After months of exciting off-season business at both Longford Town and Shelbourne, the big kick-off is now upon us as two of the division’s title favorites go head to head on the opening night of the 2017 season at Tolka Park (kick-off 7:45PM). While Alan Mathews has been able to enjoy the luxury of a larger recruitment budget compared to his Shelbourne counterpart over the last number of months, “Shels” boss Owen Heary will be quietly content with his additions to the squad.
A lack of experience seemed to hit a struggling Shelbourne hard at times last season, with the “Reds” finishing a lowly 6th in the eight team league, but that should not be an issue for former league winner Heary this term with the arrival of a number of extremely seasoned pros. Legendary goalkeeper Dean Delaney returns to the club having won promotion previously under none other than Alan Mathews back in 2011, while former Longford players Robert Bayly and James O’Brien have signed on for the club as has Alan Byrne and Derek Pendergast. These are players of immense experience within Irish football and Pendergast in particular looks to be one who should still possibly be playing at a higher level than that of the second tier, which Shelbourne have been in since relegation in 2013, a season which saw Mathews resign after thirteen league games with the Drumcondra based side.
As for Alan Mathews current club, Longford Town have invested heavily in new recruits following their humiliating relegation campaign of 2016. Under the stewardship of Tony Cousins for the majority of last year, before his long over-due resignation, the Midlands club only won a single league game before Alan Mathews added a win over Finn Harps to the league listings soon after his return to the club which he guided to FAI and League cup success in 2003 and 2004. Officially the clubs most successful ever manager, Mathews will be hoping the arrivals of no less than twelve new players will be enough to secure Premier Division football again for 2018. The most notable of these additions include last season’s young player of the year at Shelbourne, Jack Brady, while attacking outlets such as Dylan McGlade, Jake Kelly and Enda Curran should mean goals are not an issue for “De Town” this season, who still retain the services of all-time leading goalscorer David O’Sullivan. However, it is a strong defence which many pundits reckon could decide the fate of the First Division title this term and in Aidan Friel and Stephen Walsh, Longford look to have done some great business.
The 2014 season saw both these sides battle it out for the title with Longford eventually capturing in with eight-points to spare. In terms of a head to head record in that league winning season for “De Town”, Tony Cousins men only won one of the four meetings. A David O’Sullivan master class saw Longford claim a season swinging victory over “Shels” at the City Calling Stadium as the Red and Black went on to claw back a twelve point deficit and capture their first ever national title.
So what the odds of a similar result at Tolka Park on Friday night? In truth it looks unlikely with a tight, tactical and perhaps cagey encounter expected. Both sets of players should go into the opening game of the year with good confidence levels after strong pre-season campaigns. Shelbourne won all of their pre-season friendlies, with eye catching victories over Bohemians and St.Pat’s. A Leinster Senior Cup win over fellow First Division side Wexford FC will only have cemented belief even more among Heary’s men. As for Longford, while Town only won two of six pre-season games, those two wins were against Premier opposition in Finn Harps and Sligo, while performances were impressive despite defeat against fancied Dundalk and Bray Wanderers.
James English was in impressive form throughout pre-season for Shelbourne and the striker bagged himself a hat-trick during Friday’s 4-2 win over newly named Wexford FC, meaning the expected partnership of Stephen Walsh and Noel Haverty will have to be alert throughout at Tolka Park. It’s the midfield area where this game looks set to be decided as Longford’s stylish playmakers such as McGlade and Kelly go up against “Shels” rough yet rigid O’Brien, Bayly and Byrne. Cool heads and clean tackles will be needed from the Shelbourne trio if they are to avoid giving away too many set-piece opportunities, with Longford converting a number during pre-season thanks to the dead ball ability of Jake Kelly in particular. Should Heary’s men keep a lid on Longford’s middle men the “Reds” back-four will still have to closely guard the often electric David O’Sullivan, who has the ability to turn a half-chance into much more within seconds, while new options in Enda Curran and fit-again Cody Mulhall offer “De Town” different ways to build their attacks.
It is that variety and flexibility within this star studded Longford squad that make them one of the red hot favourites for this season’s First Division and as a result yu would have to also make them the slightly fancied one here in what looks set to be a mammoth struggle at Tolka Park on the opening night of the season.
BETWEEN THE STRIPES PREDICTION – Shelbourne 0-1 Longford Town (Enda Curran to score late on for his new club).