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Football: A GOLDEN GRAHAM; Longford T v Shamrock R Gartland aims to go to Town in Rovers cup tie.

Byline: Garry DOYLE

IT was over a year ago that Graham Gartland returned from Britain wondering if he still had the stomach to play.

Depressed by his treatment at Barnsley and Dundee United, Gartland's spirits were low. He wondered if he would carry on - but that was then.

Now, after establishing himself in the Longford Town team - in preference to three Irish underage internationals - Gartland is being talked about as a future club captain.

By any standards the turnaround is sensational, especially when you throw in two bouts of surgery to the story. There is little doubt that Gartland is Longford's comeback kid.

And so tonight when the cup holders face Shamrock Rovers in the third round at Flancare Park, he will be one of their main men. How times change.

Gartland said: "When you are cup holders, you tend to be a bit possessive about the trophy. You tend to give more of yourself.

"No one wants to go out of the cup easily, but as holders it's different. We don't want to be tagged with the one-season-wonders label. We want to go as far as we can.

"It wasn't until the final last year that I realised how big the competition was.

"Winning the FAI Cup was almost as big as an All-Ireland for Longford - mainly due to the fact that the club had never done it before."

While that collective story has been retold time after time, Gartland's tale remains unknown.

Now 20, he spent three years at Barnsley before falling out with manager Steve Parkin.

"I had the chance to go to Leicester then. Instead I chose Dundee United - the biggest mistake I could have made," he said.

"Everything about the club was poor. The standard of the football, the facilities, and the way I was treated.

"It had a dreadful impact on me as a player and a person. I became selfish and lost my way. My confidence went."

After repairing his hernia earlier in the season - he has now helped repair Longford's season - Gartland has helped Town to wins over Waterford and St Pat's.

"It suits us when we have to play backs against the wall football," he said. "Games we had to win forced us to move up through the gears. That is what we'll have to do against Rovers."

Ah, Rovers - the glamour club of Irish soccer - whose attraction has failed to dip despite the hard times of recent years.

With any hope of league success gone, their attention has turned to the cup as a last means of hope.

Manager Liam Buckley said: "Realistically we won't win the league, hence the increased importance of this game to us.

"Yet there is merit in us finishing third in the league which is within our grasp.

"But as a club we want to be in Europe and in the cup we are four games away from short-circuiting our way into Europe - we'll take that.

"But tonight's game is a hard one. Longford have a big squad and a depth of quality. We'll have to be at our best."

Yet they will be without Paul Caffrey, Derek Tracey, Liam Kelly, Gavin McDonnell and Shane Robinson. Town's Pip Keogh is injured.

But Russell Payne, the new Rovers signing, has been cleared to sign for the club after struggling to gain a work permit.

He should make his debut next week.

CAPTION(S):

HIGH HAND: Graham Gartland at Longford Town; TEST: Liam Buckley
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 21, 2004
Words:577
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