Saturday night a test of character as much as it is ability
Longford Town will not only be looking to end a two-game losing streak on Saturday evening when they host Waterford FC at the City Calling Stadium, but the Midlanders will also be hoping to gain a first home win since the tail-end of the 2015 season! Under the stewardship of Tony Cousins, Gary Cronin and then Alan Mathews during the disastrous 2016 season, “De Town” failed to win a single league or cup match (excluding Leinster Senior Cup) on home soil with the long-known fact of relegation eventually confirmed thanks to a 2-0 defeat, again at home to champions Dundalk. An off-season of big name signings and changes galore at the “CCS” left Town followers with hopes of bouncing back at the first attempt to the top-flight, however a dour start to the new campaign has brought expectations crashing back down to earth, with many supporters already calling for drastic action to be taken only five games in to the league season. An opening day stalemate against a poor Shelbourne side at Tolka Park was the first minor set-back for Mathews and co as David O’Sullivan missed both a penalty and a clear cut one v one chance on the night to let the “Reds” off the hook. However, it was the humiliating 3-1 home defeat against little fancied Cobh Ramblers the following week that would leave the first big dent in the Longford bodywork this season as shambolic defending and uninspiring forward play mixed with injury issues saw “De Town” crash and burn in front of an extremely small opening home game crowd. As a result of that shocking performance, manager Alan Mathews promised to right those wrongs in the upcoming Midlands derby with his former club Athlone and to his and his coaching staff’s credit they done that with a resounding 3-0 away win, David O’Sullivan in red-hot form on the night with a first ever Longford “El Clasico” hat-trick. Hopes were again high but the balloon would soon again burst as back to back defeats to Cabinteely and UCD leave “De Town” second from bottom in a division they are expected to fight for promotion in. Supporters of Alan Mathews and his players will point to the slow start experienced by the 2014 title winning side, however opponents of the current set-up will argue the performances particularly in recent weeks have been so poor that it’s hard to see such a drastic turn-around coming soon, if at all. Whatever side of the fence you find yourself, even the most staunch of Longford Town FC supporter will admit a big turn-around is needed when title favorites and league-leaders Waterford FC visit on Saturday.
Pat Fenlon will lead this new look Waterford out-fit into battle on Saturday night fully confident of extending the “Blues” current undefeated run to five-games. A shock opening-night result away to troubled Athlone Town gave the impression the newly named Waterford FC may still need time to gel and while that still maybe the case it wasn’t long before the star partnership of Mark O’Sullivan and Davy McDaid got going. With five goals between the pair in the opening five games it won’t take Alan Mathews and his backroom staff long to identify the main danger area among their opposition for Saturday night. However, thanks to the financial backing of Swindon Town chairman Lee Power, this is a Waterford side with quality all over the pitch and it is easy to see why they are been touted as potential run-away First Division winners similar to how Limerick were last season. Between the sticks has been a major issue for Longford Town in recent seasons with chopping and changing galore and even this season Paul Skinner has failed to impress the locals that he is the man for the job, despite constant selection by boss Alan Mathews. Waterford on the other hand boast the services of a Republic of Ireland under-21 international in Ian McLoughlin, who signed from MK Dons in the final stages of the Irish transfer window recently. At the back Kenny Browne was reportedly signed for a League of Ireland record-breaking transfer fee from rivals Cork City, while Patrick McClean is a name familiar to Town fans from last season as the former Derry centre-half scored a world-class goal at the City Calling Stadium in a league game last season. Former Tottenham Hotspur youth Kenny McEvoy was the marquee signing of the off-season for Pat Fenlon, while Estonian international Sandir Puri will be familiar to LOI followers from his spell in County Sligo. Meanwhile, midfielder Tom Smith has impressed greatly since arriving on loan from none other than Swindon Town and he will need to be closely guarded in the centre of the park if Longford are to reduce Waterford’s chances of dominating the play.
That central area has been a huge issue of contention for “De Town” so far this season with captain Kevin O’Connor failing to recapture the form that made him such an important clog in the 2014 league winning wheel, while Dean Zambra has failed to hit the ground running alongside him. With Gavin Boyne missing recent games through injury it leaves Alan Mathews with very little choice or flexibility in his system, although the return to fitness of both Don Cowan and Enda Curran did allow the Longford boss to operate a new look 4-3-3 formation during the second half against UCD last weekend and while the result didn’t go Longford’s way, the improvement in performance was marked, albeit against a youthful and tiring side at the time.
It’s at the back Longford have experienced their greatest challenges this season and with no returns in sight for Noel Havery or Rhys Gorman, Mathews coaching staff are going to have to work extra-hard with the defenders they do have available at present. Aidan Friel had a nightmare game at right-back against UCD, and perhaps if his bosses can find a way of allowing him more chances to get forward we will see better performances from him. Stephen Walsh was earmarked as perhaps Longford’s best signing in the off-season but the Galway native may need to go back to basics until Town can steady the ship, with Walsh’s preference to play out from the back and take risks only adding to the pressure when it goes wrong. Nineteen-year-old Daniel O’Reilly has made a decent transition from left-full to centre-half but the former Fulham man will need to cut out the cheap fouls he is committing ahead of a game where the opposition are noted for strong set-piece ability. O’Reilly’s move to left-back has opened the door up for new arrival Mark Langtry to slot into the team but as a right-footed player he has found it difficult so far and perhaps a gamble should be taken on the highly-rated Tristan Noak Hoffman who has operated in that position before. These are all key issues that Alan Mathews will have to face In the build-up to this massive game for “De Town”.
Defeat would spell disaster even at this early stage, as a win for the visitors would move them nine-points clear of Longford, who could even find themselves rock-bottom of the eight-team league come Saturday night. With some difficult trips to Wexford and Cobh in the league coming up hot on the heels of this match, some much needed momentum is needed if Alan Mathews charges are to position themselves for a marathon race against Waterford and potentially other challengers this season. With so many of Longford’s new signings failing to excite the City Calling faithful to date, these players will need to play themselves into form and quickly if they are to avoid calls for drastic changes in playing personal to be made by already agitated supporters. Given the history of titanic clashes between Longford and Waterford in the past, coupled with the dreadful home record Longford currently hold, there certainty couldn’t be a bigger and better occasion for these LTFC players to lay down a marker and show everyone, including their critics, exactly what they are about and that they are good enough to mount a title challenge this season. As a result, Saturday night becomes a test of character for both the players and the management team as it does a test of their abilities and should they manage to come through this test it may mark the start of a new era for Longford Town……The story continues on Saturday night at the City Calling Stadium, kick-off 7:30PM.