The loss of Ciaran Kilkenny is a big blow for Dublin U-21s

The Longford U-21 footballers have given the county a great lift with their wins over Westmeath (after a replay) and Laois on the path to the Leinster semi-final and while the strong Dublin side are a major step up in class, the loss of Ciaran Kilkenny is a big blow.

Kilkenny, who started in the All-Ireland senior final triumph over Mayo last year, suffered the misfortune of sustaining cruciate knee ligament damage in the early stages of the National League win over Kildare at Croke Park on Saturday night last and is ruled out for the rest of the season.

But backboned by seven other members of the current senior squad, the Dublin U-21s are still hot favourites to capture the provincial title and their other star players are Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion.

Cormac Costello, Eric Lowndes and Shane Carthy (all with senior experience) are other key figures on the current Dublin U-21 panel, along with powerful midfielder Patrick O’Higgins who will prove extremely difficult to contain, and there is fierce competition for places on the team such is their serious overall quality.

Mannion and Costello did not feature in the quarter-final against Carlow but it mattered little as Dublin (in their first championship fixture) cruised to a landslide 31-point victory (2-28 to 0-3) and they will take some stopping in the semi-final which will be played at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise on Wednesday night next (March 19th) with a 7.30pm throw-in.

Another player to watch out for on the Dublin team is corner-forward Michael Deegan, who produced a man-of-the-match performance in clocking up 1-6 (all from play) in the demolition job against Carlow. After reaching successive All-Ireland minor finals in 2011 (runners-up) and 2012 (winners), Dublin are the leading contenders for All-Ireland U-21 honours this year but team manager Dessie Farrell does not need to be reminded what happened last season and the current squad will be in a cautious frame of mind in their quest for revenge.

Longford were the complete outsiders when the counties clashed in the quarter-final at Parnell Park but sensationally beat Dublin by a single point before going on to lose against Kildare in the 2013 provincial decider.

Longford are not as strong in the U-21 grade this season on the evidence of what we have seen so far but with quality players in Robbie Smyth, James McGivney, Barry Mc Keon and Barry O’Farrell (back in action after a lengthy injury absence) there is always a ray of hope for a highly committed team who are now in bonus territory.

All the pressure is on the highly rated Dublin U-21s to live up to their big reputation and they are facing a Longford team with the benefit of three tough games behind them.