Arch rivals Athlone Town and Longford Town will reunite on Friday night at Lissywoolen, and despite the familiarity of this derby game over the last decade or so, there will be a very new look to this “El Clasico” fixture. Although this Midlands derby has come around extremely early in the 2017 campaign it is already been talked about as a season defining game for Alan Mathews Longford. Former Athlone boss Mathews was left frustrated by Longford’s performance during a bitterly disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Cobh on Saturday and has promised his side will work hard in this derby game to rectify the issues that arose at City Calling Stadium during that opening home fixture of the season.
A major turning point early in the second half against Cobh Ramblers was Town striker Enda Curran somehow managing to miss an open goal after former Longford ‘keeper Paul Hunt had made a dreadful kicking error to open up the chance for Galway native Curran. However, the 2013 First Division winner with none other than Athlone never looked confident despite the relatively easy chance on offer as he dragged his shots significantly wide of the near post. There was a real lack of creativity from the hosts on the night and as a result that missed chance came back to bite “De Town” badly as some shambolic defending was capitalised on by Stephen Henderson’s men, who put three past Paul Skinner in the Longford net in quick succession before a consolation effort by substitute Cody Mulhall took the gloss of the score-line slightly. Unfortunately it appears as if Mulhall will only be a bit part player for “De Town” until he can reach the fitness levels required to play ninety-minutes, this of course a result of two cruciate knee injuries for the young striker in recent years, among other recent injury set-backs which resulted in Mulhall only playing fifteen-minutes of football for the club last season. Two games into the new campaign and Longford have only managed to register that consolation Mulhall goal with the clubs all-time leading scorer David O’Sullivan missing a penalty and a major one on one chance in the opening game away to Shelbourne, while Enda Curran failed to register a goal in pre-season and the opening two league matches. If Alan Mathews is to get his team out of this early season slump he will need to find a way to get both of his strikers back to their best, or perhaps drop one of them should he decide to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation used throughout pre-season. The decision to operate with a flat 4-4-2 line-up in the opening two league games surprised the majority of supporters but perhaps injuries to wide men such as Don Cowan and Jake Kelly put doubts in the managers mind as to the success a five-man midfield would have. These are decisions Mathews will have to make in the coming days and weeks with important home fixtures on the horizon.
As for Colin Fortunes Athlone, it’s been a fantastic start to 2017 on the field at least, with two shock wins from two in the SSE Airtricity League First Division. Touted as favourites for a wooden spoon finish this campaign, Ireland’s oldest club have already taken the scalp of title favorites Waterford FC and the “Blues” South-East rivals Wexford FC. With reports of a Portuguese businessman investing in the Midlands club, Athlone have a very continental look about them this season with no less than five foreign players involved in the match-day squad against Wexford last weekend. Stories linking a couple of French under-21 internationals with Athlone appear to have been exaggerated but there is a feeling the likes of Igor Labuts and Frederico Hernandez won’t be the last of the exotic names to arrive in County Westmeath over the coming months. As a result of these unknown names arriving into the league and the fact that there is even uncertainty over who is calling the shots from the sidelines at Lissywoolen, with two Portuguese coaches also now involved with the club, Athlone are something of an unknown quantity this year and may have caught their First Division rivals on the hop in recent weeks. It is unknown at this point whether or not Alan Mathews has been able to scout this week’s opposition but he is sure to heed the warnings not to underestimate his Midlands rivals ahead of this massive derby match-up. Despite the foreign imports, there will be some sense of familiarity for those associated with Longford in attendance on Friday night, with ex-Longford under-19’s captain Aaron Brilly a recent acquisition from Cabinteely. The small but diminutive midfielder/right full-back Brilly is a player many feel was abruptly let go by former boss Tony Cousins and this first encounter with his former employers since departing the club offers Brilly the opportunity to strengthen that argument. Other familiar names for followers of the LOI will be striker Niall Scullion, who scored in the win over Wexford last weekend, while LTFC fans will be more than aware of the powers of former Mervue man Jason Molloy. The central midfielder/striker seemed to have the knack of scoring past the “Red and Black” in his Galway days and having been awarded man of the match against Damien Locke’s Wexford, he could pose a major threat to this vulnerable looking Longford side. Ex-Limerick man Val Feeney will give Longford defenders issues regarding his electric pace, while Colm Cross notched the winner on the opening weekend against Waterford.
A win for the hosts on Friday night could see Athlone claim outright leadership in the embryonic First Division standings, as fellow 100% record side UCD go up against the now firing favourites Waterford FC. Defeat for Alan Mathews men could see an eight-point gap open up between themselves and their Midland rivals, and while it may still be early days it certainly wouldn’t be what was predicted.
The most recent competitive meeting between these arch-foes came during the 2014 season, of course a year that saw Longford crowned First Division champions, while Athlone Town were immediately relegated from the top-flight, having won the second tier title the season before. Despite Athlone holding the Premier Division status for this FAI Cup tie at Lissywoolen, it was Tony Cousins troops who won the Midlands battle thanks to goals from David O’Sullivan and current Bray man Mark Salmon. In terms of the most recent league meeting, Longford Town came from behind (with none other than Enda Curran scoring the early Athlone goal) away from home to claim not only a 2-1 derby day win but a place in the 2013 season’s promotion play-offs. Having blown a twelve-point lead over Roddy Collins Athlone that season, there was more heartbreak for Tony Cousins when his side eventually lost out in a stunning promotion/relegation play-off game tie against Bray Wanderers. The main turning point during that 2013 title race between the Midland rivals in fact came in the final game before the mid-season break as Longford not only lost the match but lost influential captain Mark Salmon to a season ending injury in Lissywoolen that day. The absence of Salmon was to prove too much for a team that had also let a healthy lead slip in the 2012 title race as Limerick came from behind to clinch promotion, with Longford losing a First Division play-off to now defunct Waterford United that year. Longford’s 2014 squad was full of character however, with real leaders such as Pat Sullivan, Pat Flynn and of course Stephen Rice all drafted in to turn “De Town” into proven winners, and it worked as the “Red and Black” finally lifted the First Division title after seven long years in the wilderness. On Friday night it will be up to this current crop of Longford Town players to prove their character and if they have the mentality to win games when perhaps they may not always be playing the best football or even deserve it on the night. Should Mathews men overcome this tough derby-day task, Longford fans can then enter respective home and away ties against Dublin outfits Cabinteely and UCD with some arrogance, however should Mathews men fall at yet another early season hurdle then pressure will already starting to reach high levels with Waterford FC set to visit the City Calling Stadium on April 1st.
PREDICTION: Athlone Town 0-2 Longford Town – Mathews to turn around last weekend’s disastrous performance with a much more organised display in this crucial derby game.