Having shown signs of SSE Airtricity League Premier Division improvement in recent weeks Athlone Town will be hoping to record an FAI Cup victory when arch rivals Longford Town visit Lissywollen this evening (Friday June 6 ).
In a match which carries significant importance for Athlone, Keith Long’s charges will be hoping to build on the progress that has been evident during the past month. Despite eventually losing to Cork City at Turners Cross last Friday Athlone were resilient and spirited earning praise from Rebel Army boss John Caulfield. The Cork City manager is adamant that Athlone are developing under Long’s stewardship.
“Keith has galvanised Athlone, who are battling hard,” Caulfield said. “I said the game would be a very difficult match. In the first half we probably had our worst 45 minutes so far - we were slow, they were difficult to break down and we didn’t do enough in the first half.
“We went 4-4-2 for the second half. It was much better and more like a typical Cork City performance - we created chances, we got balls into the box. I thought we did enough to get a second goal but we didn’t.”
Rob Lehane was a key figure for Cork after the restart, but Caulfield acknowledged the part Athlone occupied as questions were posed about City’s resolve. “He made a great impact, he was involved in the goal and he certainly lifted our game,” Caulfield said.
“On our second half showing, I felt we deserved to win it but I think the home fans could see that Athlone are no bad side. Again we sent people home happy and that’s all that matters at this stage of the season.”
Alan Byrne’s controversial sending off was another talking point with Caulfield reckoning it was harsh on the Athlone skipper. “The second yellow was harsh to be honest. From where I was, he just slipped and fell on the ball. It was an accident but then again we have been on the wrong end of a few harsh decisions ourselves this season.”
Without Byrne’s experience Athlone were courageous until the end on the banks of the Lee, but the latest defeat still means Long’s side now trail second-from-bottom Bohemians by nine points. With one win, a draw, and 13 losses from the opening 15 encounters Athlone certainly have endured a tough start to the campaign, but the Cup offers an opportunity for the Midlanders.
The fact that Longford will provide a stern test should be enough to focus Athlone minds ahead of a fixture that is expected to attract a reasonable midlands crowd. Longford’s schedule over the past fortnight has been busy and a comfortable six-goal success over Shamrock Rovers B had them loaded with confidence ahead of the bank holiday Monday trip to St Colman’s Park.
However, Cobh Ramblers were gritty as Longford had to settle for a scoreless draw. Longford chief Tony Cousins was disappointed that his team weren’t clinical enough down south. “It was unbelievable,” Cousins reflected. “We must have created about 10 chances, but the ball just wouldn’t go in, but you get games like that. Sometimes when you get games like that you end up losing the game.
“Right at the end they got a free-kick and you’re saying to yourself they are going to snatch something here. Thankfully we defended it and we didn’t concede. But with all the chances we just needed to be a little bit more composed in and around the box.”
That wasn’t the case as Cobh bravely held out to record only their third draw in 13 matches. Cousins hopes that Longford will be able to to better on the improved surface at Lissywoolen. “The pitch was difficult, we had to play a little bit longer than we would have liked, but we still created the chances to win the game,” Cousins said. “Overall, though, you don’t get carried away by a result like the Cobh one. There are no easy games in the First Division, especially when you’re away from home.
“Maybe it is a game we might have lost before. You get these days. I’d be more worried if we didn’t create anything. Sometimes football is funny - you don’t get what you deserve.”
Following the Longford Cup tie, Athlone’s last league game before the mid season break will be against a Drogheda United outfit that has lost nine times in 10. Long will be fully aware of just how crucial the next seven days are in Athlone's campaign so how his squad responds will be interesting to monitor