It’s back! After a long, cold and dark winter, the brightness in all of our lives will spark back into life on Friday night as the 2016 SSE Airtricity League season gets underway. The off-season saw so much change at the football club with long time servants such as Mark Salmon and Paul Hunt waving goodbye as did some big names in former Rovers duo Pat Sullivan and Stephen Rice, while the promising talents of Aymen Ben Mohamed and Gary Shaw were gobbled up by Dublin giants Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers respectively. Given those departures, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s all doom and gloom in the Midlands, however, that is far from the case as manager Tony Cousins has managed to bring in no less than eight exciting new signings to the football club. Ian Morris, Dan O’Reilly, John McKeon, Kealan Dillon, Lee Duffy, Mark Hughes, Josh O’Hanlon and Peter McGlynn all arrive at the club in the hope of at least matching last season’s sixth place achieved by “De Town” and that quest will start in earnest on Friday night with a trip to newly promoted Wexford Youths.
Shane Keegan’s Youths are sure to look at Longford’s success last season, in hope of emulating it, and what better way for the South-East club to announce their arrival on the big stage than with an opening day win over Tony Cousins charges. The bookies, at the very least, give the home side every chance of doing exactly that, with Paddy Power making the new boys on the block slight favorites, and a lot of that has to do with the fact Wexford have retained the services of, striker, Danny Furlong. Despite having only minor top flight experience with Cork City in the past, Furlong’s goal record and reputation from the First Division is sure to have opposition defences on edge this season and with somewhat of an injury crisis at the back, Longford could struggle to contain the big striker.
A lot has been made of the dilemma faced by Town boss Cousins in regards to Pat Flynn’ injury comeback and whether the former Shelbourne man will be thrown in at the deep end on Friday, having not played any pre-season matches. However, in an interview with local press during the week, Cousins appeared to suggest he would not risk throwing “Pajo” in too quickly and would rather see the centre-back ease himself back into action. With last seasons young player of the year, Rhys Gorman out of commission due to a fractured ankle, Cousins is left relying on a make-shift back four for Friday’s game and that will encourage the home crowd greatly.
However, it is the midfield battle that will decide the outcome of this crucial opening game and should Wexford fail to formulate a plan to deal with Longford’s central three, Shane Keegan’s men risk being overrun and starved of possession at Ferrycarrig Park.
Kaleem Simon is expected to be given the nod to replace the stricken Lee Duffy, who will also miss at least the opening month of the season due to ligament damage but in under-19 star Karl Chambers, there will be intense competition for that final striking position should Simon not deliver the goods.
The Youths have not had anywhere near the same lack of luck with injuries as their rivals ahead of this game, with Peter Higgins the only man set to miss out. Last season’s First Division winners went undefeated in pre-season, although some would question the standard of opposition faced. However, new signings Aidan Friel, Danny Ledwith, Paul Murphy and Matt Connor look to have settled in well at their new club and will be eager to make a lasting impression in front of what is expected to be a bumper home crowd.
With the vast majority of League of Ireland fans and professional pundits alike predicting that these two sides will be scrapping to avoid automatic relegation come October, it isn’t ridiculous at all, even at this embryonic stage to label this as a must win game for Tony Cousins Longford. Harshly or otherwise, the former Shamrock Rovers striker and Galway United manager has been installed as a short 3/1 bookmakers favorite to win the League of Ireland sack race in 2016, and while it would be silly to suggest any headlines would come out of an opening day defeat to Wexford, “De Town” boss is aware of the importance of getting off a winning mark early in order to avoid the fate Limerick FC suffered last season.
BETWEEN THE STRIPES MATCH PREDICTION: Wexford Youths 1-2 Longford Town
Referee: Robert Rogers
Assistant Referee 1: Darren Carey
Assistant Referee 2: Brian Fenlon
Fourth Official: Sean Grant