A new beginning beckons

December 29, 2006

Brian Kavanagh
Year after year, it had been the same old story for the Longford footballers. But not in 2006 as ace attacker Brian Kavanagh is happy to acknowledge. Last summer Longford made it into the last 12 of the All-Ireland for the first time since 1968 and locals say the county's finest have no longer any fear. A few weeks on since its completion and the 2006 championship season is being viewed down in the midlands as the year Luke Dempsey's men wove, not a thread but, a rope of confidence through the heart of Longford football. It was almost August before Dempsey's dynamos were forced to call it quits in the championship. So many days in the sun, so much potential revealed. These days, county attacker Brian Kavanagh has been recognised around town by fair-weather football fans and afficionados like never before. And he doesn't mind admitting that he's enjoying the limelight. "It's great. There's been a tremendous feedback from our championship run," he says. The team has got great publicity all year and it's probably an awful long time since a Longford squad was held in such high esteem by the people of the county. Being on the television a couple of times has done wonders for the exposure of Longford football. Definitely in other years, the county team wasn't noticed nearly as much." Just like Longford, Brian sprung into the mind's eye of football fans north, south, east and west following his powerful performances through the Leinster SFC and thereafter in the All-Ireland qualifiers. His was a season to behold; Longford's a season to remember as the one that lit up the qualifiers like no other team managed to do. According to their lightning quick corner-forward, Longford remain work-in-progress. "We're still a coming team; we haven't arrived at our best yet. "The squad is made up of an awful lot of the lads that played against Galway when we won the All-Ireland Vocational schools title in 2003. "Fourteen of the team that played under 21 this year are eligible again in 2007 and the pressure they'll be putting on the lads on the senior team can only benefit everyone." Reflecting on what was a tumultous year for all with a sky blue hue north west of the pale, the Ardagh St. Patrick's clubman says he will never forget meeting Kerry in round four of the qualifiers when, sadly, the team met its waterloo. "We lost but didn't let ourselves down and I think the supporters would go along with that. What stands out for me looking back on that day in Killarney was reception that around 8,000 Longford fans gave us as we ran out for the kickabout before the throw-in. "Most of them travelled the guts of 150 miles which showed tremendous loyalty and commitment. "The big thing for us was that we didn't want to flop on such a stage but after having played Dublin and Derry we knew what we were capable of and we didn't lack for confidence or heart, especially after seeing how Dublin did after our game with them. "It seems like our man Kavanagh epitomises the 'new' Longford which has a swagger to its game, an innate belief that they're as good as the best around and the ambition to match their skills, pace and strength which courses through every sector of the team. In fairness, Longford football's renaissance has been pretty well sign-posted. A hugely impressive Fr. Manning Cup (under 16) triumph in 2001 signalled the advent of a wave of confident, skilful and ambitious young footballers - the now 20 year old Kavanagh among them. And while Louth shocked them in the 2003 Leinster MFC, their star continued in the ascendant with the winning of the 2005 Hastings Cup. Add in a brace of Leinster under 21 semi-final and another couple of under 21 final placings and the picture of emerging talent becomes all the clearer. So when the bulk of those players were carefully stitched into a team already embroidered with such 'old' hands as Damien Sheridan and the Barden brothers, there was something definitely cooking inland. Under Luke Dempsey's watch, there has been a vivid sense of bonhomie built up about the camp and this camaraderie has been manifest in the team's improved performances over the duration of 2006. The past year represented Brian's first full year with the Longford seniors and he freely confesses that sliding up the scales from under 21 to seniors did require a certain adjustment. "It was a huge step-up. "The difference in physicality between the grades is very noticeable and the quality of ball that you get as a forward is much better. Luckily for a forward, Luke (Dempsey) encourages the lads to let the ball into the forwards as quickly as possible which suits me!" Of course, Brian didn't collect any medals for all his and Longford's heroics in the past year. Among all the highlights was the low point last spring when Laois triumphed in the Leinster Under 21 decider. "It was very disappointing, especially after we had beaten Kildare - the defending champions - in the semi-final. "That Laois team had won the All-Ireland minor title three years ago and were supposed to be the favourites but we beat them but then Kildare beat us by two points which was a real sickener," explains Brian who featured at full-forward on the Longford under 21 team of 2006. One of the stars of St. Patrick's run to the Longford intermediate final of 2005 (along with county colleague Liam Keenan), Brian says he wasn't as surprised as most people in Longford and further afield that things panned out the way they did in '06. Even though Longford's lot looked a pretty dim one after their 19 points defeat to Dublin in the 2005 Leinster SFC quarter-final? "We were missing a lot of players for the game with Dublin last year; fellas like Trevor Smullen and Liam Keenan. "In fairness, Dublin were phenomenal that day. But at the start of 2006, I thought 'why couldn't it be Longford's year'. Westmeath won the Leinster title in 2004 I knew we weren't that far off their standard. "At least we were knew we were nowhere near as bad as the 19 points defeat suggested." A year later and it was very nearly Dublin who were making all the headlines for the wrong reasons when the two sides clashed again in the provincial championship on June 4th at Pearse Park. "We played some great stuff against Dublin and should have beaten them," Brian says of the 0-13 to 1-12 setback for Longford. In the dressing-room after the match, we felt we had short-changed ourselves and that we had let them off the hook. "We played very well but all the talk in the media after the match was about Dublin and how poorly they had played. "I suppose the papers do that to sell papers but it was very annoying for us." Longford retained their focus though and handed Waterford a 1-16 to 1-9 thumping in round one of the qualifiers. "The win over Waterford was another boost because they had beaten Cavan in the last round of the league, in Cavan, and only lost to Kerry in the championship by eight points so we reckoned it wasn't a bad scalp at all." So what was the side doing particularly well on the field of play? "We were mentally strong but very fit as well and we had built up our stamina to the extent that our second half performances were our best." On July 1st, Longford hosted Declan Browne's Tipperary in round two of the qualifiers and again impressed as they sauntered to a 1-23 to 1-10 win. Brian, a right handful at 6'2" and fighting fit 13 stone, hands much of the credit for the win over the Premier County to his defensive colleagues. "The backs were great but, overall, there was a great cohesion about the team and good linking-up between the different areas of the team. "Tipp had won the Tommy Murphy Cup the year before and were said to be on the up. "But we played well and didn't give them much of a look-in." With Tipp out of the way, the Longford momentum took a quantum leap as the media belatedly acknowledged the team as the surprise packets of the qualifiers. Their new moniker would be suitably gilded with a terrific win over ambitious Derry on July 15th in round three. Longford's 1-16 to 2-12 win shook football's hierarchy. Even allowing for Longford's gung-ho approach to the game, it was widely thought at that time that Longford's odyssey was about to come unstuck at the hands of the Oak Leafers. "Like most games we played, we went in as underdogs and rightly so. "They had beaten Tyrone in Omagh, holding them scoreless in the first half on the way to winning the game. The fact that Paul (Barden) landed a free from over the 45 metre line added to the drama of the game. "We showed a lot of character to come from behind on a couple of occasions. Beating them in front of our own fans was probably the most enjoyable game of the year for me. "The supporters were very vocal and there was a terffic carnival-type atmosphere at the match which was really brillant." All good things have to come to an end, it is said, and Kerry's 4-11 to 1-11 victory, eventually burst Longford's bubble. "Things just didn't click for us but we didn't disgrace ourselves and I don't think we let anyone down." And what of 2007? The pressure will surely be on to at least match the exploits of 2006? "We'll just have to deal with it. "The league will come around first and it would be nice to get promotion but the important thing is that we get a settled team, build up our fitness and make sure that we approach every match with confidence in the belief that we can win every time we go out."

Most Read Stories