It’s 31 years since Offaly and Longford previously met at Croke Park and, on that occasion, in 1984, Offaly were inspired by the likes of Matt Connor, Martin Furlong and Brendan Lowry, all GAA icons.
Chances are those players wouldn’t have even stopped for a celebratory drink on the way home from a Division 4 final win. Still, these are different times and Lowry’s son, golfer Shane, summed it up well with a Tweet after Saturday’s win, referencing the ‘dark few years’ they’ve recently endured. There’s still some road to travel yet but Offaly at least have momentum on their side. After carving Longford apart with an incisive second-half performance, they have two destinations in their sights now; O’Connor Park and Croke Park.
In just under three weeks’ time, Offaly and Longford will meet again in the Leinster championship, the reward for victory being a date with Dublin back at GAA headquarters.
Now if Offaly were to win those two games they would be thinking the same sort of ambitious thoughts as the team of the early 1980s though it’s all about small steps.
“It’s great to get a win up here and hopefully we do get the opportunity to come back and play Dublin,” said manager Pat Flanagan. “If we do, if we can play as well as we played against Longford, and add another 10 or 20%, then who knows. Dublin are an extremely and exceptionally good football team, they’re going to be there or thereabouts in the Championship but this is really good preparation for us. We can’t ask for any more right now.”
Longford had held the Indian sign over Offaly, beating them in the last two league campaigns as well as last summer’s Championship. But Offaly led virtually from pillar to post this time around and outscored their midlands rivals by 3-9 to 1-6 in the second-half. It is that memory that will both inspire Offaly and motivate Longford in the coming weeks ahead of their Championship summit.
Asked if Offaly may simply have poked the bear with this performance, Flanagan shrugged. “Well you would imagine there’ll be a reaction. We had a bit of fire in our belly I suppose after what happened down in Longford a few weeks ago when they beat us. Some of the decisions didn’t go our way and we felt a little bit aggrieved by it but it does motivate you for sure so they’ll have that aspect now.
“Championship is going to be a different thing. Longford are going to come with a different mentality, the same as what we had on Saturday night. And they are a good football team, you don’t turn them over and expect them not to hurt so they will be coming at us with everything in three weeks. We have to step up and be ready. Everyone might think this was a good performance but we do have to be better again.”
Facing Dublin at Croke Park is a dubious reward for whoever wins the rematch. Flanagan was in charge of the Westmeath side that got hammered by 16 points by Dublin in the 2013 Championship.
“I suppose in the past the gap wasn’t that big in terms of being a lower league team going into the Championship,” said Flanagan. “Dublin are that step further ahead than everyone else now I feel. But look, my aim when I got this job, and I keep saying it, was to get out of Division 4 and then get out of Division 3 and be in the top two, three teams in Leinster in the next two or three years. That’s where we’re aiming to be.
“If we can close the gap on Dublin, then so be it but being realistic we still have to get over Longford in three weeks’ time.”
Offaly took a 1-7 to 0-6 half-time lead on Saturday evening and were aided by 10 wides from Jack Sheedy’s side. But it was the second-half when they really came alive, evoking memories of the old days as they weaved some exciting moves and picked off the goals and points. And each goal was somehow better than the previous one with Man of the Match Graham Guilfoyle releasing a bullet to the left corner of Longford’s net following full-back Paul McConway’s earlier roofed effort.
Top scorer William Mulhall capped a fine game with the fourth goal seven minutes from time, rifling to the corner after a well worked moved. And what of Offaly’s defending? They leaked just 1-12, 1-5 of that from play having finished their Division 4 campaign with the best defensive record. “We were compared to Donegal after the first couple of games, we wound up as the lowest conceding team over the four divisions,” said Flanagan.
W Mulhall (1-5, two frees), N Dunne (1-3), N McNamee (0-4), P McConway and G Guilfoyle (1-0 each), B Allen (0-2, one free), N Smith and A Sullivan (0-1 each).
B Kavanagh (0-6, five frees), S Doyle (1-0), F McGee (one free) and D Masterson (0-2 each), M Quinn and R McNerney (one free) (0-1 each).
P Cunningham for Carroll (57), N Bracken for Allen (64), E Rigney for B Darby (65), C Donohoe for N Darby (67), K Mullally for W Mulhall (69), J Evans for McNamee (70).
S Doyle for McKeon (h/t), C Farrelly for Williams (45), A Rowan for Smyth (57), D Reynolds for McGee (57), F Battrim for Foy (67), P Gill for McNerney (67).
N Cullen (Fermanagh).