Robbie Smyth on the attack for Longford in breaking away from Meath defender Seamus Lavin. Action from the recent O'Byrne Cup semi-final at Pairc Tailteann, Navan. Photo: Declan Gilmore
If the Longford senior footballers are to harbour realistic hopes of figuring in the hunt for promotion in Division 3 of the National League this season then they will need to beat Offaly in the opening round fixture at Bord Na Mona O’Connor Park, Tullamore on Sunday next, throw-in 2pm.
The midland rivals were extremely fortunate to survive in the fierce battle to escape relegation into Division 4 in the 2017 campaign and the losers in the latest clash between the counties will be under considerable pressure to avoid the dreaded drop in such a competitive league.
A rebuilding process is currently in progress for both Longford and Offaly with a number of players after announcing their inter-county retirement, most notably Dermot Brady, Brian Kavanagh and Niall McNamee, but rising young stars are beginning to emerge and that is encouraging.
Leaving Cert student Cian Johnson made a notable impact with the Offaly seniors in the O’Byrne Cup, scoring 1-3 in the big win over Wexford and six points in the draw against a third string Dublin side at Parnell Park.
Mullinalaghta man Rian Brady, on the other hand, was particularly impressive for Longford when they got the better of a relatively strong Kildare squad in the Leinster tournament.
While Longford manager Denis Connerton was obviously pleased with the positive performances against Louth, Kildare and Meath in the O’Byrne Cup in giving youth its fling, the serious stuff starts now and he does not need to be reminded that his side have suffered defeats on their last two visits to Tullamore for league and championship games in 2016.
Having said that, Longford accounted for Offaly by 1-12 to 0-10 in Round 1 of the National League at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park last season with Robbie Smyth firing over seven points (four frees).
Smyth and Sean McCormack are very much the main men in attack while providing vital experience in the defence are Michael Quinn, Barry Gilleran and Padraig McCormack, not forgetting Peter Foy who has been recalled to the squad this season.
Darren Gallagher and Andrew Farrell started at centrefield in that dramatic O’Byrne semi-final against Meath in Navan with the home county eventually emerging victorious (2-1) in a historic free-kicks shoot-out after the sides were still deadlocked after extra-time.
To be able to compete with a strong Meath side is a considerable boost for the Longford players and they will be heading to Tullamore on Sunday next in a fairly confident frame of mind as the quest for promotion begins.
Offaly, under new manager Stephen Wallace from Kerry, also succeeded in reaching the O’Byrne Cup semi-final and after losing by the narrow margin of two points against Westmeath (minus the St Loman’s contingent) the faithful county will believe that a winning start in the league can be achieved against Longford.
Paul McConway, Sean Pender, Joey O’Connor, Cian Donoghue, Conor McNamee, Anton Sullivan, Bernard Allen, Michael Brazil and Nigel Dunne are the key figures on the Offaly team but at this moment Longford look stronger and this must be seen as a good opportunity to collect two vital points.
Next up are Derry at Pearse Park the following week and the visitors will be minus the Slaughtneil players in the county squad who are preparing for the All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final against Cork's Nemo Rangers.
The away fixture against last year’s All-Ireland finalists Armagh on Sunday 11 February is regarded as the toughest task but with Sligo, Fermanagh, Wexford and Westmeath also operating in Division 3 the priority for Longford is to consolidate their league status and they should be capable of doing that.
Most pundits will be putting the three northern counties, Armagh, Derry and Fermanagh, as the leading contenders for the two promotion places while Westmeath have the potential to be in the mix after contesting the Leinster senior finals in 2015 and 2016.
That prediction could leave Longford, Sligo, Offaly and Wexford to battle it out for survival and it gives a clearer picture of what Denis Connerton’s side have to do to make sure they stay in Division 3 with four home games a definite plus.
Whether Longford are good enough to be involved in the shake-up for promotion to Division 2 remains to be seen but the morale is high in the camp despite the loss of a few key players and a win over Offaly will be a significant step in the right direction.
2018 Division 3 National Football League Fixtures
Round 1: Sunday, January 28: Armagh v Sligo, Derry v Westmeath, Fermanagh v Wexford, Offaly v Longford
Round 2: Sunday, February 4: Fermanagh v Offaly, Longford v Derry, Sligo v Wexford, Westmeath v Armagh
Round 3: Sunday, February 11: Armagh v Longford, Derry v Offaly, Sligo v Fermanagh, Wexford v Westmeath
Round 4: Saturday, February 24: Fermanagh v Derry; Sunday, February 25: Longford v Wexford, Offaly v Armagh, Westmeath v Sligo
Round 5: Saturday, March 3: Armagh v Derry; Sunday, March 4: Sligo v Longford, Westmeath v Fermanagh, Wexford v Offaly
Round 6: Saturday, March 17: Fermanagh v Armagh; Sunday, March 18: Derry v Wexford, Longford v Westmeath, Offaly v Sligo
Round 7: Sunday, March 25: Longford v Fermanagh, Sligo v Derry, Westmeath v Offaly, Wexford v Armagh