Martin Breheny: Longford and Leitrim must lose their L-plates
LEITRIM joint-manager Barney Breen admits it would set football in the county back by years if they were to lose to London next Sunday while, across the Shannon, Longford are hoping to qualify for the Leinster semi-final for the first time in 24 years by beating Wexford.
It's a massive weekend for the neighbouring counties who, between them, have a total population of just over 70,000 people.
"Everyone knows what London are capable of after coming so close to beating Mayo last year. We have to be ready for them because it would set football in Leitrim back by years if we were to lose. It's not just how it would affect the players but think of the damage it would do morale all over the county," said Breen.
Longford are more advanced than Leitrim at present and have set their targets on a Leinster semi-final clash with Dublin or Louth on July 1.
LONGFORD: TOP OF THE
Played 21, Won 15, Drew 3, Lost 3.
That's Longford's impressive league and championship record since the start of the 2011 season, making them the most consistent team in the country over the last 17 months.
And while their league reliability was fashioned in Divisions 4 and 3 as they carefully built from the bottom up, a winning habit, however achieved, is invaluable at any time. They won both divisional finals, having earlier clinched promotion, underlining their zeal to maintain a winning momentum even when the primary league target had been hit.
Longford had the best defensive record in Division 4 last year and in Division 3 this spring. They conceded only one goal in three championship outings over the past 12 months (versus Tyrone in the All-Ireland qualifiers last July). They held Laois goalless in two championship games, with the second being especially significant as Longford staged a spirited comeback to win by a point last Sunday week.
Now, as they are prepare for their first Leinster championship game at Croke Park for seven years, there's a tingling air of anticipation right across the county.
The squad and management are keeping a low public profile but there's no escaping the sense of excitement which is rising by the day.
"It's great to see at any time but especially when there's so much gloom on the economic front," said county chairman Pat Cahill. "I've never see so many Longford jerseys being worn and heard so many people talking about football.
"That's a big lift to the squad. Together with the good results, it makes them feel that all the hard work they put in is being rewarded on the pitch and acknowledged off it."
Glenn Ryan is presiding over the latest Longford surge with impressive authority but he and the squad know that despite having twice beaten Wexford in this year's league, this is new territory in which Jason Ryan and Co have vastly more experience.
That's reflected in the odds, which have Wexford as 4/6 favourites, but in many ways it's no bad thing for Longford to be outsiders as it underlines yet again that they are on a journey where they have to make a convincing case all the time if they are to be admitted to the classier end of the market.
They did that most impressively in this year's league, where they won seven and drew one of eight games, the only county in any division to remain unbeaten. And while there were times in the first half against Laois last Sunday week when it looked as if Longford might be over-run, they retained their self-belief and dug their way out of trouble, overturning a six-point deficit to win by one.
Now, they are within one win of a Leinster semi-final outing, probably against Dublin, so there's no mistaking the value of the prize on offer next Sunday. Apart from looking forward to the Leinster semi-final, it would also mean that Longford missed the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers, a fate they haven't avoided since the 'back door' was opened in 2001.
But then they were never better equipped to take on the challenge after compiling such a convincing set of results since February 2011.
leitrim: 12 changes but no loss of faith
BARNEY Breen and George Dugdale have never looked beyond June 3 and the trip to London ever since they joined forces to take charge of Leitrim after Mickey Moran stood down late last year for health reasons.
Breen had worked as a selector with Moran for a few years while Dugdale came aboard last September, so when the Derry man had to quit, there was a natural logic in getting the two former team-mates to work together.
They run most of the show between them in a county which has to make the most of scarce resources.
"It's a privilege to get the chance. Leitrim is our county -- we love what we do and our aim at all times is to get the very best from what we have. If we and the players do that, then we're on the right road. Where it takes us remains to be seen," said Breen.
First stop on this particular adventure is Ruislip on Sunday when Leitrim take on London, who came so very close to unseating Mayo last year, taking them to extra-time.
Leitrim have the unfortunate distinction of being the only county to lose to London in the Connacht championship (1977), a haunting memory which has ensured no Shannonside complacency in any subsequent meetings.
"I'm sure London will be looking at this game and thinking, 'this is a great chance for us'. We'd be the same if we were in their shoes. London used to be regarded as a team that could stay with the opposition for 45/55 minutes and fade from there on but that's not the case now. They're as fit as anybody nowadays. We certainly don't want to become the second Leitrim team to lose to London," said Breen.
Mayo await the winners but Breen said that he hasn't thought of that at all over recent months.
"There's no point. If we don't beat London, we won't be playing anybody else in Connacht," he said.
The Leitrim squad has undergone a huge shake-up since last year (12 changes in all) as emigration, retirements and work commitments combined to leave the Breen-Dugdale partnership looking for new recruits.
They have been reasonably successful, putting together a squad which finished in fourth place in Division 4 ahead of Limerick, Carlow, Waterford, London and Kilkenny.
"People might think we'd be happy enough to finish where we did but we weren't," said Breen.
"We had targeted promotion. You have to think that way. We were unlucky enough in a few games and the only one where we didn't really perform was against Fermanagh in the last round."
Neither he nor Dugdale expected to arrive in the managerial frontline in the manner they did but, having got there, are determined to make their tenure as successful as possible.
Having soldiered together as players for many years, they know each other very well but who makes the final call on switches and replacements on match days?
"We think very much the same way so it's not a problem," said Breen. "We'd reach the same conclusion on most things."