Monday 24 June 2019

'You can't just change everything in a week or two because you're playing Dublin'

Longford boss Connerton insists his team will stick to their guns despite huge task

Longford manager Denis Connerton and his team are facing a huge challenge on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Longford manager Denis Connerton and his team are facing a huge challenge on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The gods stand accused of having a perverse sense of humour when a county that has waited 30 years to reach a provincial semi-final gets paired with one of the best teams in football history.

That's the hand Longford have been dealt, but far from cursing their luck they are enthusiastically embracing the massive challenge coming their way against Dublin next Sunday.

Outsiders looking in on what recent Leinster Championships suggest is a mismatch are nonetheless intrigued by one key question: will Longford go all-defensive or continue with a more open style which returned an average of over 17 points per game in Division 3?

"You can't just change everything in a week or two just because you're playing Dublin. We've been working towards playing the game a certain way since last December, so we're not going to abandon it now.

"Playing Dublin is tough enough without asking players to change from what they have been doing all along. You can tweak things a bit from game to game but that's as far as it goes," said manager Denis Connerton.


Still, this is Dublin, All-Ireland four-in-a-row-seekers, who began their championship campaign with a 23-point win over Wicklow last Sunday week.

That margin of victory isn't new to them, having beaten Westmeath by 31 points last year and Longford by 27 points in 2015. Their 16 Leinster games since Jim Gavin took over as manager have been won by an average of over 16 points, so it looks a very daunting prospect for Longford.

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"Of course it's a massive test but isn't that what you want? It's a challenge and an opportunity rolled into one. You want to measure yourself against the best and we'll certainly be doing that on Sunday against one of the top teams from any era. You can't replicate what you'll face against Dublin," said Connerton.

Fermanagh's win over Monaghan last Sunday may have a completely different context but it was still very encouraging for Longford to see a Division 3 side, who finished only two points ahead of them three months ago, beat Division 1 opposition.

Indeed, Longford were very unlucky not to beat Fermanagh to the second promotion slot after losing by a controversial point in the final round. A draw would have secured promotion for Longford, who were without highly influential defender Michael Quinn.

He will be central figure in Longford's defensive effort on Sunday as Longford bid to produce one of the biggest shocks in championship history.

Connerton believes that their first priority must be to get the basics right.

"If you don't do that, you have no chance. We know we have to play out of our skins. We gave the ball away too often against Meath the last day - if we do that again, we will really punished," he said.

There's a vast difference between Meath and Dublin so obviously there are fears among Longford supporters that their side could be swamped unless they withdraw in large numbers behind the '45' metre line.

Nobody has more experience in recent times of the gap between Dublin and the rest of Leinster than Tom Cribbin, who plotted Westmeath's resistance against them in each of the last three seasons.

He concentrated heavily on defensive solidity in the 2015 and 2016 Leinster finals, but after doing well in the first half of both games, Westmeath were overrun, losing by 13 and 15 points respectively.

Under pressure to change approach in last year's semi-final, Cribbin opted for a more open style. It backfired and, after trailing by 13 points at half-time, they lost 4-29 to 0-10.

"I think counties like Westmeath and Longford have to set up defensively against Dublin. I'm certainly not telling Denis what to do but, from my experience, it's the best option. Dublin will rip you apart if you go man-on-man," said Cribbin.

He identifies Dublin's pace and athleticism as the two dynamic factors that mark them apart from the rest.

"Mayo have been best equipped to counteract them over the last few years and Kerry are heading in that direction now but it's different for others, especially for teams down the divisions.

"Dublin have so many players with incredible pace and brilliant skill that trying to match them man-on-man is very hard. You might have nine of ten players who can do it but they have more than 20. All the players coming through have much the same qualities because they have been coached that way," he said. Cribbin's defensive set-up helped restrict Dublin to a four-point lead at half-time in 2015 and to a point at the same stage a year later but they couldn't sustain it.

"Our counter-attacking game wasn't quite good enough. We were doing well with it 2016 before we lost Ray Connellan with an injury. To have any chance against Dublin, you have to get your defence well set up and develop a quick counter-attacking game. It's not easy," added Cribbin.

Longford have had only two weeks to tweak their approach for a test that will bear little resemblance to what they experienced against Meath.

Cribbin said their win over the Royals was fully merited and that Fermanagh's win over Monaghan last Sunday will further boost their confidence.

"Hopefully, they will bring the whole of Longford to Croke Park on Sunday. The important thing is that they get a good start and stay in the game as long as possible. Confidence can drain very quickly if Dublin get a run on you as we (Westmeath) discovered last year."

Several of the Longford team were aboard three years ago when they fell eight points behind against Dublin before registering their first score.

"We've got to be ready for a Dublin onslaught but we've got to think about our own game too and get as much of it right as we possibly can and see where it takes us. That's all you can ask of any team," said Connerton.

Longford have only beaten Dublin only twice from 18 attempts in the championship, winning Leinster quarter-finals in 1968 and 1970.

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