Saturday 19 January 2019

Reds only at half power for season opener

O'Byrne Cup: Longford 2-13 Louth 1-10

John Savage

An impressive new scoreboard has sprouted up in the far corner of the main pitch in Darver over the winter break, but it wasn't powered up for Saturday's O'Byrne Cup opener.

Louth found themselves in a similar predicament. New manager, fresh faces, but not quite switched on in time, as Longford repeated their summer success over the Reds with another comfortable victory.

The O'Byrne Cup has never been the be-all and end-all of a season, but it's still a useful health check ahead of the National League, which swings around earlier than ever this year.

Twelve months ago Louth reached the final and, although Dublin won the decider at a canter, Colin Kelly's men went on to win their first four league games en route to promotion, leaving Longford behind them in the third tier in the process.

But in their last two outings the Reds have been routinely dispatched by the midlanders and before that made a tame exit from Leinster at the hands of Meath, lost the league final to Tipperary and a dead rubber outing against Sligo.

This is a new regime, but Pete McGrath will be keen to arrest that dip in form as soon as possible because he knows better than anyone how high the bar is set in Division 2 of the Allianz League.

There were fleeting moments of encouragement on Saturday, but mostly in the shape of solid individual performances.

McGrath handed debuts to Luke Haggins in goal, Fergal Donohue at corner back, Aaron Kahn at left half and substitutes James Butler and Eimhin Keenan and none were found wanting.

Already established in 2017, Sam Mulroy certainly caught the eye, but was forced off late in the game with what McGrath feared could be an ankle fracture.

William Woods also showed the kind of promise that saw him force his way into Aidan O'Rourke's plans a few years back, while Tommy Durnin was possibly the pick of the bunch from Louth's point of view with a trademark all-action midfield display.

The precious few supporters who did show up for McGrath's first game in charge also got an early taste of what to expect from the former All-Ireland winner tactically.

It was no real surprise to see the Reds operate with three inside forwards and of the six attackers who started, Conall McKeever shouldered the main defensive responsibility.

When Longford attacked he retreated swiftly, allowing Bevan Duffy to drop in to sweep in front of Paddy Reilly.

Duffy starting at centre half back was a new approach, and it may be one McGrath persists with.

He still has James Stewart and Anthony Williams to welcome back into the fold, but a half back line of Duffy flanked by Maguire and Stewart could be formidable, while Williams will almost certainly be needed at corner back in the absence of his Dreadnots colleague Padraig Rath.

The ease with which Longford drove through the middle of the Louth defence was probably the chief area of concern for McGrath on Saturday, but cheap turnovers were the root cause.

The midlanders had the breeze in the opening half and used it well, plundering a goal and two points inside five minutes.

With Ronan McEntire pulling the strings at midfield and Sean McCormack leading the line up front, their scores came in clusters, a further four points arriving in as many minutes midway through the half and then three without reply just before the break.

Louth had to work the ball a lot closer to the target against the elements, but their first score was a goal and that kept them in touch.

Down a goal and two, William Woods and Sam Mulroy combined to set up Ross Nally on the edge of the square and the Blues man wasn't going to miss from that kind of range.

Woods followed up with a fine score a couple of minutes later and Mulroy and Woods added a free apiece later in the half.

Durnin also weighed in with a score to leave the Reds facing a five-point deficit at the interval - certainly not insurmountable given the conditions.

But to Longford's credit, they slowed the game down pretty well in the third quarter and opened the scoring with a long-range free from 'keeper Paddy Collum to put six between the sides.

Louth eventually found some rhythm and when they did they started to strip away the midlanders lead quite impressively.

Mulroy kicked a free and a point and then substitute James Butler showed his superb long-range shooting skills with two classy scores.

Jim McEneaney added another to make it a one-point game and Louth were soon level.

They could so easily have taken the lead, but William Woods' rasping shot was just too high after he was put through one-on-one with the 'keeper by Andy McDonnell.

But that was to be Louth's last score as Longford took control again.

They were helped hugely by a fortunate looking goal from Andrew Farrell that seemed to bobble over Haggins in the Louth goal.

But they all count and that seemed to knock the fight out of the home side as all their hard work to draw level was undone in an instant.

Dessie Reynolds and McCormack, twice, added further scores as Longford ran out easy winners.

An even tougher challenge awaits Louth in Hawkfield tonight (Wednesday), but with the possibility of qualification all but gone, it will be all about the performance for McGrath, both individual and collective.

LONGFORD: Paddy Collum 0-1f; Patrick Fox, Padraig McCormack, Barry Gilleran; Michael Quinn 0-1, Barry McKeon, Peter Foy: Darren Gallagher, Ronan McEntire 0-2; Pauric Gill 1-1, Andrew Farrell 1-0, Dessie Reynolds 0-1; Conor Berry 0-1, Sean McCormack 0-6 (4f), Daryl Carrigy. Subs: Cillian Lee for R McEntire (21); Shane Donohue for P McCormack (59 BC), Peter Hanley for D Gallagher (70+3 BC), Cathal Reilly for P Gill (70+3).

LOUTH: Luke Haggins; John Bingham, Patrick Reilly, Fergal Donohue; Derek Maguire, Bevan Duffy, Aaron Kahn; Andy McDonnell 0-1, Tommy Durnin; Conall McKeever, Jim McEneaney 0-1, Ciaran Downey; William Woods 0-2 (1f), Sam Mulroy 0-3 (2f), Ross Nally 1-1. Subs: James Butler 0-2 for C Downey (51), Niall Conlon for R Nally (51); Ronan Holcroft for S Mulroy (60); Eimhin Keenan for A McDonnell (67).

Referee: Patrick Coyle (Meath).

Drogheda Independent