League of Ireland Preview: Athlone Town

After 17 long and suffering years in the First Division, Athlone Town’s long-awaited return to the top flight of Irish football is nearly here. Ever since narrowly missing out on promotion in the play offs in 2001, Athlone have had very little to shout about, and had failed to even finish in the top half of Ireland’s second tier. However, following the conclusion of another unsuccessful campaign in 2012 there was a renewed sense of optimism in the air when the club appointed the colourful Roddy Collins as manager.

And Collins duly delivered, winning the First Division in his first season in charge. Athlone caught Midlands rivals Longford Town, nine points clear at one stage, to wrap up the title with two games to spare by beating Waterford at Lissywoolen in front of over 2,000 spectators on a memorable night for the Town faithful. But, Collins’s reign at the club came to an end as disagreement over the playing budget saw the Dubliner leave for Derry City, and Athlone swooped to bring in the experienced Mick Cooke as their new manager.

Cooke has been busy in the off-season building a squad he feels can keep the club in the Premier Division, bringing in seven new players, including four from his old side Drogheda, as well as holding onto key figures from last years squad. Athlone have already secured a competitive victory under Cooke this season with a 4-1 win in Wexford three weeks ago in the Leinster Senior Cup, while they’ve also played Pre-Season games at First Division newcomers Galway and local rivals Longford.

Athlone face a tricky, but tasty return to the Premier Division with a trip on Saturday to FAI Cup holders Sligo Rovers, before the first ever top flight game to be played at Lissywoolen will be the visit of Shamrock Rovers a week on Friday, with a League Cup tie at home to Longford sandwiched in between. The 2014 season is one Town supporters go into full of hope and excitement and it is sure to be a rollercoaster, but expectations shouldn’t be too high as Athlone’s number 1 target will be to secure their Premier Division status.

Last season: 1st (First Division)
2014 odds: 66/1
In: Derek Prendergast (Drogheda United), Alan Byrne (Drogheda United), Jason Marks (Drogheda United), Graham Rusk (Drogheda United), Kealan Dillon (St. Mirren), Sean Brennan (Shelbourne)
Out: Enda Curran (Derry City), Roddy Collins (Derry City), Graham Kelly (Bray Wanderers)

Whats new?

The gap between the First Division and Premier Division is significant, so Lissywoolen regulars will be seeing alot more quality on display this term. A lot will be different from the last time Athlone played in front of their home supporters, with a new manager in the home dugout and a lot of new faces on show.

Derek Prendergast follows Cooke from Drogheda and could be a crucial figure in the heart of the Athlone defence, where he’ll link up with Town skipper Aidan Collins and the pair could form a formidable partnership at the back in front of Paul Skinner, who equalled Athlone’s longest run of clean sheets last Summer.

Alan Byrne, Graham Rusk and Jason Marks also made the move from the Louth outfit during the off-season and they will also add a bit of quality to the side, alongside Sean Brennan from Shelbourne and Irish underage international Kealan Dillon from St. Mirren. A new manager may well also see a new style of play and formation as they will face trickier opposition this season.

Tactics/ Starting XI

With only a few Pre-Season games to go by Mick Cooke’s approach for this Athlone team is still vague. They adopted a 4-4-2 formation in the few games they’ve played so far this year and often tried to get the ball under control and pass it around, often laying it out to the wing and trying the flanks.

Cooke has a few selection headaches for their opening trip to Sligo as Prendergast carries a one match suspension from last seasons FAI Cup final, while Barry Clancy will also sit out the Showgrounds trip owing to suspension as well. With the quality Sligo have at their disposal it will be interesting to see how Cooke sets his side up. He may opt to sit back, pack the midfield and try and hit Ian Baraclough’s side on the counter attack, or he may stick with the 4-4-2 formation and play two up front. Time will tell.

Strongest XI: Skinner; S Byrne, Collins, Prendergast, Harney; Dillon, O’Brien, A Byrne, Hughes; Rusk, Gorman.

Key Player

Alan Byrne is a big signing for Athlone. He has previous experience under Cooke both at Monaghan and Drogheda, and his manager knows how to get the best out of him. In recent years he has been given a holding midfielder role and has flourished, and was a key player in Drogheda’s midfield last season.

Byrne suffered an injury scare in the LSC win in Wexford where he was carried off by team mates, appearing to go down on his ankle. It was initially predicted Byrne too would miss the trip to Sligo but it is hoped he will be fit to return for the opening fixture. His presence in the Athlone midfield could be crucial for the Midlanders.

Keep an eye on

Kealan Dillon. The youngster looks a really bright prospect and showed his potential in Pre-Season. The left winger has had stints in England and Scotland with Hull City and St. Mirren but it didn’t really happen for him across the water. He felt homesick in Scotland, however, so the 20-year-old is back in Ireland and is ready to prove his worth this season for the Town, and his creativity and energy could be a big factor for them.

Where will they finish?

It is a big season for Athlone. There’s no denying that. However, they can’t get carried away with being a Premier Division side and know they will be in a relegation battle this season. Games against the lesser teams, such as Bray and UCD, and their form at home could determine how Athlone do this season. They’ll relish a chance to beat the big boys in a packed Lissywoolen as well as away, but there’s no doubt about what the aim is and that is 10th place or higher. Mick Cooke does like a cup run, bringing Drogheda to three cup finals last year, and there’s no doubt he’ll try get to another final this season. But survival is the priority.

Prediction: 10th

By Michael Seery

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