Just days after Longford Town FC secured a top six finish in their first season back in the top flight of Irish football since 2007, it has been announced that popular midfield duo Stephen Rice and club captain Mark Salmon are to depart the Midland side while record-breaking goalkeeper Paul Hunt has also said his goodbyes.
A thumping 4-2 victory over closest rivals Derry City on Friday night saw “De Town” achieve their goals of a top half finish this term at City Calling Stadium with Hunt, Rice and Salmon all playing a role in the victory on the night.
While rumors of retirement for Rice had been circulating for some time among Town supporters, his tweets this morning seem to indicate he was willing to stay another season with the club he joined in pre-season of 2014.
Disappointed not to be offered a new contract by @LongfordTownFC for 2016 season. Thanks to the fans & everyone at the club for last 2 years. I would like to wish the club every success in the future.
Having joined the club in the First Division last year, Rice became an instant bedrock in the Town midfield with the former Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians star bringing a winning and ruthless mentality to the City Calling Stadium and Longford Town changing room.
The arrival of former Rovers team-mates Pat Flynn and Pat Sullivan helped Tony Cousins bring an air of confidence to a club who had been unable to cope with the favourites for promotion tag in seasons gone by, particularly in 2013 when Longford threw away a twelve-point lead to gift arch foes Athlone the league title prior to falling in the play-off final against Bray Wanderers.
Despite a rocky start to the campaign, Longford would go onto claim the title with eight points and a game to spare with Rice contributing enormously on the way with a late equalizer at home to Galway United a memory that immediately comes to mind.
As for Mark Salmon, the central midfielder was one of Cousins first signings as Longford boss in 2010 arriving from none other than Athlone Town.
Despite coming from the wrong side of town so to speak, Salmon would go on to make a staggering 175 appearances for the “Red and Black” scoring 32 goals in the process, meaning Mark Salmon is the eighth highest capped Town player of all-time while the Dubliner sits joint fifth in the record scoring charts behind the likes of Eric Lavine, Richie Parsons and Davy O’Sullivan.
The fans favourite and man dubbed “Captain Fantastic” for his never say die attitude took to Facebook to say his goodbyes earlier this morning:
It’s with a heavy heart I say that I am leaving Longford town! I’ve had some great times over my 6 years there and it’s a club I will hold dear to me. Everyone at the club are brilliant and the fans have been amazing to me throughout my time. Hopefully they have another great season next year and I will always have something special for the town!
While Salmon had not featured as regularly as in seasons gone by for the club he still managed to register as runner-up for most goals this campaign with only O’Sullivan finishing ahead of him on eight goals.
Many critics will point towards the serious injury Salmon suffered midway through the 2013 campaign which not only left the player sidelined for over half-a-year but is credited by many as the turning point in Athlone taking the title from Longford’s grasp, a clear sign of the quality and importance of Salmon to Tony Cousins team at the time.
‘Keeper Paul Hunt began the season as Longford’s number one having wrestled the jersey away from fan favourite Chris Bennion last season before seeing off the challenge of new signing Paul Skinner in the lead up to the 2015 campaign.
After stepping into the role of number one in 2014, Hunt went on to claim a club record of consecutive clean sheets which coincidence in a run of form and results that saw Town race away from the opposition and go onto to claim the First Division title.
However, despite good early season form and a man of the match performance to almost single-handedly snatch ten-man Longford a point away to the Champions of Ireland at Oriel Park, Hunt seemed to fall out of favour with the unpopular Tony Cousins with Skinner seeing out the Premier Division campaign as first choice, which makes today’s announcement by Hunt that little bit less surprising.
Speaking out on social media the Cork native had this to say:
After 5 years @LongfordTownFC unfortunately I won’t be signing back for the next season?! It’s been an incredible time at the club and I’d like to thank the fans and all the management I’ve worked with for their support towards me during my time at the club!!
With no word on any replacements for these three experienced players yet announced by the Midlands club and with key assets such as David O’Sullivan and Gary Shaw being linked with moves to top Dublin clubs, this is a worrying time for the supporters who should still be basking in the glory of a top six finish and yet another season as the Midlands’ premier club.
However, it should of course be pointed out that the League of Ireland offseason is among the longest in Europe meaning Tony Cousins and the clubs hierarchy have plenty of time to build a squad capable of improving on this season’s accomplishments and while it is with a heavy heart these two great servants of the club say goodbye, this still remains a very exciting time in the history of Longford Town Football Club.