The Premier Division’s bottom team Athlone Town face one more game which can save their season and cap a remarkable comeback in their 2014 journey.
When Keith Long took over this struggling Athlone team, they were on a losing run of 12 games with Mick Cooke in charge and seemingly on the road back down to the First Division. Playing in the country’s top division for the first time since the 1995/1996 season, Athlone looked doomed and way off the pace in the top division.
Heartbreaking last-minute losses to Dundalk at home, Sligo away and in Drogheda only compounded their status as a team set for relegation. Luck was not on the side of the men from the Midlands as they failed to win a game until the breakthrough win against UCD in May.
Keith Long’s style of football may not have been the most attractive, but he found a way to get results. Following the win over UCD came the thumping 6-0 win over Drogheda in Lissywollen. Still, you would find few home supporters who still believed in this team, particularly after the poor performance against arch-rivals Longford Town in the FAI Cup.
Athlone then continued to struggle through July after defeats against title chasers Dundalk and against St.Patricks Athletic. However, once August came, Keith Long’s men became a transformed side, picking up points at every turn and beginning a six-game unbeaten streak with draws against Shamrock Rovers and Cork City. Despite not winning a game during this sequence, Athlone kept picking up valuable points and proving the doubters wrong who believed that the Town were relegated in May.
This brilliant stretch of games ended in Thomond Park when defensive mistakes cost Athlone and Limerick prevailed in a high-scoring 4-2 victory. An unlucky home defeat to Dundalk meant all roads led to Richmond Park last Friday night for a crucial game against St.Pats, who Athlone hoped would be focusing on their cup final against Derry rather than their unasailable league position.
A wonder-strike from Philly Gorman and a brilliant goal from Kealan Dillon sent the away fans into delirium with a 2-0 win. “We are staying up” cried the away fans who could scarcely believe the scoreline. Yet, this joy turned to pain when the result from Derry was announced, where the home side had fallen to Athlone’s relegation rivals, UCD. Two unimaginable results left Athlone needing to better the result of UCD this Friday night, where the students face Drogheda United and Athlone take on Bray Wanderers.
Due to the superior goal difference of Athlone, finishing on the same amount of points as UCD will mean that they will avoid automatic relegation. The irony that the bulk of this goal difference came against UCD’s opponents, Drogheda United in a 6-0 victory will not be lost on the Athlone players who need a favour from those same Drogheda players at the UCD Bowl.
Firstly, Athlone must take care of their own business on the pitch at Lissywollen against Bray, who themselves have already avoided relegation. Those who attend the Athlone game on Friday are sure to spend most of their time checking the score from UCD, and agonising for 90 minutes. By bettering the result from Dublin, Athlone would progress to the play-off against the winners of the First Division play-off, which Galway have one foot in after prevailing 2-0 in the first leg against Shelbourne.
Avoiding automatic relegation would cap an incredible turn of fortunes for Athlone, whose steely determination and defensive ability has been admired by away fans at Lissywollen since the start of the revival. Despite injuries to captain Aidan Collins and striker John Mulroy, this plucky Athlone team has kept the home fans intrigued for longer than anyone ever imagined, and staying in this division would be a deserved reward for a remarkable turnaround.
Drama and nerves will be to the forefront on Friday and as an Athlone fan, I would like to apologise to Drogheda for the mauling in June and ask them to please do us a favour on Friday night. It is just what we deserve and what our town strives for.
Stephen Loftus, Pundit Arena