Keenan hoping Longford can fight through setbacks
LONGFORD'S near miss against Kerry 10 months ago is all but forgotten everywhere -- except in the midland county.
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, not least David Kelly's penalty miss for Sligo, who, even more so than Longford, let Kerry off the hook on the way to another All-Ireland title.
But in Longford, they cling to the memory of a damp July evening and the image of Kieran Donaghy limping off after ruling the skies around Pearse Park for most of the game.
'Star's' injury in the second half meant Kerry were rudderless and allowed a county to dream. In the second half Longford held Kerry to just two points for close on 40 minutes of football. They couldn't do the damage up front themselves to reel in the Kingdom's nine-point half-time lead, but a four-point defeat was no disgrace and there were signs that Glen Ryan had put his stamp on the team.
Ryan's high-profile appointment was viewed as a coup for the county. He had just steered a Kildare U-21 side to an All-Ireland final and the Longford job was viewed as a trial run for an inevitable appointment to the Kildare hot seat.
But Longford's modest resources have been stretched to the limit this season, ahead of their Leinster championship opener against Louth in Portlaoise tomorrow.
Marquee forwards Paul Barden and Brian Kavanagh have been named in the starting side, despite missing much of the league campaign and being listed as major injury concerns earlier this week. They will undergo 11th-hour fitness tests, but even if they start, it remains to be seen how much action they will see.
Barden and Kavanagh's presence in the side is even more vital as Kevin Smith and Padraig Berry, who were part of the side that rattled Kerry last year, have emigrated. David Barden, brother of captain Paul and probably the most effective club footballer in the county last year, has opted out of the squad.
Cian Mimnagh is another who missed much of the league campaign. Paddy Dowd was persuaded to return to the panel after a brief retirement earlier this season due to a back injury, but the Clonguish man intermittently needs time out to recover, while a blood clot in selector Liam Keenan's leg meant his football career ground to a halt in late 2008. It's a strain that would impinge on most counties and a league campaign that yielded just two wins (over London and Kilkenny) showed just how much Longford have struggled.
"In a county like Longford, you really do miss players of that quality," Keenan agreed. "But we wanted to give the lads (Barden and Kavanagh) every chance to prove their fitness because they have worked hard to get there. If they don't make it we have lads who are more than capable of doing a job."
Francis McGee has done the vast majority of the scoring for a side that has struggled in front of goal without the leadership of former International Rules player Paul Barden and Kilmacud Crokes' All-Ireland club championship winner Kavanagh. Meath legend Graham Geraghty was drafted in as forwards coach to add some cutting edge to the side, but by that stage hopes of promotion from Division 4 had been dashed.
"I suppose we realised that promotion was gone for us so we gave those lads time off to get their injuries right rather than forcing them to play on," Keenan added.
"It meant we ended up playing without six or seven of our first-choice players at certain points during the league. That was difficult, but others got good experience and it's important that everyone gets game time."
Keenan, who is still just 31 and had carved out a reputation as a combative midfielder for much of the last decade, sees many of the characteristics of Ryan the player in Ryan the manager.
"He was inspirational and a leader when he was a player and he's the same way as a manager. The players really respond to him," Keenan said.
"When I heard he was coming in I was excited about the chance to work with him as a player and then I got ruled out through injury. I didn't see myself here as a selector and would love to be playing on Sunday, but it's better to be still involved.
"Glen demands a couple of things off them; work rate and effort being the main thing. After that, you can't ask for much more."
Like Longford, Louth have struggled for consistency this season. Antrim and Sligo secured promotion from Division 3 as Peter Fitzpatrick got to grips with his new side, but Keenan is concerned that they have played at a higher grade of football then the midlanders.
"We'd know them quite well and would have met a lot in the league over the past few years. Playing a division higher helps, but I suppose they have been a little bit inconsistent like ourselves.
"They are strong down the middle and have some dangerous forwards like Shane Lennon and JP Rooney. But we're worrying about ourselves first. It's all we can do."