Do or die as bottom sides meet at the Carlise
It's the final round of games before the mid-season break in the League of Ireland and for Longford Town and Bray Wanderers it could not be a more significant gameweek. Separated at the foot of the Premier Division table only by goal difference, the two struggling outfits will meet in the glorious sunshine at the Carlise Grounds on Friday night (kick-off is 7-45PM). With a run of six straight league defeats you would expect it to be the "Seagulls" propping up the division, however without the taste of three points since the opening weekend of the campaign Longford Town are the ones who find themselves in immediate danger. In the most recent league meeting between these two sides, who famously contested a relegation/promotion play-off classic back in 2013, a drab draw was played out in the Midlands as some comical defending from both teams resulted in a 1-1 scoreline after ninety-minutes. With the likes of Finn Harps and Wexford Youths both starting to pull away from the drop zone positions, a draw is not likely to be enough to keep either set of fans happy over the summer break, although whatever team occupy the play-off position of 11th this season should not fear the possibility of facing any side from what is a bog standard First Division.
Even at this relatively early stage of the season, Bray Wanderers have already pulled the trigger on old boss Mick Cooke as the experienced former Drogheda chief paid the price for not being able to return results following some big name signings in the off-season. Two of those new signings at the club arrived from Longford as Town boss Tony Cousins sensationally showed long serving captain Mark Salmon the door while Dean Kelly was also booted out despite only signing for the Midlanders in July of last year. Speaking to 'Between the Stripes' in an exclusive interview earlier this week, Salmon explained the impact of new boss Harry Kenny at the club while also admitting his disappointment at how things turned out for the man who brought him to the club in Mick Cooke. “Harry has been absolutely brilliant since he’s taken over. He knows the game really well and the lads respect that. We’ve had a tough run of games for him starting out but he’s done really well. It’s never nice seeing a manager losing his job. I enjoyed working with Mick even just for a short period. We were just unlucky with injuries and a couple of decisions didn’t go our way and that was that.”
In a continuing trend of old faces in new colors, Peter McGlynn has found game time and fitness in particular a major issue since swapping seaside for the Midlands but don't rule out the tricky winger having a big say in proceedings on Friday night should Tony Cousins opt to put the number eight into play. In an interesting turn of events off the field for McGlynn's former employers, Bray Wanderers were yesterday ordered to pay former goalkeeper Darren Quigley €6,100 plus costs by the courts after years of wrangling over unpaid wages. The former Derry City goalkeeper had long maintained his right to the money on social media and the result of this case is sure to cast more negative PR over the controversially ran Wicklow club, while questions over the strength or perhaps lack of it when it comes to the FAI's licensing programme will once again raise their head.
Back to on-field matters and Harry Kenny will have an almost full strength side to choose from come kick-off times with the likes of Mark Salmon returning from injury in recent weeks. When you look at the list of players involved last time out in Bray's 2-0 defeat to Derry City it's hard to understand why such a seemingly talented group of players have struggled to gel to date. As mentioned, injuries have played a part but the total lack of goals scored, the lowest in the division with just eight, is a major concern for everyone involved with the club and that will have to change starting Friday against Longford who have by far the worst defensive record in the league. Off-season signing from English football, Andrew Lewis has looked a potential find at times this term and he will be pushing for a recall to the starting eleven where a partnership with Dean Kelly has often been rewarding. Again despite what the league standings may tell you, the Bray midfield is packed with quality and this is where Friday's game could be totally turned on it's head as "De Town" have been over run in that area on multiple occasions this season. Former Bray hero Kevin O'Connor, who unforgettably kept Bray in the top flight thanks to a world class goal against his current club in the play-off final of 2013, is expected to return having missed Sunday's 3-0 defeat against Cork City but even at that Mark Salmon, Ryan Brennan and Dylan Connolly will ensure O'Connors hands are full in that central area.
Longford Town fans however, will point to a handful of their own in striker Lee Duffy who has looked electric since finally over coming his pre-season injury nightmare and the former "Drog" is sure to keep some of the leagues most experienced defenders in Connor Kenna, Jason Marks and potentially Alan Byrne on their toes for the full ninety-minutes. That sense of panic may open up space for another former Wanderer in the shape of David O'Sullivan who is always good for a goal against the "Seagulls" having already converted against them once this season. Town 'keeper Paul Skinner made some miraculous saves to keep the score down for ten-man Longford at home to Cork last time out and he will need to be equally as alert on Friday night if his side are to stop giving away easy goals to the opposition. Directly opposite, Peter Cherrie had a mare against Derry City but expect the Scotsman to bounce back for the visit of Longford as he is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers the league has seen in recent years.
Tristan-Noak-Hoffman will sit out this crucially important game through suspension and worryingly for Longford, it is yet to be made clear by the FAI is Hoffman will be allowed serve his suspension while on underage international duty with the Republic of Ireland. It would be a great shame for the seventeen-year-old's first Ireland call-up to be darkened by having to sit out an extra-league game for an extremely minor offence and this rule should be changed immediately by the FAI as it is basically punishing those who wish to represent their country, a double jeopardy if you will.
Mystic meg would be required to try and map out Tony Cousins starting eleven or formation for this game as the suspension of Hoffman may mean abandoning the newly operational 5-2-1-2 system that has been in place for recent weeks. In Hofmann's absence it is almost certain Conor Powell will move back into his natural position of left-back but whether Cousins opts to replace him in the centre with the fit again Rhys Gorman or perhaps go back to his old favorites of 442/433 will only be known when the teams take to the field. As a result it makes this match-up incredibly difficult to predict but what is certain is neither side can afford defeat at the Carlise Grounds and subsequently that may lead to a very cagey encounter.
PREDICTION: DRAW - It may take a moment of magic to separate these two sides who are both desperate for a win.