Eighteen years can feel like an eternity in football and Lissywoolen will provide the ideal backdrop for Athlone Town’s first home SSE Airtricity League Premier Division fixture in almost two decades when hosting Shamrock Rovers tonight.
There should be a significant crowd at the midlands venue for the clash with one of the aristocrats of the domestic game. Despite making a plethora of changes to their squad Rovers are still expected to launch a title bid, but last Sunday’s draw with Derry City was a tad worrying for them.
It took a last gasp Ciaran Kilduff header in injury time to rescue a share of the spoils for Trevor Croly’s side, who were frustrated for vast chunks of a poor game by the Candystripes. The manner in which Derry’s five-man midfield bothered the Hoops will have been noticed by Athlone boss Mick Cooke, who may opt for a similar containment policy.
Rovers were bereft of ideas for large spells of that contest and while the introduction of former Leeds United midfielder Stephen McPhail did supply a passing threat for the Dubliners, Derry came within a whisker of registering a surprise win. Manager Croly was adamant about the impact McPhail made. “You can say we didn’t create numerous chances but we created enough to win the game. Stephen had tendonitis during the week so he wouldn't have got through a full 90. We thought his quality would come out in the second half and it did – he got on the ball for us,” Croly said.
Ryan Brennan’s honest display was among the few positives for Rovers, who know that a victory will need to be posted against Athlone. Rovers must deal with a heavy burden of expectancy so Athlone will strive to be resourceful and resilient.
The first week of the season brought some pain for Athlone, who lost two matches that could have been won. Taking a shock lead at the Showgrounds Athlone had Sligo Rovers in a spot of bother, but the Bit O'Red recovered. It did take a late goal from Evan McMillan, pressed into emergency service as a striker, to shrug off Athlone's spirited resistance.
Then on Monday in the EA Sports Cup Longford Town had the necessary guile and experience to outfox Athlone which was slightly worrying. Ultimately Athlone lacked the clinical efficiency required in both fixtures and that is something Cooke will be demanding from his squad of players in the coming weeks and months.
Cooke took some positives from the performance in the Showgrounds including Kealan Dillon’s versatility and the fact that a string of the newcomers impressed. "There were more positives than negatives from the Sligo game,” Cooke said. “Athlone is the oldest club in the country. They have magnificent facilities which warrant Premier Division football and it is my job to keep them there.
“After getting a penalty to go one up I thought we could have been given a second for a foul on Graham Rusk, but it wasn’t given. Some you get, some you don’t get. Overall with the performance I was very pleased.
“We took the lead against one of the most polished teams in the country. It was our first competitive game together as a unit. We were missing two of our most experienced players in Derek Prendergast and Barry Clancy.
“The rest of the boys performed brilliantly. For Kealan Dillon it was his first competitive game at right back and he did extremely well. In the first 10 minutes Sligo had chances to score, but I thought we settled well after that.”
Cooke isn't bothered that Rovers are next on the agenda as daunting fixtures arrive thick and fast.
“You have to play the top teams at some stage of the season and there is no time like the beginning,” Cooke reckons. “It makes our lads realise what it takes because some of our players haven’t played in the Premier League before.
“We have to perform like we did in Sligo in every game to make sure we are not in a relegation battle. I know most of the lads I have got have a winning mentality. A lot of them earned promotion with Monaghan and Athlone, while the boys I have brought in from Drogheda have been used to winning games.”