Wicklow were made to rue a host of missed chances, as a late Robbie Smyth point for Longford condemned John Evans’ men to defeat in their 2019 O’Byrne Cup opener.
Evans named an experimental side for Saturday night’s game following injuries to the likes of Dean Healy, Kevin Murphy, and Mark Jackson. The changes had an initially positive impact, as Wicklow dominated the first half, and went into the break with a one-point lead thanks to a wonderful Gearóid Murphy goal.
However, Wicklow’s wastefulness in the first-half came back to haunt them, as Longford turned the game around and escaped with the points thanks to a beautiful late Robbie Smyth score.
A pre-match downpour and a swirling wind that persisted throughout the 70-minute runtime set the stage for a game high on missed chances and low on scores. Despite the difficult conditions, Longford made a bright start to the game, with Robbie Smyth opening the scoring inside three minutes.
While Longford got the first score of the game, it was Wicklow that had the better of the first-half proceedings. Anthony McLoughlin brought the two sides level with a free after four minutes, before giving Wicklow the lead six minutes later from another set-piece.
Wicklow were the better side in the opening 35 minutes, but they were struggling to create clear-cut opportunities in difficult weather conditions, and were made to pay just two minutes after taking the lead.
Longford’s Barry McKeon struck an innocuous shot towards Rob Lambert’s goal from the 45, only for the ball to take an awkward bounce on the turf and nestle into the back of the Wicklow goal to give Padraic Davis’ men a two-point lead against the run of play.
Wicklow’s position was made worse by their inability to take chances that came their way, with Patrick O’Connor and Mark Kenny both registering wides, before Anthony McLoughlin did the same as the first-half went into its final 20 minutes.
The opening period took a turn following the issuing of a black card to Longford’s Peter Hanley. Due to the use of the new proposed rule changes, Hanley was sent to the sin-bin, reducing Longford to 14-men.
Sensing blood in the water, Wicklow pushed to turn the game around. O’Connor, Kenny, Chris O’Brien and Ross O’Brien all put the ball wide as Wicklow climbed towards ending the half with 10 wides. With frustration continuing to build, Gearóid Murphy provided a moment of real quality to turn affairs in Wicklow’s favour.
Collecting the ball to the right of the Longford square, Murphy feigned a shot to send his marker to the floor, before another dummy presented Murphy with the chance to side-step Pat Farrell in the Longford goal and calmly put the ball into the back of the net to put Wicklow back in the lead at 1-02 to 1-01.
Both sides traded frees but it was Wicklow who went into the break with a slender one-point lead at 1-03 to 1-02.
The half-time whistle was accompanied by another spell of torrential rain which further contributed towards the troublesome winter conditions. Despite this, the second-half went ahead as planned and Longford came charging out of the blocks, although accuracy proved an issue once again.
In the space of five second-half minutes, Longford struck four wides, as well as the equalising score through Daniel Mimnagh. They continued that early momentum to take the lead through substitute Conor P. Smyth, with a quick-fire score from corner-back Darren Quinn extending that lead to two points as Wicklow were made to pay for wasting their chances in the first-half.
Shane Mooney slotted a nice score from wide on the right to reduce the deficit to one, before Robbie Smyth reinstated that two-point lead with a peach of a strike wide on the left flank — it would not be his last.
A similarly impressive score from Chris O’Brien, followed by a Rory Finn free, drew Wicklow level with 16 minutes of the game still to play, although it would take until the final few seconds for the next — and final — score to come.
The final quarter of an hour saw John Evans and Padraic Davis take advantage of rolling substitutions to empty their benches and give each player a run-out. As a result, the momentum of the game became more stunted and sporadic. Three Longford wides were answered by a pair for Wicklow as both sides struggled for scores in the sweeping wind.
Finally, with mere minutes left in the game, Robbie Smyth slotted the winning score in style.
Gathering the ball at a tight angle on the left, Smyth cut across the ball to send it flying flying over the bar for the win, kicking off Padraic Davis’ tenure as Longford boss in the best way, with Rory Finn skewing a late free wide for Wicklow.
Wicklow will look back on Saturday night with a feeling of what could have been, all the while encouraged by a performance that bodes well for the season to come.
WicklowNews Player of the Match: Robbie Smyth
Wicklow: R. Lambert; K. Kirwan, R. O’Brien, J. Snell; C. Healy, S. Mooney (0-01), D. Fitzgerald; P. O’Toole, C. McGraynor; G. Murphy (1-0), A. McLoughlin (0-03f), R. Finn (0-01f); M. Kenny, C. O’Brien (0-01), P. O’Connor.
Longford: P. Farrell; D. Quinn (0-01), B. O’Farrell, S. Donohoe; P. Lynn, M. Quinn, D. Mimnagh (0-01); D. Gallagher (0-01f), P. Hanley; N. Rabbitte, R. McEntire, B. McKeon (1-0); R. Smyth (0-03), A. Farrell, I. O’Sullivan. C.P. Smyth (0-01)