Ten SSE Airtricity League Premier Division encounters remain for Athlone Town so the margin for error is reducing with each passing week as Keith Long’s charges seek to avoid the drop.
This evening Shamrock Rovers, under recently installed new boss Pat Fenlon, will be the visitors to Lissywollen for a match that has significant implications at both ends of the table. Athlone, still rooted to the bottom, are six points behind Bray Wanderers so every match carries a deep importance for the midlanders. Rovers, revitalised by a win in Fenlon’s first fixture in charge against Derry City, are 10 points off the summit and the Dubliners want to launch a late title bid.
The Hoops cause hasn’t been aided by three losses in their last five league clashes, but the manner in which the Candystripes were eventually dismissed augurs well. With Fenlon at the helm, the Rovers squad are essentially playing for their respective futures at Tallaght Stadium.
That is one of the reasons why the tussle with Athlone is worth monitoring because the stakes are piled high for the teams. Trimming the gap on Bray and UCD is the task Athlone want to embrace, but three reversals in four ensures climbing off the bottom will be a difficult mission to accomplish. St Patrick’s Athletic, Dundalk, and Sligo Rovers outfoxed Athlone, but nonetheless Long will be keen to have his side organised defensively for the next examination when the Hoops spin across the M6.
It promises to be a hectic weekend domestically as Athlone travel to the UCD Bowl on Monday to face the Students. Gaining results, belief, confidence, and momentum is precisely what Athlone need to do and the upcoming four days provide Athlone with an ideal opportunity to make a statement.
On home turf Athlone have registered 11 of their 12 points, but they have yet to beat an outfit of the Hoops’ calibre. There have been defiant and brave displays, but Long and his coaching staff will be completely aware that results are what truly matter in the coming weeks and months. James O’Brien, used as a substitute at the Showgrounds last Saturday, misses the Hoops’ assignment through suspension.
Sligo Rovers were comfortable victors over Athlone in the north west even though Long did attempt to alter the complexion of the contest. Athlone were rugged especially early on as Sligo struggled, but they inflicted damage after the restart. Sligo manager John Coleman admitted that it was a tough start. “I was delighted with the result and I was pleased with the second half performance,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t happy with the first half. The fans are owed more than what we showed.
“We were a bit flat, lifeless and possibly missing the chance didn’t help. I’ve spoken about it in the past. It’s a two-way process with the fans. We have to enthuse them before they can enthuse us. We didn’t in the first half.
“I know I have the quality in there so that's why I was disappointed. That’s why I had a little bit of a go. I want to win with style. I want the fans to be entertained and excited about the brand of football we are playing. They deserve that. They are the people keeping the club afloat and the reason we are here. If they are going to come and spend their hard-earned money, they certainly deserve the right to passion and fight and spirit. And whilst I’m not labelling us that we weren’t giving that tonight, there was a lack of direction and we have to channel things better and be more aggressive going forward.”
That could also be attributed to Athlone’s diligent workrate throughout the park. Coleman wants Sligo to be more aggressive when trying to dictate the pace. “I don’t want to go back to the days of getting the ball and the first thing we think of is going back and 15 passes in our own half,” Coleman reflected.
“We need to play the game in the opposition’s half and still play good football like we did in the second half. We have to get on the front foot and our first thought to go forward. That doesn’t mean playing a long ball game. It means a precise, well thought out game plan that is designed to attack teams and press teams. We didn’t do enough in the first half. It was a lot better in the second half. We did improve but we shouldn’t have to wait until half-time like we did against St Pat’s. It is something that has to be ironed out.”
Towering Sligo defender Evan McMillan, who notched a brace in the triumph over Athlone, believes the Bit O’Red can make a push for European qualification. “We’ve been speaking about going on a run in the league and it was important to win that game against Athlone to hopefully kickstart that run,” McMillan said. “We can't give up hope of catching Shamrock Rovers or St Patrick’s Athletic. Hopefully we can start from now.”
Athlone will trust that Sligo can stitch a few victories together especially seeing as the Bit O’Red visit the Carlisle Grounds tonight. UCD are at Richmond Park too where they face Liam Buckley’s Saints and the outcome of those battles will mean a lot to Athlone. A revealing weekend awaits the midlanders, who will be furiously attempting to narrow the deficit on Bray during the next 180 minutes of football this weekend