The Longford story so far - A fresh face needed
Let's not sugarcoat it, the 2016 season has been disastrous to date for Longford Town FC both on and off the pitch, with the clubs only saving grace and silver-lining the fact that Bray Wanderers have been equally as dreadful in the battle for survival. A damp squid of a scoreless draw between the two bottom sides in the final game before the summer break was the perfect summary of the respective teams seasons so far and followers of Longford in particular will be delighted to have a three-week break away from the negativity and lack of enthusiasm surrounding Tony Cousins and his players. Are those supporters being too harsh and totally negative? A return of just one win in fifteen league games shows that is clearly not the case as fans of other clubs scratch their heads as to how Tony Cousins is still in a job! But where has it all gone wrong for the man who not only lead Longford to First Division glory in 2014 but a highly respectable top six finish last season?
Rash decisions in the off-season such as the releasing of experienced pros, namely club and team captains Mark Salmon and Stephen Rice while record breaking goalkeeper was also shown the door against his wishes. Throw into the mix the loss of Aymen Ben Mohamed and Gary Shaw to full-time Dublin clubs, Tony Cousins policy of replacing them with youth has back fired dramatically. Certain players should not escape criticism however, with the attitude and application levels of a number of players being questionable. Cracks within the dressing room have started to appear in recent weeks also with one key-player unhappy with being constantly singled out from the sidelines by a vocal Cousins while another first-teamer is reported to want out in the upcoming transfer window. The fans have also deserted the man who has sat in the hot-seat for over six-years now with chants of "Cousins out" reigning down after humiliating defeats against Sligo and Wexford in the second series of matches. Usually the combination of dressing room unrest, an agitated fan base and desperate league results would see a manager either step away or be removed from his position. However, one constant throughout the Dubliners reign has been the supported of the Longford Town FC executive committee and that once again seems to be the case despite the board taking a lot of flack online from supporters.
Expectations at the start of the year were much lower than that of 2015, however nobody would ever have imagined a return of just eleven league goals from fifteen matches considering the fire-power at Cousins disposal. Again though it should be pointed out that the likes of Josh O'Hanlon have failed to deliver for a manager who placed so much faith in the youngster while "De Town's" midfield haven't provided enough quality service for the promising duo of O'Sullivan and Duffy. The lack of crunch in Longford's midfield was highlighted by many pundits in pre-season as a worry and that has proved to be the case with "De Town's" central area totally over-run time after time by opposition teams this season. The persistence with a new look 4-3-3 formation in pre-season now seems totally pointless with Cousins chopping and changing with systems before finally settling on a controversial 5-2-1-2 set-up in recent weeks. The major shortage of natural wingers in the current Town squad was also highlighted and the lack of wide-men has resulted in Tony Cousins being unable to change the course of matches through substitutions as he has limited options to choose from.
Let's look at this from a different perspective for a moment. Perhaps the budget given to Cousins was the reason behind not signing enough cover in such positions? However, if that was the case why not come out and say it at the start of the campaign? Why not be realistic and honest with the fans by saying this season is about building a new and younger squad which may result in struggling in or around the drop zone? Instead the Town boss has flip-flopped throughout the course of the season in public interviews. A couple of months ago, the former Kildare County manager admitted to Goal.com that keeping the Midlands outfit in the top-flight would be extremely difficult and cited the clubs semi-professional status and smaller resources as reasons as to why "De Town" could not compete with the big boys. However, just a few weeks later "TC" would sensationally claim his belief that struggling Longford would finish well up the league table and would certainty not be victims of relegation. Perhaps even more unbelievably, these comments came off the back of a 4-2 home defeat to Wexford Youths, a team everyone had tipped to finish bottom upon their first season in the Premier Division. While it is obvious to everyone that Longford Town FC can't compete with the likes of Cork City and Dundalk, saying that publicly has given the players a host of excuses before they've even taken to the pitch and it's that kind of mentality that has lead to 6-0 and 4-0 thrashings by Cork City and Dundalk respectively. Wexford Youths are for the majority an amateur side, however they claimed a famous point at Turners Cross prior to pushing the back to back league champions all the way recently at Oriel.
When you go to see the Youths play you know exactly what you are going to get. Two rigid lines of four with all the play going through the classy front two of Danny Furlong and Paul "Spot" Murphy. It may not always be pretty but Wexford make no apologies for it and the results have shown that. The same can be said for fellow new-comers Finn Harps and thanks to their thumping 3-0 win over Sligo Rovers in the weekends derby, the Donegal club sit an astounding nine-points clear of rock-bottom Longford while Shane Keegan's Wexford look streets ahead of Town despite only holding a four-point cushion. Longford's playing style in contrast is unpredictable and not in a good way. Nobody knows from week to week whether the 'keeper for example is going to try and roll in out from the back or go route one. Nobody knows whether the full-backs will bomb forward or just sit and take no risks. Nobody knows who's playing where from week to week with a number of players being played out of position. Mark Hughes, Conor Powell, Kevin O'Connor, Kealon Dillon, Lee Duffy and David O'Sullivan are just a few of the names who have appeared in unfamila roles this year and this has been a constant trend throughout Tony Cousins 201 game tenure at the club.
Pundits have begun to argue that even with a change of manager that the players simply are not good enough. However, the likes of O'Connor and O'Sullivan have consistently proved their class in years gone by so why the sudden loss of form? Players like Kealon Dillon and John McKeon arrived at the club with high recommendations but they clearly haven't settled at a new club due largely to the fact they are playing both out of position and not regularly enough. The only shining light of recent weeks has been Lee Duffy but again if he isn't getting quality service of any description there is only so much a centre-forward can do.
So where do we go from here? The July transfer window is coming up and has been highlighted as an opportunity to bring in one or two players with new ideas by Cousins. However, for the majority his additions in the off-season have failed to return the goods so what is to say Cousins can find quality recruits in a window where quantity often trumps quality. After all, the top players in the league will be tied down until the end of the season while those available are for the most part castaways. Dip into the English market you say? While Phillip Gannon has been a good signing for the club since arriving this time last-year, it took the former West Brom man an age to find his feet while goalkeeper Ian Molloy has looked shaky following his arrival from Leeds United academy. Plainly put, the July transfer window is a total gamble and for a club in Longford's current position gambles are not the way to go at this stage of the season. What would a change in manager do for this team is probably the question on your mind. At the moment there is a sense of acceptance around the entire club. The lowest attendances in the top-flight, a near poisonous atmosphere at times and a total lack of interest from the local people seem to all point in the direction of a return to the First Division yet if a new face and a new voice was to appear in the City Calling Stadium dug-out it could have a rallying effect, while more importantly giving unhappy players a second chance to shine.
Of course a change in manager would only have a short-term effect for the club. The general feeling of apathy towards the clubs hierarchy and low attendances is largely down to the total lack of connection with the community. It is time fresh approaches were tried by those charged with attracting people out to what is one of the best stadiums in the country. When was the last time you saw a Town player in a local school or at a schoolboy league event? Stephen Kenny built the foundations for which the club continue to thrive off now as he introduced a whole new generation of fans out to the Strokestown Road. However, in the Cousins era the players have become unfamiliar even to life-long fans, a far cry from the days of the "Digger's", Prunty's, Kirby's and Vinny Perth's of this world. The banning of the drum from the main stand has added to the total lack of atmosphere at home games while post-match interviews in which fans were criticsed have further alienated sections of the fan-base. This is a very different tune to the one Cousins played when back in 2014 he appealed for the clubs fan group "Section O" to move to the main stand in an attempt to push the team over the final hurdle. The clubs refusal to take on board proposals over Social Media and an online club shop have left younger supporters disinterested while PR disasters such as the fine wrongly handed down to a life-long supporter at the back end of last season over pyrotechnics cost the club financially through reduced end of season award night ticket sales and a reduction in merchandise sales, while continued grumbles over the club lotto has hit a key income source hard. Regardless if "De Town" stay up or go back down to the Graveyard division of Irish football, these issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later if the club is to ever stride for a return to the European nights under Kenny and later Alan Mathews when the whole County would swap the Yellow and Blue GAA colors for our beloved Red and Black.