Despite a tightening of the purse-strings, not that they were ever too lose to begin with, at St.Colman’s Park this off-season, Stephen Henderson’s Cobh Ramblers will arrive at the City Calling Stadium on Saturday night fully confident that they can pull of an early upset in this seasons promotion race (kick-off 7-45PM). Outspoken boss Henderson has slated the FAI’s decision to only allow one promotion place in the First Division this season and to his credit he has publicly admitted a successful season for the “Rams” in 2017 would be to simply ensure the club is still around to challenge again in 2018. While this may sound extreme to some, considering the County Cork club only returned to the LOI in 2013, having been forced to withdraw due to vast financial difficulties previously, this statement really does prove just how unfair this season’s league restructuring by the FAI has been on the majority of second tier clubs. However, make no mistake about it this is a Cobh Rambler’s side extremely capable of pushing the so called big spenders of the division and they will be keen to prove that point against title favorites Longford Town.
Sportsmanship has been the hot-topic on the Island this week after Cobh were cruelly denied all three-points on the opening weekend, thanks to a controversial goal by former Town man Lee Duffy at St.Colman’s Park. Having taken the lead through a Dean Swords strike, Ramblers found themselves closing in on a big opening win as the clock ran down, only for captain Chris “Kaka” McCarthy to go down injured. League winning goalkeeper with Longford Town, Paul Hunt put the ball out of play to allow his side’s captain to receive treatment. However, when play resumed the newly named Wexford FC decided not to return the ball to their hosts and that allowed last season’s released Town man Duffy to bag his first goal for the South-East club with a world of criticism for Wexford manager Damien Locke soon to ensue. As ever, Stephen Henderson did not sugar-coat his words post-match with the former Waterford United supremo stating people like Damien Locke would have a very short future in the game if that’s the way his managerial counter-part wanted to go about claiming results. Speaking to www.extratime.ie Henderson labelled the late goal a “disgrace”:
“We are very annoyed with their goal there. We were expecting them to throw the ball back there after Kaka (Chris McCarthy) had gone down injured. But they decided not to so fair play to them. The manager should be ashamed of himself.
“It was a disgrace. Football is a good game and there is lots of ways to win it but you don’t cheat. I heard him say it there as they were about to throw it.
“If that is the way they want to go about getting points then Damien Locke has a very short future in the game.”
Controversy aside, Ramblers can be happy with their overall performance despite playing on what was an extremely poor surface last Saturday. Similarly, the City Calling Stadium pitch has had its own issues during pre-season, resulting in the movement of a friendly with Bohemians to the AUL in order to give the playing surface a chance to recover. With the torrential rain experienced in the Midlands in recent days it is unlikely that the CCS surface will be up to its usually high standards. Having become accustomed to the bumpy St.Colman’s surface, you very well could see the away side on Saturday night feeling more at home than Alan Mathew’s men, a potential advantage for the visitors. However, those who witnessed Friday’s league opener at Tolka Park will tell you very little passing football was played by Mathew’s men against Shelbourne so if a similar long-ball approach is implemented for the visit of Cobh, the playing surface should have little to no effect on the game, in fact the side who aim to play passing football may suffer more as a result of the likely difficult conditions.
Conditions aside, Longford boss Alan Mathews has bigger issues on his mind due to an injury hit start to the season. Pre-season saw disruptions for the likes of Noel Haverty, Stephen Walsh and Don Cowan through injury, while the Tolka Park opener saw two of those names, Cowan and Haverty limp off injured early on. New signing Mark Langtry stepped in well following the loss of long-time servant Haverty on Friday night, but the decision to move full-back Aidan Friel to right-midfield for the injured Cowan failed to produce any positive results. With the current status of Cowan and Haverty unknown at present, Mathews and his coaching staff may have to look at a major back-four reshuffle ahead of the Cobh game on Saturday night. Options include keeping Friel at right-full with either Rhys Gorman or Tristan Noak Hoffmann slotting in at centre-back for Haverty, while Mark Langtry will fancy his chances of a first start after a good first impression on Friday night last. Jake Kelly is another player who had a disrupted pre-season campaign and as a result he remained on the bench at Tolka Park throughout. Ordinarily, many would have expected the former Bray man to replace Cowan against Shelbourne, so if the pacey winger has gotten himself up to pace he may come into consideration for a starting berth at CCS on Saturday. Cody Mulhall only played fifteen-minutes of football all last season following his arrival at the club, and like Kelly the former “Hibs” striker never left the bench against “Shels”. With David O’Sullivan missing a first-half penalty in Dublin and a golden one v one opportunity, while new signing Enda Curran seemed to struggle against a physical Shelbourne back-four, many would have expected Mulhall to enter the fray late on. Having suffered two cruciate-ligament injuries in recent years, Mulhall is extremely lacking match-fitness but impressed in the home pre-season ties against Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps as he bagged himself a goal and an assist from the bench. Longford fans will be eager to see Mulhall contribute as soon as possible this season given his lack of involvement since signing under Tony Cousins midway through the 2016 campaign, especially if “Sully” and Curran get off to a slow start. Listening to the vocal Town support in Tolka Park, new signing Dylan McGlade already appears to be a crowd favorite but “De Town” will need to get him more involved and in better positions on the ball if he is to have the desired effect on Saturday night.
With joint bookmakers title favorites Waterford FC getting off to a shock losing start away to many people’s tip to be the whipping boys of the division Athlone Town, any side with ambitions of staying competitive for as long as possible in the eight-team league this season will now be looking at their first few fixtures as must win opportunities. As a result we can expect to see much more open and attacking games than witnessed during the first round of First Division fixtures, with only four goals shared among the eight-teams.
If recent meetings between “De Town” and Cobh are anything to go by, we should expect nothing less than a goal fest anyway, with an astonishing FORTY GOALS split between the sides during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Score-lines among those two campaigns include reverse 4-3 results, 7-2 and 5-1 wins at CCS for Longford, while somehow there was still time for a scoreless draw down in Cork on a bank holiday Monday in June 2014. This fixture hasn’t been short of controversy either, as 2013’s 7-2 game in Longford saw a horrific challenge on Town full-back Jamie Mulhall result in a broken leg for the youngster, while the hot-headed Keith Quinn later saw red despite the fact the perpetrator of the challenge on Mulhall only received a yellow card for his actions. It was then no surprise to see players from both camps clashing in the clubhouse following the game with tempers reaching boiling point on an emotion filled night in the Midlands. That 2013 season also saw Cork referee Anthony Buttimer award one of the worst penalty decisions you are ever likely to see as then “Rams” captain and later Longford man Martin Deady converted from the spot after a clearly clean tackle from the famous Keith Gillespie. The former Northern Ireland international took to social media after the game to lambast the decision of Buttimer, as the Cork side came from 3-0 down to win 4-3 and help end Town’s title hopes in the process. Even prior to Cobh’s return to the LOI in 2013, the history of these two clubs has always seemed to cross paths, with Stephen Kenny’s famous Longford side gaining promotion for the first time ever thanks to a win over Cobh in Cork back in the 1999/2000 season.
Longford fans will be hoping another win over Cobh can be a lucky omen for this 2017 season, as the clubs most successful ever manager, Alan Mathews looks to guide the “Red and Black” back to the top-flight at the first time of asking. Following Saturday’s first home game of the new season, this new look Town squad will then get its first taste of a derby week in the Midlands with a trip to arch rivals Athlone Town set for Friday, March 10th. While the likes of David O’Sullivan and Kevin O’Connor will know exactly what this game means to the club and its supporters, the new faces in the squad will have to cope with the expectations of what will undoubtedly be a large and extremely boisterous away support. Three points against a side unlikely to bring much traveling support with them on Saturday night would help Alan Mathews men ease their way into this pressure filled season, with all eyes on building some big momentum before going into the first six-pointer showdown of the season against Waterford FC at CCS on April 1st.
PREDICTION: Longford Town 2-0 Cobh Ramblers. (McGlade and O’Sulivan first-half goals)