Long-term approach pays dividends for Longford
Damien Sheridan says giving Glenn Ryan time was key factor in success, writes Damian Lawlor
WHEN Glenn Ryan reached the Longford dressing-room he could barely hear himself talk for the whooping and hollering that greeted him.
It was late Saturday evening, June 26, deep in the bowels of Pearse Park, moments after his side had emerged victorious in a thrilling, tense and unexpected finale against Mayo in the 2010 qualifiers. While Ryan's players celebrated their shock victory, the atmosphere was a lot more subdued down the corridor. Inside the opposition dressing-room John O'Mahony was informing players of his resignation.
Fate can often deal a funny hand -- had it been Longford on the wrong side of that one-point deficit, it would have most likely have been Ryan and not O'Mahony bidding farewell to his troops.
Just weeks before they took Mayo's scalp in 2010, Louth had knocked them out of the Leinster championship. They finally left the stage after losing to Down, leaving Ryan under serious strain in his first senior inter-county managerial role.
"What happened then was crucial," says long-serving goalkeeper Damien Sheridan. "Shortly after we exited the 2010 championship, the Longford players manned up for the first time in ages and went to meet Glenn. We knew we were going in the right direction and yet there definitely were little things we needed to improve on. We had great, skilful footballers but we needed to bulk up. Most of our players wore medium-sized shirts, for instance, and we were being thrown around by opponents when the championship arrived. We had no idea about tackling properly, that sort of stuff.
"Our conditioning needed to be looked at but, in fairness, Glenn called a meeting shortly after our exit to Down and we didn't let the affair drag on. He was either going to be ratified for another year or was going to go. Rather than just sitting back and waiting for a decision, we showed Glenn a few areas where improvement was needed. But we weren't dictating in the slightest because he responded just as quickly and outlined areas that the players needed to work harder on.
"We all bought into it, he was reappointed and he brought in Dave Hare to the set-up as strength and conditioning coach. Talk about a massive addition -- the medium-sized jerseys wouldn't fit many of the lads now, and that's a level we need to reach. We've achieved back-to-back promotions and we're in a good place. But yeah, it could have been very different had we, not Mayo, lost in 2010.
"There's actually a lesson there for everyone," Sheridan adds. "A lot of counties are switching managers and coaches too often. I still think John Evans might regret walking away from the Tipp job because under him they had more good times than bad. I'm glad Glenn had faith in us and glad the board backed him because we've been able to build on things and improve the set-up. Had he walked away or lost his job, the reality is we could still be in Division 4, seeing out the season and getting ready for another new manager to come in next October.
"Sometimes, investing in a coach or manager and maintaining that trust is the best way forward. We didn't always have easy times but we stuck with it."
Now, Longford are on a roll, gaining promotion for a second year running. After beating a fancied Roscommon team in last year's Division 4 league final, a Division 3 decider with Wexford looms.
"We'd love that cup," says Sheridan. "Your inter-county career is short enough -- and it's getting shorter. There are not too many opportunities for county players like us to get up to Croke Park and challenge for honours. We will be going all-out to beat Wexford and bring home a title."
It's not unusual for a team to earn promotions on the spin -- we've seen the likes of Sligo, Tipperary and Antrim achieve it in recent times. But what is most interesting is that Longford seem to have adapted better to life in Division 3 than Division 4 -- they drew two games and lost one in last year's fourth-tier campaign, while they have rattled off five wins on the trot this season, dropping only one point to Tipp.
"It's just a mind thing in Division 4," Sheridan says. "On the one hand you could be turned over by a team you're expected to win against and then the following week you're expected to go out and beat a non-competitive team by 30 points. Plus you have an extra game at that level and it's a much different challenge. I remember the last four weeks of last year's league were exceptionally challenging for all of us."
The general perception is that Longford can match most teams for skill, pace and attacking ability. However, once they sustain a few injuries or key players lose form they don't have the resources to call upon to keep them competitive as the summer unfolds.
That has led to Ryan and Hare managing their men in a most effective fashion. On any given night at training you are likely to see two sessions taking place. One bunch will include players with mileage on the clock or those who have been in non-stop action with the college, club or county sides. That category will also cater for guys who are returning from injury.
Meanwhile, at the far side of the field, the fringe players who are hungry for action are tested more rigorously as they up the ante and seek regular first-team action.
"It's led to easing a problem which haunted us for years," Sheridan says. "Lads were dropping in and out of the squad, but now we have a very settled set-up with a good age spread, and everyone is enjoying training. If you get an injury you communicate with the management and you're looked after differently to the rest of the panel. We don't want our panel to get weaker as the real action hots up. I feel that we have as good a team as anyone and in recent months we have strengthened our reserves as well, so that's going to be crucial."
With a championship date against Laois on May 20 and the winners due to face Wexford on June 3 there is serious potential to reach a Leinster semi-final and prolong their good spell of form.
"We've been on a lovely roll but that spell will tell a lot about where we really are. All I'll say is I think we're better prepared for games like that now," says Sheridan.
Had they got rid of Ryan when he was under fire there is little chance they would be on an upward trend like they are now. Sometimes it pays not to pull the trigger too quickly.