Under fire managers meet at CCS on Saturday
Two under-fire managers will meet on the sidelines at City Calling Stadium, this Saturday evening, as Pat Fenlon brings his stuttering Shamrock Rovers to bottom of the table Longford Town. In another interesting side plot, former Longford Town fans favorite and 2014 First Division winner with the club, Gary Shaw will make his first return to the ground he use to call home. However, it is the impending futures of Fenlon and Tony Cousins respectively that the spotlight will be during this penultimate game of series one in the 2016 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division campaign.
What Longford fans would give to be sitting fifth in the table, only three points off second place and a European position, yet their managers abilities still being questioned. However, that is the hard reality for five-time league winner Fenlon, who's side have simply failed to live up to expectations so far this season. Town boss Tony Cousins is a firm believer in league positions being decided on the most part by the budgets available to each club and when you look at the signings made by Fenlon in the off-season, it's a firm case of haves versus the have-nots. For example, despite Longford being able to bring in far more players than their opponents this weekend during the off season, Cousins was unable to keep a hold of his best players, including losing Gary Shaw to Rovers, while the replacements signed were for the most part unwanted by their old clubs. While Longford, who are only in their second top-flight season since promotion, ended up with the youngest squad in the division, Rovers were able to go out and capture one of the country's most decorated players in Killian Brennan, while also adding the attacking force of Shaw and hot property Dean Clarke from relegated Limerick.
Things started out great for the Dublin club, upon their arrival home from a pre-season tournament in India, with three wins in their opening three league games. However, defeat on home soil to an out of form St.Patrick's Athletic in a heated Dublin derby came as a real sucker punch for followers of Rovers and when that defeat was followed by another embarrassment days later, as Rovers crashed out of the Leinster Senior Cup to Collinstown, alarm bells began to ring around the Tallaght Stadium. A 3-0 thumping away to surprise title challengers Derry City was to follow, while recent defeats to top sides Dundalk and Cork City have done little to swell to tide of pressure surrounding Rovers hopes of success this season. In between all of that though, the big Dublin derby win at the home of their greatest rivals Bohemians should not be forgotten and the goals that night highlight the level of class at Fenlon's disposal.
Similarly to Shamrock Rovers, "De Town" got off to the perfect start this season as Tony Cousins troops came away from the difficult Ferrycarrig Park with all three points to their credit. However, an unlucky home defeat against St.Pat's seemed to unsettle Longford's stride and it was no surprise to then see the Midlanders absolutely battered at Turners Cross on a miserable Monday night as 'keeper Paul Skinner was forced to pick the ball out of his net no less than six times. There was a glimmer of opportunity for Longford in their next league game however, with many pundits and supporters stating a win over struggling Bray Wanderers at City Calling would see "De Town" back onto the right track again. Unfortunately it wasn't to turn out that way as Longford scrapped a 1-1 draw from proceedings, with the majority of the small crowd in attendance commenting on the total lack of quality on display that night. As a result, it came as no shock to anyone inside or outside of the camp to see Longford lose their next five games in all competitions. Pleas for more passion and fighting spirit were answered in fantastic fashion in mid-April as Longford's players ground out a well deserved home draw against high-flying Derry but that new found belief didn't last long as Sligo Rovers walked all over the "Red and Black" in the opening thirty-minutes at the Showgrounds, which resulted in Tony Cousins and his players being booed off the pitch at full-time as calls for the managers head reached boiling point. Holding the record as the longest serving manager in the league at present, Tony Cousins has always found a way to get past moments like this and last weekend, just when it looked like he was dead and buried, Longford staged a memorable come-back from two goals down to gain a point away to European chasing Galway United.
That brings us to Saturday's encounter and Cousins will be hoping, unlike in Sligo where his team failed to follow up a good performance against Derry, that his team will come out all guns blazing against the mighty Shamrock Rovers. Longford have failed to start their games well this season however, and that was evident against Galway as the "Tribesmen" opened the score, thanks to some comical defending, after just two-minutes of action. Cousins stated recently in a post-match interview that scoring goals was his teams biggest issue, however, it's the leaking of easy goals at the back that is kicking his side out of games before they have even begun and with Josh O'Hanlon looking like he may have finally found a bit of scoring form, it is of crucial importance that his team-mates at the back don't give anything away early doors against what can be a clinical Shamrock Rovers squad.
Ireland's most successful club has won fifteen of the past twenty-eight league encounters against Longford Town, with a worryingly high success rate of 50% at the City Calling Stadium. With the hosts without a league win at home this season, the odds of Shamrock Rovers improving on that already impressive tally is odds on in the bookmakers eyes. In the four meetings between the clubs last season, Rovers won all of them with a Leinster Senior Cup quarter-final victory at "CCS" to go alongside 0-2, 3-2 and 1-3 wins in the 2015 league campaign. Of those four meetings, it is the 3-2 defeat in Tallaght that will haunt Longford folk the most, as Gary Shaw missed a simple one-on-one opportunity to put the visitors 2-0 up on the night before Rovers raced back to claim an undeserved three points.
In terms of team news, the chances of Gary Shaw being available for selection against his old club will not be known until a pre-match fitness test, while Luke Byrne's season is over after a horror injury picked up in the defeat to Cork. Centre-back, David O'Connor will also miss the trip to the Midlands, while Max Blanchard is also a doubt. Blanchard scored twice against Cousins side last season so the defender, who can also operate in a holding role, will be eager to beat the niggle holding him back at present.
Despite picking up a positive result in Galway, Tony Cousins is likely to consider a couple of changes for the visit of fifth placed Rovers. Kaleem Simon not only made his return from injury at Deacy Park, but his introduction for Don Cowan in the second-half helped change the course of proceedings and it wouldn't be a shock to see the winger rewarded with a start here. At the other end, questions marks over Longford's goalkeeping situation will continued to be raised due to the below par performances of Paul Skinner. However, with Cousins seemingly reluctant to throw in teenager Ian Morris, former Shelbourne man Skinner will need to be on the top of his game on Saturday to keep a clean sheet. Noel Haverty appeared to suffer a serious injury against Galway, with reports of a break to the arm unconfirmed as of yet. Thankfully for Longford, captain Conor Powell was on red-hot form upon his return from injury last time out, and he will continue with the arm band for the visit of his old club. In midfield, John McKeon was rested from the starting eleven in the last game as he had only returned from Irish colleges duty in Wales, while Kealon Dillon made an instant impact when he returned from injury in the West of Ireland last week. Both these players will be pushing for starting berths at City Calling Stadium but the clubs all-time leading goalscorer, David O'Sullivan may have a battle on his hands for the main strikers position after Josh O'Hanlon put in a man of the match performance last time out. All in all, when Gorman enters the fray and new signing Lee Duffy finds his feet after a pre-season injury of his own, this Longford team should look a lot stronger in key positions, although as mentioned the goalkeeping situation remains a worry for the LTFC faithful.
With a relegation six-pointer at home to Wexford taking place only three days later, this is a crucially important week for the Midlands club, who also play St.Pat's in Inchicore live on Setanta the following Friday. Should "De Town" come out of this series of games without a win, the club will find themselves rock bottom and threatened with being cut away at the foot of the table into the second series of matches. Whether such a scenario would lead to the club examining the immediate future of their manager remains to be seen, but the only way such a predicament can be avoided is through results and the acid test starts here for Longford Town FC and their survival hopes this season.
PREDICTION: Shamrock Rovers 2-1 Longford Town - The "Hoops" strong win percentage on this ground is too hard to ignore, especially given Longford's poor home form in 2016. Expect the return of key players, from both injury and dips in form, to give the visitors a game, but given their resources Shamrock Rovers should prevail.
Longford Town: Injured - Rhys Gorman (broken ankle), Noel Haverty (suspected broken arm). Suspensions - None.
Shamrock Rovers: Injured - Luke Byrne (Torn ACL - Season ender), David O'Connor (Long term). Doubtful - Max Blanchard and Gary Shaw. Suspensions - None.
- VENUE: City Calling Stadium, Longford.
- KICK-OFF: 7:30PM
- ADMISSION: Adults €15, Student/OAP: €10, Under-12's: €5