Longford facing a huge challenge but Jack Sheedy’s underdogs undaunted

Tomorrow is their first championship game in Croke Park in a decade

Longford’s Barry Gilleran and manager Jack Sheedy celebrate the championship victory over Offaly at Tullamore. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Longford’s Barry Gilleran and manager Jack Sheedy celebrate the championship victory over Offaly at Tullamore. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Standing in the tunnel in O’Connor Park a fortnight ago after Longford had beaten Offaly, it wasn’t hard to discern which dressingroom belonged to the winners.

On our left, the Offaly side was a surly, forbidding no-go. A local radio reporter who chanced sticking his head around the door got more than enough of bum’s rush to warn the rest of us not to even think about it.

On our right, a more joyful scene. The door to the Longford dressingroom was still shut but every few minutes one of the players would come out, the riotous blare of whatever they had coming from the speakers followed him across the threshold. It was music apparently designed with the express intention of taking anyone in the press pack that might consider ourselves as reasonably musically informed and disabusing us of all such notions.

It was probably no more than regulation thump-a-thud whizz-fizzery to them but to us it was confirmation we are old and they are disgustingly young.

“Probably Avicii,” we offered, weakly. Nobody knew enough to contradict. Their manager Jack Sheedy laughed at the sheer volume of it. “Ah yeah, there’ll be plenty more of that tonight,” he beamed.

Well may he have enjoyed himself. The Longford team he’d just steered past Offaly was vastly different to the one he’d sent out to do the same 12 months previously. It showed eight changes in the space of a year, absorbing the departure of, among others Paul Barden, Seán McCormack and Damien Sheridan.

The winning of the game had come from a couple of championship debutants thrown in off the bench to kick four points between them. Neither Dessie Reynolds nor Ross McNerny had started school when Barden made his championship debut. Sheedy has flushed his team with youth and still managed to come away with a Leinster Championship win.

A policy

“Sometimes other things are more important than football and guys who have been around for a few years can find that somewhere along the line, something more demanding or demanding more of their attention comes along. If you take Seán McCormack from our panel, he’s a mature student, he’s retraining to be a teacher, he’s at a stage where that’s more important to him right now than playing football. On top of that, you had the terribly tragic circumstances of his father passing away.

“In Paul Barden’s case and Damien Sheridan’s case, they had given long, long service and decided it was time to finish up. But there are certainly more guys who you would probably like to have around the panel or in the squad who had given a good number of years and just for one reason or another couldn’t give that level of commitment this year.

“And you’d like to think that after having a break and seeing the achievements of this year, they might think they want to go again and throw their weight behind the county again next year. If they do that, you’re increasing the pool of players who can make up a serious squad and bit by bit you will get more progress.”

Say something long enough and loud enough and before you know it, a clotted maze of roots claws into the soil below and there’s damn little that can shift it. Dublin have Leinster wrapped up tight because their panel is so deep, goes the theory. Wave after wave of under-21 success means an army of young bucks turning up anew each year to carry the Dubs to fresh heights.

Except, when you look at it, that’s not really what happens. New faces arrive from underage, of course they do. But any close examination of Jim Gavin’s sides on the biggest days will tell you that a huge proportion of his best team hasn’t changed since Pat Gilroy’s time.

Of the team that started the 2011 All-Ireland final, only Bryan Cullen and Barry Cahill have retired. Longford’s last game in 2011 was a qualifier defeat to Tyrone; only five starters and one substitute from that day played against Offaly a fortnight ago. All teams go through cycles but t success has a habit of slowing the pace of change.

The corollary stands as well. Longford aren’t the gravest case in the Leinster sick ward by any means. Over the past five seasons, they’ve managed at least one championship win every summer – and not generally against cannon-fodder either. They’ve beaten Derry twice, Laois, Cavan and even Mayo back in 2010. But the second round of the qualifiers has been their limit and tomorrow is their first championship game in Croke Park in a decade. It’s not easy to induce players stay going.

The pattern is repeated across the lower orders in Leinster. Louth faced off against Westmeath a fortnight ago, also for the second year on a row. They made nine changes from the team that turned out in Mullingar a year previously, Westmeath made eight. Carlow made seven between their win against Waterford in 2014 and the mauling by Laois this time around.

“We didn’t lose any guys who were 22 or 23,” says Louth manager Colin Kelly. “We did lose a few guys who were young enough to still play intercounty senior football but they weren’t available. They’ve given so much commitment down through the years. It’s difficult to keep going and going and going because of the demands.

Huge task

Down among the forgotten, one problem begets the next. Older players retire earlier – Louth lost their wonderful midfielder Paddy Keenan at just 31 over the winter. The dressingroom doesn’t just lose experience, it loses bodies you can rely on.

If it’s stocked with mostly younger players, the early months of the year are a killer. O’Byrne Cup, Sigerson, Leinster under-21 and Allianz League all tumble through each other more or less simultaneously. Then the summer comes and as soon as you’re knocked out of Leinster, the phones start pinging. America calling.

“It’s difficult but we’ll stay as positive as we can and work towards the qualifiers. We have the dreaded thing of the States hanging over us now. We will lose players most definitely to America. When you have a mature squad, you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing – the older boys have jobs and maybe families and the summer in the States isn’t an option.”

Sheedy doesn’t have to worry about that just yet but obviously things will look differently after tomorrow.

“It will give us a measure of where we’re at. We know we’re not anywhere close to Dublin’s level at the moment but coming off the back of a win, there’s huge encouragement to keep giving that effort. We have to keep aiming high.

“The players are acutely aware that it [a hiding] could happen. That, in some ways, spurs you on to a greater effort. If they beat you by one point or 21 points, everything will come down to how you’re perceived in your local community afterwards.

“They really want to go out and play. They want to give a performance. If that’s good enough by chance to beat Dublin, that would be astounding. But as long as they can be true to themselves, the best they can be in the circumstances, well then there’s a level of satisfaction there.”

Thin enough gruel, maybe. But it’s all that’s on offer.

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