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Retiring from teaching to avoid 'ill-health' and having no fear against Gaelic football's Real Madrid

Longford football manager Denis Connerton speaks to The42 ahead of Longford’s Leinster SFC semi-final against Dublin this weekend.

IT WAS A strange experience for Longford football fans to listen into the draw for the first round of the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers without having any vested interest in the pairings.

Michael Quinn celebrates at the final whistle Mickey Quinn celebrates Longford's win over Meath in the Leinster SFC. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The open draw featured some heavyweight counties such as Tyrone and All-Ireland finalists Mayo, and despite Longford’s pedigree in the qualifiers, there was some relief attached with avoiding ties against either of those teams.

The midlanders have established a reputation for being qualifier specialists over the past decade, bringing down seemingly superior sides such as Monaghan, Down and Derry in the past. They also produced a shock result against Mayo in the 2010 All-Ireland qualifiers.

Those victories have earned Longford the unusual honour of winning nine consecutive first round qualifiers, and they would have been targeting a 10th win this year but for a victory over Meath at the end of last month, which sent them through to a first Leinster SFC semi-final since 1988.

It was Longford’s first win in the provincial competition since rallying from seven points down to defeat Offaly in 2015, and a first Leinster SFC win on home soil for manager Denis Connerton.

Barry Gilleran celebrates after the game Barry Gilleran after the final whistle in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

This is his second stint in charge of Longford, having previously held the reins between 2002 and 2004 when Longford briefly flirted with Division 1 football. The Rathcline clubman oversaw a famous victory over Kerry during that campaign, and he knows the importance of savouring these rare triumphs when they come around.

“You must appreciate certain moments in your life and inter-county footballers have a very difficult lifestyle,” he explains to The42.

“They have to give up so much to play with their county, the travel, the diets, the strength and conditioning, the coaching, analysis of this analysis of that.

“It’s a huge commitment and when they do something that they don’t do very often, you’ve got to relish that moment because those moments don’t come around too often, it’s 30 years.

I definitely won’t be around in the next 30 and maybe some of my team won’t be around so they’ve got to enjoy those moments before moving on to the next match.

“You’d love to do it more consistently, that would be our main objective. That day against Kerry [in 2004] was absolutely brilliant. We don’t play those teams very often and we sure as hell don’t beat them.”

Longford had two primary goals at the outset of this season. The first was to secure promotion to Division 2, which they failed by 24 seconds as Connerton puts it following a somewhat controversial defeat to Fermanagh.

Peadar Healy and Denis Connerton Dennis Connerton with former Cork boss Peadar Healy. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“It’s hard to believe after seven matches in the National League, it comes down to a a matter of seconds or one point,” he laments.

Securing a spot in the semi-finals of the Leinster championship was the other objective for Longford in 2018, even if it meant facing a potential clash against Jim Gavin’s all conquering Dublin side.

Incidentally, Longford’s last Leinster SFC semi-final appearance was against Dublin back in 1988, while that comeback win over Offaly three years ago sent Longford through to a date with the Dubs.

Longford were defeated on both occasions and have only ever beaten Dublin twice in their 18 previous championship meetings.

The statistics don’t favour Longford this time either, and Connerton is acutely aware of all that.

It’s a big game for us. Coming up against Dublin you really are coming up against the Real Madrid of Gaelic football, they really are an outstanding team, they’re possibly the greatest team of any era.

“We’re going up to play them in their own back yard, so it is a daunting task for us no doubt about that. We’re under no illusions of what we’re facing.

Dublin celebrate after the game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Everyone is trying to beat Dublin and very few teams are having success with it. Their bench is so strong, their manager is an incredibly brilliant person. Their strength, their power, their pace is immense.

“How much do we realistically play Dublin and how often do we play in Croke Park? We don’t often get that opportunity so it’s something that we must look forward to.

You must take on the challenge, you must enjoy the challenge. You try to get the best out of yourself and that you’re not too nervous when these moments present themselves. People expect you to get beaten but have no fear of that. It’s a great opportunity.

“We’re treating it as positively as we possibly can and all we’re looking for is to go out and to perform to the best of our ability. And if that’s not good enough that’s not good enough and we’ll just have to live with that.”

Much has changed in the landscape of Gaelic Football during the years between Connerton’s two terms of inter-county management. Even the addition of strength and conditioning coaches to the set-up is something he has had to adapt to.

He has also discovered that the allure of playing for Longford isn’t as prominent as it once was, after 40% of players declined the invitation to play for the Blue and Gold in 2016.

“Times have definitely changed and attitudes of players have changed,” says Connerton. “They have more priorities in their life and they’re trying to do things while they’re at the age to do it and I can’t blame them for wanting to.

“It’s just that high volume of 40%, if it had been five or six percent I’d have said ok but 40% is a lot of players not playing with their home county. It’s not something you can do forever. There’s only a few years where you can actually do it.

“But I just went ahead with the players that I had and was fortunate to have such good players available to me. They’re very committed and I must say I totally enjoy working with those guys because they’re so committed.”

Beyond his duties to Longford GAA, Connerton recently decided to retire from primary school teaching after spending 25 years as a teaching principal in Fermoyle NS, which is based in his local town of Lanesboro.

He stresses that he could have continued to balance his time between the two commitments, and credits his backroom team which includes 2010 Leinster minor winning boss Ciarán Fox, for their input in helping him run the Longford team with efficiency.

But while he still dabbles in substitute teaching from time to time, it was always his intention to leave the profession at some point.

After taking some time out to reflect over the Christmas period, he felt now was the right time to go.

I felt if I kept working and working, I might run into ill-health at some time, and I felt pretty good last year so I just said that I had put in a good bit of time here [in school] and that I’d just take a little breather.

“I just felt it was time to move on and let somebody else take over.

“You’re well able to cope it’s just you’re busy and haven’t got much personal time to yourself. You’re either going to some place or coming back from some place but you’re never at any place. You’re just busy and you’d be worried that you’re rushing and rushing to places.

“You have to take care when you’re on roads when you’re travelling and there’s a lot of phone calls. You just have to watch yourself and I felt that I was too busy. I took a breather because there has to be a bit of quality to your life.”

Connerton coached the school football team throughout those 25 years, including the years when he was the Longford boss. He always endeavoured to treat both jobs with the same level of meticulous precision and organisation, in order to enable all of his players to achieve their ambitions.

Liam Connerton celebrates at the end of the game Liam Connerton Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

Some of his former pupils have passed through the Longford dressing door under his watch over the years, and his son Liam is part of the current panel.

Bringing the fight to the All-Ireland champions in the cauldron of Croke Park on Sunday [Throw-in, 4pm] would be an amazing way to round off that journey.

“Liam’s been very unfortunate with injuries right throughout his career and he’s got great resilience to keep coming back from all these injuries and to keep himself in great shape. He’s a very determined young guy and he’s been very determined from a young age

“I take great pride in that and the progression that these players have made. I have been fortunate right throughout my life to have encountered fabulous footballers and it’s wonderful to see those lads move on.

“I met a lot of young kids coming in at four of years of age and to see them progress in national school and meet them later on as adults and be involved with them still gives me a great sense of pride and fulfillment that I have done something in my life that’s decent.”

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