Almost a year to the day since their last meeting, Laois will face up to Glenn Ryan and his upwardly mobile Longford side this Sunday afternoon, a date with Wexford the reward for the victors.
At last Thursday night’s open evening for players, supporters and the media, the Laois squad looked relaxed and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to interact with the kids who made the trip in to see them. That, however, is probably the last warm welcome they will receive on a football field for the foreseeable future, because Pearse Park this weekend will be a much different proposition.
Laois travel with the favourites tag loosely attached to them, but last year’s meeting between the sides is sure to see to it that there is no complacency in Justin McNulty’s troops. Even avoiding for complacency isn’t enough though, because Laois will have to have improved from last year’s game for no other reason than Longford have grown more as a team in that time frame. A similar performance to last year won’t be enough, Laois simply have to be better.
It was a widely held belief before the leagues began that playing in Division 1 would ultimately benefit Laois, and on some levels it will. They won two games and competed well against Kerry down in Killarney, where they probably should have won. On the down side, they lost five games, and for whatever benefits there are in playing games at a higher speed and standard, the damage defeats do, at any level, are never easy to shake off.
Longford have had the opposite experience. They went through Division 3 without losing a game, winning seven, including the final against Wexford, and drawing one game, against Tipperary. It may have been Division 3, but both counties’ league campaigns have seen them end up in the same Division for next year, so on the face of it, they are well matched.
Home advantage tips the scales slightly in Longford’s favour, but it brings its own pressures too. With the form they are currently in, Longford supporters will be expecting a win, and for a team which hasn’t challenged at the top of the Leinster championship for a while now, expectation is a new and difficult challenge for them to deal with.
From Laois’ point of view, the problems they need to rectify are the same ones they had last year and throughout the league. An over-commitment of men in defence leaves them short of players in attack, and they suffer both ends of the field as a result.
There isn’t enough pressure put on the man in possession until he crosses the halfway line, and too often he already has his pass picked out, or has started a move which will scythe its way through the Laois rearguard. Pressing the man in possession further up the field would be a step in the right direction for this team, but they have a worrying tendency to retreat into their own half.
As stated earlier, the problem this creates is a disjointed forward line, where Padraig Clancy at full-forward can often be left with no support within 40 yards of him. Clancy is good, but he can’t work miracles, so a bit more intelligence in attack is badly needed.
Longford have some top class talent in attack, and inviting them to attack only allows them to play to their strengths. Laois can’t realistically pressure the Longford defence all game long because they would collapse from exhaustion long before the end, but what they can do is hold their own possession a bit wiser, and work scores a bit better too.
Against Kerry, Laois hit 14 wides, many a result of poor decision making rather than poor shooting. Not every shot at goal is a scoring opportunity, sometimes it’s just a shot in desperation, and they can be damaging to the mind as well as the scoreboard. It may sound a bit simplistic, but the team needs to recognise what is a good opportunity and what isn’t. The pattern repeated itself against Down, with shots taken from the wings, from 40+ yards out or under intense pressure feeding into the growing frustration.
Padraig Clancy’s placement at full-forward gives Laois the chance to work the ball closer to goal, where they, statistically at least, have a much better chance of scoring. They need to start feeding Clancy more regularly, and even a bit more cleverly, if they are to break the current trend they have of only getting between nine and 13 scores a game.
The bookies have Laois as the slightest of favourites, and that’s understandable, given they were in Division 1. The players and management will know, however, that there is very little between the teams, and while Longford have been playing superbly this year, Laois probably have the most room for improvement between the two.
How much they improve depends on what has been done since the end of the league, and what frame of mind they come into the game with. Longford is an intimidating place to play football, no doubt about that, but the competitive side of the players will love going there. Laois know how good Longford are but, crucially, they know they can beat them too. A win is needed, but a performance comes first. If they can deliver that, hopefully everything else falls into place.