The long wait is finally over for Athlone Town fans as the SSE Airtricity League kicks off again for 2018 this weekend.
It is all change for the new season, with 10 teams in each division, following the promotion of Waterford from the First Division and the relegation for Galway, Finn Harps and Drogheda from the top tier.
With an addition of two extra teams, the First Division is set to be very competitive, with the relegated clubs all aiming to make a quick return to the top flight. Four clubs will be involved in the shake-up at the end of the season: the table toppers will automatically go up and the next three teams will progress to an extended play-off scenario.
New manager Aaron Callaghan has been hampered somewhat by the weather in his pre-season preparations, with a number of challenge matches called off. However, training has gone well, apparently, and hopes are high that The Town can be competitive in what is sure to be a tough division.
The new boss has little or no financial backing with which to assemble his squad, relying instead on unproven non-league signings and the best of the underage talent within the club. Many of last season’s squad have moved on, leaving Callaghan to make up his squad almost from scratch. Several players have been looked at in trials and the final product is a mix of youth and players younger than 25.
Last season was a disaster both on and off the pitch, with the team again finishing bottom of the table despite getting off to a great start with two wins in a row. Callaghan has come in during the close season, replacing Roddy Collins, and with his experience and coaching ability has provided much needed stability following the turmoil endured in 2017.
Athlone have been handed a tough task for their season’s opener, with a trip west to take on Galway United. It is a first visit to Eamon Deacy Park in five years, with Salthill Devon/Galway the opposition on the last occasion.
At that time, there was no city club in the league, but the formation of Galway FC for the 2014 season laid the groundwork for the current set up. Shane Keegan’s men are one of the favourites to lift the title, having only been relegated after the last game of the 2017 campaign against Dundalk. Keegan knows what it takes to get a club promoted, having guided Wexford Youths up in 2015 for the first time in their brief history.
The United manager has already raided Athlone for four of his squad. Goalkeeper Conor Gleeson, defender Stephen Walsh and striker Conor Barry all return to their previous club. Promising youngster Conor Layng also joined Galway after finishing last season with an extended run in the Athlone starting 11.
The home side will be hot favourites to get off to a winning start, but Athlone could spring a surprise.