Four SSE Airtricity League Premier Division draws in a row ensure Athlone Town can look forward to the remaining six contests of the year at this level with equal measures of hope and expectation about avoiding an instant relegation.
Athlone aren’t in action this weekend as the FAI Ford Cup takes centre stage domestically, but preparations are underway ahead of a significant September 19 clash with Bohemians at Lissywollen. Keith Long’s sterling work turning Athlone into durable opponents has been evident during the last month in which the Midlanders have competed admirably. Long is thrilled that Athlone have given themselves ‘a fighting chance’ of staying at the highest level in this country for another campaign. “Overall we have given ourselves a chance; we are only three points off with six games left to play,” Long said.
“Everything is to play for. I think looking at the recent games we can count ourselves a little unlucky in the one against Cork City at home. The team put in a really good performance on the night. Marc Hughes had a gilt edged chance at the end of the game. We have been creating chances, but we are a little bit disappointed that we haven’t been as clinical as we would have liked in the final third to finish teams off.
“We have Bray Wanderers at home in the last game of the season. We have given ourselves a fighting chance. To be difficult to beat is what we want to be and if we can start winning games between now and the end of the season it will help us.”
Last Friday night Ian Sweeney rescued a share of the spoils for Athlone at the end of an important clash with Drogheda United. Long reckoned Athlone were unfortunate not to register a victory. “We were disappointed not to take three points from the game. In the first half we created a number of clearcut chances and even in the second half we created another chance or two.
“Perhaps on another night we would have been given a penalty so from that point of view we were disappointed because we felt we could have picked up three points.”
For anyone with an interest in Athlone, Sweeney’s ability to influence a match is well documented, with Long aware of the threat the 20-year-old carries.
“Ian has made an impact in every game he has played so far,” Long admitted. “Not everybody can start. Ian is certainly a player who causes opposition defenders problems. He has done well. He scored a terrific goal against Shamrock Rovers recently. Obviously he came up with the equaliser on Friday against Drogheda.
“We are looking at the squad; it is not just about the 11 people who start. We are looking for people to come off the bench to make a difference in games. Ian has done that of late. He occupies defenders, he gives them something to think about. He isn’t afraid to go at people and to commit them. That is what we need, players who can back themselves in the final third with that bit of cutting edge we so badly need at this time.”
Long is encouraged about the increasing depth to Athlone’s squad as Aidan Collins seeks to recover from a shoulder problem which has bothered him throughout the campaign. “Aidan hasn’t taken a full part in training,” Long said. “He is getting closer to full fitness, but at this time he is taking part in most of the sessions without contact. His shoulder injury being what it was takes time to heal and settle properly.
“We have a squad, we brought in a number of players during the window to help strengthen it. We have competition for places throughout the team. That is what we want. We promised the group in the window that we would try to strengthen as best we could within the budgetary constrictions that we have. This was for the good of the club, the good of the team to try to achieve the ultimate aim which is to try to stay in this division.
“Athlone had been in the First Division for a long time. Everybody around the club including the supporters want to stay in this division to give ourselves a fighting chance. I think we have done that, but the job is nowhere near done. We want to finish it off. Over the next six games we must give everything on the pitch to ensure we maintain our top-flight status.”
A revealing period looms for Athlone, but Long is adamant that Athlone simply must take care of their own duties. “Every game is a big game between now and the end of the season. We have got to try to pick up points. It doesn’t matter who we are playing. We have lived with that pressure during the past number of weeks. It is something the team and the group of players have embraced. I am a little disappointed we haven’t put more points on the board, especially against UCD, Cork, and Drogheda on Friday night.
“We could have taken all three points in the three games. From that point of view the game against Bohemians will be no different. We are looking to win every game when we go out on to the pitch. That is what we will be aiming to do.
“We can only look after ourselves. We try to take care of our own results. We aren’t in control of what other teams do. I have said to the players on several occasions that we need to take ownership of our own destiny at this point. That is all we can do. We are well in the mix, only three points behind with six games to go. We have everything to play for. We can catch UCD and Bray Wanderers, two teams above us - that is what we are aiming to do.”