Having come within a whisker of claiming a victory at the Carlisle Grounds against Bray Wanderers last Friday only to end up sharing the spoils, Athlone Town will be keen to deliver a spirited performance when visiting the Showgrounds tomorrow, Saturday.
Sligo Rovers’ seasonal mission is now to claim a European place so there is still plenty at stake in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division for the Bit O’Red. As the end of the campaign drifts closer Sligo’s squad are vying to catch the eye of new manager John Coleman with a view to earning contracts ahead of 2015.
For Athlone avoiding an instant return to the First Division is what Keith Long is planning to do, but the Midlanders boss did feel it was a case of two points dropped rather than one gained in Wicklow. “I think we can look at it in no other way,” Long reflected. “We led the game for so long to concede a goal in the 92nd minute was disappointing. From that point of view we are bitterly disappointed in the context of the game it didn’t matter who the opposition were.
“We would be disappointed to concede so late in any game. We could have bridged the gap, but unfortunately we are still five points behind UCD, and Bray have maintained the six points. While we go into the last series of games with hope it would have been much more beneficial for us to take all three points.”
Entering the last series of fixtures Long wants Athlone to concentrate on their own business, but admits things can alter quickly in the domestic game. “We can only take care of our own results. Obviously UCD getting beaten by Drogheda helped us in terms of goal difference and things like that. It was the plan to get all three points against Bray because we felt that we could get at them.
“They’ve lost quite a number of games recently so we felt it was a game we could win and that it could springboard us into the last series of games. We didn’t lose and the league table does look a little bit different, we are five points behind UCD with 11 games left to play so it is all to play for.”
The three home wins Athlone have registered under Long ensures the midlanders believe that they can avoid relegation. “Absolutely we have a chance,” Long said. “Look at the teams around us; Drogheda have picked up having been on a dreadful run of form, Limerick beat Shamrock Rovers and they had been on a run where they hadn’t won for a long time. Bray Wanderers and UCD too. We’ve all had periods where things haven’t gone for us.
“We are going into the last series of games now. There are 11 games left, 33 points are up for grabs, we have to make ourselves competitive to try to pick up as many points as we can between now and the end of the season.”
Goalkeeper Paul Skinner has returned to full training following injury, but Long is delighted with the development of Ryan Coulter and the fact that the depth of his squad has improved. “Paul trained fully the week before the Bray game and he has come back into contention,” Long explained. “We have good options with Paul and Ryan Coulter. Paul was first choice before he got injured, Ryan has come in and has the jersey at this moment in time. What we wanted to do is to bring in players to add a bit of depth to the squad which is a healthy thing.
“We promised the group when we went in that we would try to make it more of a competitive environment and that is what we have tried to do. We have strengthened our squad bringing in different options. Hopefully there is more competition for places and that can only be good in the long run.”
Long was busy in the July transfer window signing Kevin Knight and Dylan Hayes before the Bray clash. “I was really pleased to get Dylan on board,” Long admitted. “I’ve known Dylan since he was a boy with St Joseph’s Boys in Dublin. He is a good guy and in my view he was harshly treated by Derby County, he was released and I feel he can go on to better things.
“We have him in until the end of the season. He can play in a number of positions, right back is probably his preferred position at this moment in time, but he can play in a number of positions. He is a good player, he has a good attitude and I believe there are bigger things ahead for Dylan.” Long is aware that a demanding encounter awaits at the Showgrounds, but Athlone are quietly optimistic about making an impact in the north west.