It’s a Valentines date with the Champions of Ireland for Longford Town on Tuesday night as Alan Mathews men play out their penultimate pre-season fixture. It’s game number five of pre-season for the Midlanders, who suffered defeat in their most recent outing on Friday away to Premier Division side Bohemians. Despite the positive of a first senior goal for local winger Dan Beya, a 3-1 defeat coupled with injury concern for Don Cowan meant it was a disappointing night at the AUL for the First Division title hopefuls. Having enjoyed back to back wins over top flight opponents in Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps off the back of an impressive performance in defeat against Bray Wanderers, Friday’s defeat is the first real bump in the road Longford have faced in the build up to the new campaign. However, Alan Mathews will be quick to point to the extremely youthful back four which lined out against Keith Long’s Bohemians and it is expected the likes of Stephen Walsh, Noel Haverty and Aidan Friel will come back in for the visit of Stephen Kenny’s “Lillywhites”.
In a clear case of the haves against the have nots, Dundalk come into this game fresh from a warm weather training camp in Spain which included two friendly matches. Despite defeat to Deportivo’s “B” team Dundalk bounced back with a comfortable victory over a local Spanish side the day before they returned home, with new signings such as Michael Duffy getting some valuable playing time alongside his new club mates. Again the fact Dundalk could afford to part with a reported €10,000 for the services of Duffy, who arrives from Celtic in Scotland, goes to show the gulf in resources at Longford and the County Louth club. Last season’s beaten FAI Cup finalists will also have the advantage of having played a competitive match in recent days thanks to their entertaining 4-2 victory over non-league St.Pat’s CY in the Leinster Senior Cup. Longford Town today learned they would face Dublin side Firhouse Clover in the same competition after the Leinster Senior League side overcame Evergreen FC at Tallaght IT. Whether Alan Mathews men can squeeze that fixture in before the opening league trip to Tolka Park remains to be seen, although it does seem unlikely given “De Town’s” final friendly is scheduled to take place exactly one week before the Shelbourne game on February 24th.
Getting back to Tuesday’s visitors, while Dundalk have lost the services of Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan to Preston North End, they have been busy in the transfer market with no less than six new arrivals at Oriel Park, which is also currently receiving a new plastic pitch. Conor Clifford, Michael Duffy, Steven Kinsella, Sean Hoare, Jamie McGrath and Niclas Vemmelund have all linked up with the Champions and will be eager to use games such as this to show Stephen Kenny they are more than capable of playing a key role in this seasons hunt for four in a row.
Tuesday’s clash with the Champions will bring about mixed memories for LTFC supporters as it was the “Lillywhites” who ‘officially’ relegated the club last season, although the writing had been on the wall for months beforehand. Elsewhere, there will be a few wry smiles from the few that travelled to Oriel on the night Longford claimed an incredible scoreless draw, one of only two teams that season (2015) to stop Dundalk from scoring. There was also a narrow 1-0 opening day defeat at the same venue that season, with only a world class Gary Rodgers save denying “De Town” a point as Gary Shaw went close with the final kick of the game. 2016 saw the Red and Black of Longford reach their first FAI Cup semi-final in nine-years and while the fantastic colourful images of a huge Town following to Oriel Park can still be seen online, the eventual fall out of “flare-gate” would soon sour the achievements of a sixth-place finish for Tony Cousins side that season, who bowed out of the cup following a negative display in that semi-final.
Thankfully there is a better atmosphere in the air around the City Calling Stadium ahead of the new season with the clubs most successful ever manager Alan Mathews keen to get the clubs loyal supporters back onside as many felt disillusioned during the Tony Cousins era. Locally the progression of a number of youth team players has gone down very well with Dan Beya, Tristan Noak Hoffmann, Darragh Doherty and Aodh Dervin flying the Longford flag but with the new season just around the corner it is now “squeaky bum” time for any players on the fringes of the squad to lock down a starting place for the “Shels” encounter. Even positions on the bench will be hard to come by for some this season due to the size and quality of this Longford Town squad. Unless there is drastic change within the next fortnight, it appears the back four is all but locked down with Aidan Friel, Stephen Walsh, Noel Haverty and Daniel O’Reilly the first choice preferences of Alan Mathews and his backroom staff. In Midfield the only area that may be up for debate at present is in the central area with Gavin Boyne and Dean Zambra going head to head in a bid to partner captain Kevin O’Connor. Meanwhile the clubs all-time leading goalscorer David O’Sullivan appears to be doing just enough to hold off the challenge of new signing Enda Curran, who is yet to register in pre-season while the impressive Cody Mulhall offers Mathews something different from the bench. That just leaves the number one jersey to decide with Paul Skinner and Jack Brady in a real ding-dong battle to take to the field against their former employer Shelbourne.
With the 2017 seasons curtain raiser the Presidents Cup taking place just three days after Tuesday’s friendly, Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny may look to give some of his younger talent some invaluable first-team experience against the club he lead to promotion in his first job in management. The Longford legend is sure to receive a warm welcome back to the house many credit him with building and it will be interesting to see how the likes of Carlton Ubaezuonu fair against a Longford team full of experienced pros. Carlton Ubaezuonu was one of six under-19’s players thrown in to action against St.Pat’s CY and “King Kenny”, as he is affectionately known by the Oriel Park faithful, is said to have been impressed by their efforts in that 4-2 victory. While it is unlikely that anyone other than the highly rated Ubaezuonu may break into the senior ranks this season, Kenny will be keen to show his youngsters that long-term opportunities to progress within the league are there, with Michael O’Connor and Georgie Poynton two of the most recent examples to come through the DFC youth ranks.
PREDICTION: Longford Town 0-0 Dundalk