Impressive victory has Longford looking forward to brighter days
Leinster Under-21 FC: Once in a while, very occasionally, a minnow gets to take a chunk out of a bigger fish. It happened in Parnell Park on Wednesday night and, yesterday, the wisecracks about the need to split Longford into two were doing the rounds.
More seriously, though, those involved in Longford’s win in the Leinster Under-21 championship over defending provincial and All-Ireland champions Dublin were all for keeping feet on the ground and heads out of the clouds.
Longford is officially the county with the second smallest population in the country, some 39,000 according to the 2011 census. Yesterday, the mood in the county was, according to Gerry Hagan, the county board PRO, one of “disbelief”.
He remarked: “There’s a lot of people who didn’t travel who were left regretting they didn’t go . . . . but it’s still only a quarter-final, so we can’t be getting carried away.”
Those who stayed away might have regretted not being there in the flesh for the taking down of the Dubs. Yet underpinning the point that Eugene McCormack’s team travelled down the M4 with some belief of their own was the fact there were up to three times more Longford supporters than home supporters at the Donnycarney venue.
“There’s a lot thought of this team [even before the win]. Outside of Longford, they wouldn’t have been known. But we’ve a very honest bunch of players,” said Hagan.
As manager McCormack said of his charges after their victory, “They stood firm, toe-to-toe [with Dublin], and were not overawed. These players are fantastic, they worked their socks off . . .. but there were no cups handed out.”
Honest and talented. Three years ago, this same bunch of players came back through the back door to win the Leinster minor championship title. In the first round, they were on the wrong side of a 23-point hammering from Offaly but regrouped and took the provincial silverware.
Three years on, the same group – backboned by players from neighbouring clubs Emmet Óg and Drumlish – have shown maturity to go with that promise.
The story is told of how the squad were brought to Breaffy for a training weekend a few weeks back. When the players were given the option of breaking away for some social time, they held a team meeting and within five minutes had returned to the management to request a few decks of playing cards as their social outlet. There would be no break-outs to local hostelries.
It was a strict, training weekend and the players had bought into it. They were sending out a message of their own.
If the message was delivered in some style with Wednesday’s single-point win over a Dublin team backboned by players who reached back-to-back All-Ireland minor finals in 2011 and 2012 and a number who featured in last year’s All-Ireland Under- 21 win, the reality is the Longford County Board’s investment in its own underage development structures was being rewarded by players who benefited from such nurturing.
While Dublin’s development structures have been lauded, Longford have also reaped the benefits of a system that sees players taken into development squads at under-15 level with an eye on the future.
“There’s been a big effort put into underage development in the last 10 years. Our big problem is we don’t have the numbers which you’d have in counties with larger populations obviously . . . we’ve a population over 30,000 in the whole county, and the percentage working off that as regards people playing football. This particular group of players are all in college, studying decent courses, so hopefully that will help them get employment here rather than in England or America or Canada or Australia when they’re finished.
“We’d want to hold onto this bunch of players [for the future],” said Hagan. “Ten of the team are supplied from two clubs [Emmet Óg, who are senior county champions, and Fr Manning Gaels Drumlish].
“When you bring four, five or six lads from the one club, you create a kind of a club atmosphere as well. They’ve been playing together from 10 years up, and winning as well which is the important thing.”
The more immediate objective is the bid for a breakthrough Leinster Under-21 title, a championship that evaded their grasp most recently in 2011 when they lost by a point to Wexford.
As it happens, Wexford – extra-time winners over Westmeath – provide the next hurdle for Longford when they meet in the semi-final in Portlaoise on Wednesday week (March 20th). Pádraig McCormack, who was sent off late-on against Dublin for receiving two yellow cards, will be available to Longford.
The Leinster Council and Westmeath County Board are to investigate allegations that linesman Derek Fahy was targeted by stonethrowing from a section of the crowd during extra-time after Westmeath’s Kelvin Reilly was sent off.