Longford thrive under pressure
IT'S next stop Croke Park for Longford, the perennial whipping boys, who shed their inferiority complex against Laois by beating the O'Moore County in the championship for the first time in 44 years yesterday.
A crowd of 5,587 turned up at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park -- the majority of them Longford followers hoping to see their Division 3 league winners break the hoodoo.
But before that happened, the supporters were put through an emotional wringer by a home side which didn't get out of first gear and turned into half-time trailing by six points on a 0-9 to 0-3 scoreline.
That was most definitely not in the script envisaged by manager Glenn Ryan, his players or the Longford fans watching on.
They came up against a Laois side which dominated possession and dictated the play from a platform of midfield supremacy.
The visitors controlled the sector for long periods by virtue of numbers and then broke into clear spaces by moving the ball in tidy fashion around the park.
Pressure is a subtle foe, and Ryan could see its effect stilting the expression of creativity and drive among his players.
"To be able to take the pressure they've been under in the last number of weeks, on their home patch where everybody expected them to turn over a big gun like Laois, they're a remarkable bunch of fellas to be able to take the expectations.
"In saying that, Laois had their homework done. They dominated the areas they knew they could dominate and we were at sixes and sevens.
"Laois seemed to put a premium on physicality and it certainly worked and we were very lucky to come out of it," said Ryan.
Luck and frailty works both ways. In the first half Longford managed only three points, one each from Paul Barden, Sean McCormack from a free, and full-forward Brian Kavanagh.
They hit a total of six wides in that first 35 minutes, while Laois missed the target eight times but still managed to score nine points from six different players -- Gary Walsh (0-3, two from frees), Darren Strong (two), and one each by Colm Begley, Kevin Meaney, Ross Munnelly and a first championship score for Conor Boyle.
Ryan brought on two half-time subs -- Paul Kelly for John Keegan and Padraig McCormack for Niall Mulligan -- and they helped inject some pace and life into a pretty stagnant Longford.
One exception was Paul Barden, the centre-forward and captain, who always looked menacing when in possession of the football.
He led literally from the front by breaking through for a 39th-minute goal that raised the roof.
Just prior to that attack, Laois' Begley and goalie Eoin Culliton combined to block a goal-bound shot by David Barden, but there was no stopping Paul as he collected a pass from Sean McCormack and finished it to the net.
Laois manager Justin McNulty identified that moment as a game-changer.
"The goal was crucial for them. It came at a time when they were dead and buried and it gave them the confidence to come back.
"We still had time but the biggest factor was they took their chances, we didn't. Simple as that," said McNulty.
Suddenly, Longford had a new belief, a new hope, although they were still three points adrift at 1-3 to 0-9.
Crucially, although the physically demanding, tightly contested ebb and flow of typical championship football meant that scores were at a premium on both sides, Laois began missing chances.
McNulty's men did respond to the hammer blow of conceding the goal with two points, one by Munnelly and the other a '45' kicked by Gary Walsh, but their wide count steadily mounted.
Longford took a long, tense 20 minutes from Barden's goal before they eventually got the equalising point at 1-8 to 0-11 in the 59th minute -- a gem of a score from more than 40 metres by centre-back Michael Quinn.
Just three minutes later, another huge roar greeted Sean McCormack's powerful kick that put Longford a point ahead. That set the stage for a ferocious final 10 minutes plus the three minutes of extra-time allowed by the referee -- and just when we looked like getting away without a square-ball incident occurring, it happened.
Brian Kavanagh had stuck over a finely judged insurance point at the end of normal time to give Longford a two-point lead when Laois were awarded a free out close to the touchline.
Begley lofted the ball high into the Longford area and big Padraig Clancy and Kevin Meaney attacked it.
The ball finished in the net, but immediately referee Duffy disallowed the goal because the play had come from a dead ball.
Clancy said afterwards: "I've no idea if I was in the square before the ball. I just went for it, but the ref blew for a free out."
Colm Kelly's point from a free narrowed the gap to a point for Laois, but that was the last moment of the game.
Longford now go on to play Wexford at Croke Park on June 3, while Laois will go the back-door route.
Scorers -- Longford: P Barden 1-2, S McCormack 0-4 (2f), B Kavanagh 0-2, D Barden, M Quinn 0-1 each. Laois: G Walsh 0-4 (2f, 1 45), R Munnelly (1f), D Strong 0-2 each, C Begley, K Meaney, C Boyle, C Kelly (f) 0-1 each.
Longford -- D Sheridan 7; D Brady 7, B Gilleran 7, D Reilly 7; C P Smith 7, M Quinn 8, S Mulligan 7; B McElvanney 6, J Keegan 6; D Barden 7, P Barden 8, N Mulligan 6; D McElligott 7, B Kavanagh 7, S McCormack 8. Subs: P Kelly 7 for J Keegan (h-t), P McCormack 7 for N Mulligan (h-t), F McGee 7 for D McElligott (50),K Diffley for D Barden (67), N Farrell for B McElvanney (71).
Laois -- E Culliton 7; C Healy 7, K Lillis 7, P O 'Laoire 7; D Strong 7, S Julian 6, C Boyle 7; J O'Loughlin 7, B Quigley 7; K Meaney 7, B Sheehan 7, C Begley 7; R Munnelly 8, P Clancy 7, G Walsh 7. Subs: M Timmons 7 for S Julian (42), C Kelly for R Munnelly (63), D O'Connor for G Walsh 67.
REF -- M Duffy (Sligo).