Athlone Town’s 18 year wait for top flight football will end at the Showgrounds on Saturday evening.
It will be a daunting task for Athlone to compete with a Sligo Rovers squad that is expected to mount a serious title tilt. Ian Baraclough’s side have been performing adequately in pre-season with new arrival Eric Odhiambo catching the eye in the Bit O’Red’s fine Setanta Cup win over Crusaders.
Athlone will have to deal with a remodelled Sligo outfit as Baraclough has made a string of shrewd additions. John Russell, a League medalist with St Patrick’s Athletic, returns to the north west and will bolster a midfield area in which Sligo have been particularly effective for the past few campaigns.
With a match against Shamrock Rovers to come at Lissywollen Cooke isn’t bothered by the fixture list. “You are as well off to play these type of teams straight away,” Cooke said. “At least this way we will know exactly how we stand. Going to Sligo will be a tough match for us, but it is one that we are really looking forward to. Sligo will expect to be in contention for honours so we know how tough a start it will be, but we might as well face these kind of games early on.”
Promotion brought relief and celebration, but the stark reality is that Athlone will need to develop as the year progresses. Cooke is adamant some of Athlone’s youngsters have the ability to enjoy productive careers so how they embrace the challenge of operating in the Premier Division will be interesting to watch. Declan Brennan and Kealan Dillon are among those Cooke thinks can become key players for Athlone, who will be without the suspended Barry Clancy and Derek Prendergast.
Cooke is a long time admirer of Prendergast, who served his boss well at Drogheda too so the 29 -year-old is a significant absentee.
When Prendergast is available his and Alan Byrne’s experience and guile will be key factors for Athlone in the next couple of months. At UCD and Drogheda United Graham Rusk proved to be a valuable contributor capable of grabbing goals. Cooke will hope Rusk can convert opportunities crafted by Athlone.
Patience will be required throughout the campaign, but with Cooke’s organisation on the line Athlone possess sufficient skill to trouble more illustrious teams. Sligo will expect to claim the full complement of spoils tomorrow, but Athlone will make the journey to the Showgrounds quietly optimistic of causing a surprise.