WICKLOW ARE still unbeaten in Division 4 of the National Football League and still have promotion and a place in the final there for the taking.
However, after a draw with Longford at Aughrim on Sunday that task is made that little bit more difficult. Now they must win all their remaining matches but more particularly the match against Roscommon which will also be played in Aughrim.
This was a game they could and should have won after grabbing goals at crucial stages in both halves. There was a wind blowing down the Aughrim pitch but strangely enough both teams appeared to play better against it.
Wicklow led by 1-5 to 0-6 at half-time after playing against the wind but that was mainly due to a goal from a penalty in the 31st minute. Jacko Dalton fielded a free from newcomer Austin O'Malley and fed the ball to the on-running James Stafford who was brought down in the box and the captain Leighton Glynn made no mistake with the spot-kick.
It was in the last quarter that Wicklow almost let this game slip from their grasp. With 20 minutes of the second half gone, they were leading by a clear five points with all the advantages - the wind behind them and playing into the town goal. In the end Micko and his men had to settle for a point while Glenn Ryan was more than happy to get out of Aughrim unbeaten.
It was Longford that opened the scoring with a point by wing-back Shane Mulligan. Austin O'Malley had the first point of the game for Wicklow in the sixth minute to level the scores. The Mayo man then won a free which Tony Hannon pointed to give Wicklow the lead and a good point by Seánie Furlong put two between the sides. Wicklow then went ten minutes without a score in which time Longford drew level with points by Seán McCormack.
Tony Hannon had what was probably the point of the match when he flicked the ball off the ground on the right wing and sent it over the bar to restore Wicklow's lead in the 26th minute. Longford again drew level with a point from midfielder Bernard McElvanney but Seánie Furlong pointed a free to pull one back from Wicklow. But then came the magic moment of the first half and that link-up between O'Malley, Jacko and Stafford to claim the penalty. Longford closed the first half scoring with a point by David Barden to leave Wicklow in the strong position of leading by 1-5 to 0-6 after playing against the wind.
If Micko was a happy man at that stage, then he must have been over the moon when Wicklow grabbed their second goal in the sixth minute of the second half. Seánie Furlong drove in a mighty line ball that looked to be going over the bar.
However, Longford keeper Damien Sheridan got a fist to the ball but Jacko Dalton was on hand to blast the rebound to the roof of the net. That left Wicklow leading by 2-5 to 0-7 and a fair sized crowd in Aughrim were on their toes.
While Longford pulled back a point in the tenth minute, Seánie Furlong pointed a free for a foul on O'Malley. The Mayo man kicked the next point of the match in the 50th minute and again Wicklow were to go ten minutes without adding another score.
In that time Longford had started their fightback in earnest. In the 56th minute McCormack pointed another free and Paul Barden added a second point before James Stafford set up O'Malley for a Wicklow point. Then things went really pear-shaped for the home side.
Our backs were under severe pressure and conceding frees. McCormack kicked over his fifth point of the match and then big midfielder McElvanney blasted the Wicklow net and the sides were level with eight minutes still to go.
Wicklow rallied strongly and in the 65th minute Jacko Dalton and Seánie Furlong did the spade work for a great point by Leighton Glynn and Wicklow were in front again. Longford went back on the attack, won another free for McCormack and the sides were level once more. Tony Hannon was wide off a kickable free on the left hand side of the goals while McCormack missed an even easier free from in front of the post. So whatever the mentors may have thought, a draw was probably a fair enough result to this match. Wicklow finished with 14 men when Paddy Dalton received a second yellow card five minutes from time.
One question that had to be asked was fitness a factor in that last quarter? Jimmy Whittle, who has a lot to do with the training side of this team, said, ‘probably, yes. we are gearing our team to reach peak fitness for the first round of the championship and on this occasion Longford may have had a slight edge’. Man of the Match? An extremely difficult question. While Wicklow had a fair number of players who contributed a lot to getting this draw, none of them stood out from the pack. Stephen ‘Chester’ Kelly had his best game so far at full-back but he was responsible for some of the frees.
Darren Hayden as always covered acres of ground, handled an amount of ball and had to be in the running. James Stafford did some great fielding but not all of his deliveries were spot on. Austin O'Malley made a very promising start and at this stage looks a good prospect to make the number eleven jersey his own but he did drift out of the action at times.
John Paul Dalton was another to stake a claim for the top rating. He supplied the vital pass brilliantly to win the penalty and was on hand to blast home the second goal himself as well as covering every inch of the park but he did raise Micko's heckles by taking frees out of defence which he was told not to do.
Seánie Furlong had a very sound game at fullforward and gave Barry Gilleran a torrid time. In the end we were forced to put the names of the top contenders into a hat and big James Stafford was the man to come out of the draw.
John Flynn had his usual sound game in goal without getting any chance to star. Pádraig Higgins keeps improving at corner-back but Ciarán Hyland still hasn't reached his peak. Paddy Dalton, who found himself once again in a new position, adapted well while Brian McGrath in his first game of the year for Wicklow did a good enough job in the centre of the defence.
Rory Finn had a good first half but was substituted after he picked up a yellow card entering the last quarter. Tony Hannon is still fighting to get back to full fitness. Paul Earls, while he didn't score, looked more at home in the forward position and while the captain Leighton Glynn converted the penalty expertly and kicked over one good point, he is still not playing the captain's part that we expect he will do when championship time comes round.
MAN OF THE MATCH: James Stafford.
Wicklow's Rory Finn gets his pass away despite being bottled up by the Longford defence.