Unheralded Longford slip into semi-final almost unnoticed
Longford manager regrets ill-luck of the draw that sends his team to Navan again
Longford manager Denis Connerton: “We probably could have done without playing Meath.” Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Although Wexford’s late win against Dublin attracted more attention, the defeat of Leinster’s only other Division One county, Kildare, passed without too much comment.
Yet Longford’s win, which pushed the county into the O’Byrne Cup semi-finals for the second time in three years, was a notable achievement for a side that has lost a lot of experienced players – Brian Kavanagh, Dermot Brady, Diarmuid Masterson and six others – to retirement and sundry other reasons.
“We have lost some to retirement and some to injury,” says manager Denis Connerton, “and another couple who are in final year’s study and can’t commit to it. The drawback for counties like us is that we would have a very small panel of players and that’s a big problem. We’ve 12 under-21s in our squad from last year’s team.”
Two years ago Longford made another splash in the competition by defeating then – and still – All-Ireland champions Dublin to reach the final, where they played Meath, who they again face in this weekend’s semi-final.
“We ended up getting beaten in the first round of the league by Offaly, so you could say that it wasn’t much benefit to us,” is Connerton’s unvarnished view of the achievement.
Whereas the opportunity to play another match is welcome, the Longford manager regrets the ill-luck of the draw that sends his team once again to Navan, where the final was staged two years ago and he points out an extraordinary statistic.
“We’d love to be playing in Longford. Meath coming to Longford is a big deal, whereas Longford going to Meath isn’t as much. We’re not on the road as much this league, which is good because our match last Sunday against Kildare was our first at home since March 19th last year.”
That’s nearly 10 months without being able to promote a competitive match at home. “It’s a pity,” he says, “because we would have brought a couple of thousand to Pearse Park.”
On the field, though, it’s been an encouraging start to 2018. Connerton isn’t getting carried away with the wins, even against two more highly ranked counties, but he is positive about the benefits of having at least one additional match.
“It has been a bonus for us. When we got the draw it was fairly hectic: Louth away – a place where we don’t win too often, and Kildare, who we don’t beat very often. If we won one of the those games that would be it for us, so to win both put us in bonus territory, and when we beat Kildare last week it was something we weren’t expecting and gives us an extra competitive match.”
As Longford found out in 2016, the O’Byrne Cup doesn’t have a strong record as a harbinger of good times, although in recent years Dublin have doubled the number of winners who have gone on the add the All-Ireland in the same year, from two to four.
Last year when a development team from Dublin won the trophy, the teams they beat – Wexford, Kildare and Louth – were all promoted in the spring.
A peculiar aspect of the O’Byrne Cup’s history is that it has so rarely been a predictor for the Leinster championship. In 63 years – allowing for the seven when it wasn’t played – on just 10 occasions have counties have combined winning it with also taking home the Delaney Cup.
Kildare top the role of honour with 10 titles, despite having won just three Leinster championships during the 60 years.
Such extrapolations will be far from the minds of this year’s semi-finalists – Westmeath and Offaly meet in the other match – this weekend but with the high tempo of a modern league campaign ahead, it’s an advantage to have a few matches under your belt.
“The more they play together, the better, and it’s given them great experience,” says Connerton. “Louth are a Division Two team and so are Meath, and Kildare are Division One. We probably could have done without playing Meath, as we’re playing them in the championship. But it’s another game, which is better than a training camp this weekend.”