The SSE Airtricity league First Division campaign gets underway at the weekend with ten clubs competing for honours.
There will be no team from Limerick this season with their place taken by a Shamrock Rovers second team. UCD have dropped down following relegation as last season’s champions Shelbourne return to the top flight. It will be all change for Athlone Town too with a new manager in place and several new faces among the playing staff.
The Town parted company with Terry Butler before Christmas and appointed local man Adrian Carberry in his place. His first task was to assess his playing needs within obvious financial constraints. A series of friendly games against Premier Division opposition was also organised to run the rule over some possible new signings. First up was a game against newly promoted Shelbourne which the Reds won by two goals to nil.
The first three signings made were Scott Delaney from Willow Park with Ronan Asgari and Joshua Keane Quinlivan both arriving from Galway. Darren Meenan and John Morgan re-signed as the squad gradually took shape with Evan O’Connor from Longford and Galway’s Adam Rooney also signing on the dotted line.
Further outings against St. Patricks Athletic and Sligo Rovers gave grounds for optimism. Both Evan White and Dean George had featured for the Town in 2019 and, following periods with Warrenpoint and Tolka Rovers respectively, once more threw in their lot with Athlone. Ronan Manning, Mamoud Mansaray and Joel Coustrain are other exciting acquisitions. Local lads Harry Cornally and Joe Carmody together with last season’s goalkeeper Aaron Myles were further pieces in the jigsaw assembled by Carberry.
The campaign kicks off with a visit to Eamonn Deacy Park to take on Galway. Carberry played with United for a number of seasons and will be up against former Town boss Colin Fortune, who is now assistant to Alan Murphy. Many fancy Galway to be in with a shout this season and it is a tough opener for the Town.
Athlone are the rank outsiders to lift the title but will hope to at least be competitive and possibly slip into one of the promotion play off slots. Galway had the edge over Athlone in 2019 with a win and two draws in the league and a further success in the EA Sports Cup.
Athlone’s first home game is against Cabinteely while the eagerly awaited first instalment of the Midlands derby against Longford comes in series five. There is a mid-season break for the Euro championships in June when all teams will be idle for a fortnight. The FAI Cup first round is not until August with Bray Wanderers providing the opposition in the final league outing.
Shamrock Rovers II will arrive on Good Friday with the new Hoops also the opposition in Athlone’s last home game in September. At that stage it should be clear whether the season will be prolonged into the play offs which could lead to a fairy-tale return to the top flight.