Prior to the start of the 2017 SSE Airtricity League season, very few would have predicted the meetings between local rivals Longford Town and Athlone Town would carry such significance, at least not in the lower reaches of the First Division standings. While Athlone’s off season sagas led to predictions of a wooden spoon finish for the year ahead, Alan Mathews Longford set off as joint favorites among the bookmakers for promotion back to the Premier League, which the “Red and Black” were of course relegated from in 2016. However, nine games into the new campaign and it is the “Blue and Black” of Athlone who lead the way in the battle of the Midlands clubs, as the currently managerless side sit seventh, one point above their arch rivals
Considering Longford thumped Athlone 3-0 in Lissywoolen earlier this season and all the off-field headlines surrounding the 2013 First Division winners, it really is quite incredible that they find themselves not only above Longford but Wexford FC in the current standings.
Following Saturday’s disastrous 2-0 defeat away to Cobh Ramblers, Longford find themselves an incredible nine-points off the pace set by leaders Waterford FC after just nine-games and will be targeting tomorrows Midlands derby as a means of getting back into the title picture. David O’Sullivan famously scored hat-tricks in both meetings with Athlone this season, one in the league and one in a stunning 4-3 league cup triumph again at Lissywoolen, and the Wicklow native will be hoping to add to his legendary status by sinking the old enemy once again here. With former Athlone man Enda Curran going off with a knock down in Cobh, O’Sullivan should be in line to start Saturday’s game having returned from the bench in St.Colman’s Park following a groin injury.
As for the visitors, Athlone come into this derby game off the back of a somewhat surprise 1-0 shutout victory in Wexford last weekend. Uruguayan striker Walter Invernizzi scored from the penalty spot to claim his third league goal of the season, and the veteran forward is fast becoming somewhat of a cult hero among the remaining Athlone faithful. Remaining in the sense that the Midlands club are registering the lowest attendances in the country, with die-hard supporters boycotting home games to protest against the current leadership. It is speculated these supporters may use this Midlands derby as an opportunity to voice their disgust at the clubs chairman and board, who announced the departure of local coach Colin Fortune during the week.
Having started the season with two big wins over Waterford and Wexford, Fortune was then sensationally demoted from first-team manager to head coach as Portugese man Ricardo Monsanto took the reins and with that came an influx of foreign players, with a secret investor involved at the club. Just over forty days later and without a win in any of his eight games in charge, Monsanto was shown the door with fellow countryman Ricardo Cravo now filling the hot-seat temporarily. Seven foreign players took part in that win over bottom club Wexford last time out and it would be surprising to see too many chances from that starting XI at City Calling Stadium tomorrow night. A win for Athlone could see them rise as high as forth in the league table.
With Tueaday’s EA Sports Cup quarter-final in Tallaght quickly followed up by a first-ever trip to Cabinteely, this is a massive few weeks for Longford Town if they are to get back into the title picture. With Waterford facing off against early challengers UCD tonight, anything other than a win in tomorrow’s derby would surely end Alan Mathews hopes of promotion with the club he led to three major cup wins in 2003 and 2004 and questions would surely be asked of the former Athlone manager as a result. Despite been blown away by Lee Power’s funding at Waterford, Longford were without a doubt the second highest spenders during the First Division off-season and simply put a number of the eleven new signings have failed to deliver the goods. LTFC fans will point to a slow start back in the league winning campaign of 2014, but with Waterford undefeated since that shock opening day defeat to Athlone, it looks unlikely that Pat Fenlon’s men could blow such a substational lead as the one Shelbourne held in that 2014 campaign. It really is a do or die derby at “CCS” tomorrow night!
PREDICTION: Longford Town 1-0 Athlone Town