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Weight of expectation

IF the Leinster Council had decided to run an advertising campaign to encourage complacent Dubs through the Hill 16 turnstiles this afternoon, they might have pointed out that the ordinary rarely occurs when Longford play in Croke Park.

They might mention the name Laz Molloy who, 21 years ago, travelled as a spectator for the replayed Leinster Championship quarter-final between Offaly and Longford, was summoned from the crowd, via the tannoy, to the Offaly dressing-room before the game, came on at half-time when they trailed by five points and went home a folk hero after Offaly turned the game around, thanks to a number of superb saves made by Molloy.

It took Longford 17 years to get back to Croke Park and naturally the gap generated fears that they might freeze on centre stage. As events transpired, they didn't have the time for the icicles to form.

In May 2001, the midlanders had assembled and went through their warm up routine at the Na Fianna grounds on Mobhi Road. They built up a nice sweat in readiness for a crack at the Dubs, but then found themselves sweating even more profusely when the bus that was supposed to shuttle them to Croke Park didn't arrive.

With the throw-in drawing close, they hailed down a couple of cars and bundled as many players in as possible. Half the team had been sent the unconventional way before the bus finally appeared.

Despite that chaotic prelude, Longford settled remarkably well, led four times during the first half and only trailed by a point at the break - before collapsing in the second half. Niall Sheridan knows the script only too well. "We kept at them quite well in the first half, but unfortunately with Longford, we can't seem to just lose a game, the floodgates seem to open and we get well beaten. I'm hoping that we've changed."

Even if you don't recognise the name, you'll know of Niall Sheridan. If you're a Dub, you may remember how you chuckled at his girth when Paddy Christie won their battle hands down in Croke Park four years ago. But then the teams met in the All-Ireland qualifiers and Sheridan gave one of the country's most accomplished full-backs a much more difficult time of it. For Niall Sheridan think full-forward, shaven head. Think big and burly. Think of the white cycling shorts under the togs and you have your man.

His participation in today's game had been in doubt since he damaged a hamstring while playing for Abbeylara in a club game a month ago. The injury recovered well enough to enable his selection this afternooon, though given his use of the cycling shorts it's easy to make the erroneous assumption that his hamstrings have been an ongoing problem.

"I just wear them more for (to avoid) the friction around the thighs," he says. "I started wearing them a while ago and I'm used to them now. I wouldn't feel right if I didn't have them on me."

'I was always big enough growing up, I always battled the weight, even when I was full-back. But I kind of use my weight (to my advantage) more than anything else'

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He'll tip the scales around the 18-stone mark this afternoon. That's about a stone and a half heavier than he was the last time he played in Croke Park, but it's two stone lighter than at the start of this year. Keeping his weight in check is an ongoing battle. He's tried every diet under the sun and ultimately come to the conclusion that diets in themselves don't work.

Last year, the then Longford manager Dennis Connerton put him on an Atkins style regime designed to eradicate carbohydrates from his diet. Within two weeks, he'd lost a stone. But losing so much weight so quickly came at a price. "I wasn't fit to do anything when I was playing. I think I marked Cormac McAnallan in a (league) game, but the power was gone out of me. I felt weak. I'm not saying that people shouldn't diet, but I'm saying that it's important to get the right one. You're far better off losing a couple of pounds per week than losing a lot of weight suddenly."

When questioning Niall Sheridan on the subject, you become aware that you are straying beyond the bounds of the sporting arena into personal matters. But the man himself doesn't flinch. He's comfortable speaking about the subject because he is comfortable in himself.

"I was always big enough growing up, I always battled the weight, even when I was full-back. But I kind of use my weight (to my advantage) more than anything else. I'd be happy with myself. Sure, if you didn't feel confident in yourself, there wouldn't be any point in going out. But if I am going to stay on playing for a another couple of years, I know I am going to have to get it (the weight) down because it's tough on the body."

Where do you feel it most?

"The legs and the knees. Funny enough I suffer more in the wet weather than the dry. I love the dry weather. But basically the problem with me is that, through training I've got down two stone since the start of this year but I got injured a few weeks ago and If I spend two weeks off at all, the weight just comes back on, straightaway. When I was younger, I never got injured, but in the last four or five years, since I was 23, I've been suffering with injuries."

He's 28 now, a member of an Garda Síochána, based in Ballyfermot, and living in Lucan. Yet the ties to his home are as strong as ever. The house he lives in is shared with two of his team mates - wing-back, Arthur O'Connor and centre half-forward Paul Barden. And he remains a central figure in the Abbeylara club.

"Niall would be known as an out and out gentleman," says Peter O'Reilly, Abbeylara club secretary. "Bring him to a summer camp and the kids just swarm around him, they love him. But it doesn't go to his head. He's great dealing with people, a very sensible lad."

Five years ago the club won their first Longford senior football title. In doing so, his family became the first in Longford to have won county titles through three straight generations. Legend says that his grandfather, Tony Sheridan, was one of three St Mary's, Granard, men to make up the full-forward line for both Longford and Leinster (Railway Cup) in the 1930s.

His father, Tommy, also won a county titles with Granard in 1966 and 1967 and though he stopped playing at a relatively young age, he remained a driving force behind his son up to his untimely death a few years ago.

"More often than not, parents don't travel to watch their children playing school games, but Niall's father never missed one," says Declan Rowley, the Longford selector who also managed Sheridan at St Mel's. "He was massively enthusiastic about the game and that stood to Niall, because even though he was a couple of stone lighter than he is now, he struggled for pace. But what got him through was his massive love and fierce commitment for the game."

In 1994, Sheridan won a Leinster Colleges' title with St Mel's playing full-back on a team that also included Westmeath's Martin Flanagan, Roscommon's Conor Connelly and Longford team mate, Pádraic Davis. A year later, he was called up to the senior county ranks, under Eamonn Coleman, but it was one of Coleman's selectors, Dessie Dolan Senior, who made the switch that changed Sheridan's career forever.

His willingness to throw himself around makes Sheridan the attacking pivot around which other talents function

"Up to that point, I had been a full-back all my life," says Sheridan. "Then one day we had a challenge match against Louth and Dessie put me in full-forward. It was something that I'd always wanted to try, but I never knew whether I'd be any good there. And I don't know why Dessie tried it, but I scored 2-2 against Louth and that was it. And, to be totally honest, I don't think I'd be playing county football now if I hadn't been put there."

Over the course of a ten-year career, he's scored more than half as many goals (six) as points (10) in championship football for Longford, but his value to the side goes way beyond his scoring contribution. For his size, intelligence and general willingness to throw himself around makes Sheridan the attacking pivot around which other talents like Pádraic Davis, Paul Barden and Trevor Smullen function.

"People look at him as a big man who can win ball," says Declan Rowley. "But at the end of the day, he's just about six-foot tall, which means he's not exactly towering over people and though he has a marvellous pair of hands, he also has brilliant agility and quickness with his hands. He brings the team into play with it; he can spot a little opening for a player and get him through in a very tight space."

History tells us that Longford have rarely been capable of inflicting mortal damage on Dublin over the years. That tradition is fortified this afternoon by the absence of some of Longford's key figures, David Blessington and Liam Keenan, through injury; and the suspended Trevor Smullen. Yet Sheridan speaks of an air about the Longford set-up this year that suggests they expect more of themselves.

"There's a lot of good young players there now and they are being used by the management. There's a lot of positivity in the camp. At some stage Longford have to make the breakthrough and we're confident we can get a result against Dublin. I hate to say it in the papers that we're going to win, but we genuinely feel we can win. There'd be no point in going out otherwise."

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