday Independent) to make it through to yet another provincial title decider, they will be very determined to bounce back in the face of adversity and particularly so with home advantage.
Ulster senior finalists for the previous six years and who were crowned champions in 2011, 2012 and 2014, Donegal are currently going through a transition period with around nine of their more established players deciding to retire during the winter but there is still plenty of hope with the emergence of a number of rising young stars.
Building on the Ulster Minor championship triumphs in 2014 & 2016, along with the additional boost of winning the provincial U-21 title earlier this year, Donegal enjoyed a promising campaign in the National League and just missed out on scores difference to the eventual winners Kerry for a place in the 2017 Division 1 Final.
Hence the hype over their Ulster Championship credentials, leading to some of the shrewd observers believing in a new look Donegal as a force to be reckoned with this season, but they were blown apart by a dynamic Tyrone outfit who finally produced their true potential.
In reviewing the situation there are those who now suggest that Donegal are in a rather vulnerable state and while manager Rory Gallagher has been praised for effectively managing the decline of the old county team, while introducing the new, the current squad are definitely not among the main contenders if you are to judge them on the dismal defeat against Tyrone.
Having that said, such experienced campaigners as Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh have the quality to make a major impact while Paddy McBrearty is a class act in the full-forward-line, clearly reflected in the six points (two frees) he kicked against Tyrone.
So it would be very foolish to write off Donegal, who are a physically strong team, and with a couple of weeks to recover from the torrid Tyrone experience they will be confidently expected to get back on track in the qualifiers.
Winners of the All-Ireland title as recent as 2012 and who were unlucky losers (2-9 to 0-12) in the 2014 decider against Kerry, nobody can argue with the fact that Donegal have a great pedigree and have been operating at the highest level for the past number of years.
Coming up against one of the stronger counties is a serious test for a Longford team who almost ended up in Division 4 of the National League, snatching a last gasp draw against Antrim in Belfast to avoid relegation.
And when you look at what Donegal (featuring seven players making their senior championship debuts) done to Antrim in the opening round of the Ulster Championship this year, inflicting a 3-19 to 1-9 demolition job in Ballybofey, it gives you a clear indication of the daunting task that Longford are facing at the same venue.
But when you take a closer look at that landslide result, it is interesting to note that Antrim (aided by a strong wing) trailed by just a solitary point when they missed a couple of clear-cut goal chances in the closing stages of the first half.
Donegal then got their first goal in the 32nd minute as they ended up leading by 1-8 to 0-6 at the break and were in complete control in the second half as they cruised to a very easy win by the wide margin of 16 points.
While the odds are stacked against Longford (a generous 6/1 chance with the bookies) making further progress in the All-Ireland qualifiers, they will have gained considerable confidence from the big lift of beating Louth in Drogheda and the players certainly redeemed themselves in the wake of the collapse against Laois in the Leinster Championship.
Longford have earned a lot of respect from their tremendous record in the qualifiers, crossing the first hurdle for the ninth season in succession, and what about the wonderful win over Monaghan in the second round last year.
Nobody gave the underdogs a chance in Clones but the manager Denis Connerton plotted the downfall of the strongly fancied Division 1 outfit who were expected to bounce back after losing out to Donegal after a replay in the Ulster semi-final.
The Longford players rose to the big occasion to achieve a sensational result that was the talk of the country and while they are in a similar situation a year later in their quest to spring another major shock, Ballybofey is renowned as a fortress for Donegal with the backing of the vociferous big support.
So it is going to take something special by Longford to take Donegal down but with captain Michael Quinn and ace attacker Robbie Smyth providing the inspiration who knows what might happen in the heat of the championship battle.