New long-term thinking required at Longford Town FC
Having started the season as joint bookies favorites for promotion alongside free-spending Waterford FC, defeat to the ''Blues'' at the RSC last night effectively ended the already slim remaining hopes of seeing Longford Town return to the Premier Division at the first attempt. A Thirteenth minute long-range strike from Derek Daly condemned ''De Town'' to a sixth league defeat of the season, only the two sides below them have lost more, Athlone Town with seven losses and Wexford with eight. The questions that must now be asked by followers of the Midlands club is why the total non event of a season to date and where do ''De Town'' go from here? Are there any quick-fixes available or is a long-term remedy the only solution?
Tackling the first of those two questions, Longford's problems this season are clear. Unfortunately for manager Alan Mathews, his side have found themselves stuck in the lethal combination of not conceding soft goals at one end while failing to convert glorious opportunities at the other side of the pitch. With a record of conceding a goal a game so far this season, the importance of been ruthless in front of goals is massive for Longford, but with only nine goals on the charts after thirteen games the results are only ever going to go one way sadly.
Perhaps fingers can be pointed at the backroom staff for not signing enough cover in forward areas should injuries occur, as they have done this season. However, when you look at the pedigree of players such as David O'Sullivan and Enda Curran and consider the fact that wide men Don Cowan, Cody Mulhall and Jake Kelly can all play up front too, it was hard for anyone to envisage such a lack of goals.
As mentioned, injuries have taken their toll yet again this season at the City Calling Stadium, where attendances have hit desperate lows, with attacking units O'Sullivan, Curran, Cowan, Kelly, Boyne and Mulhall all spending time of the treatment table this season. Other new arrivals such as Dylan McGlade, who so much was expected of have totally failed to perform and that has led to calls from the fanbase for local players such as Dan Beya and Aodh Dervin to be given their chance, especially now that any hopes of promotion are seemingly dead in the water.
While chances have been spurned on a regular basis this season by the likes of Curran and O'Sullivan, overall the lack of creativity in this Longford team is startling. Alan Mathews has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the 2017 campaign, with an emphasis on possession football. However, while Longford undoubtedly have one of the higher possession rates in the First Division, the majority of their play is coming in their own half and as a result they are inviting pressure on themselves. When the ball eventually does reach the final third the move more often that not breaks down in an aimless lofted ball over the top and it is easy to see why the likes of Enda Curran in particular, who appears more and more isolated at the top of the pitch each week, are becoming visibility animated by the week.
Tony Cousins was often lambasted for his direct style of play, particularly when he had a target man in Gary Shaw at his disposal but at least there was a clear style of play (or lack of it as his critics argued). However, when you watch Alan Mathews current side it all appears just too nice, with pointless passing across the back four and no needle where it is needed in the centre of the park and further on. While new signing Dean Zambra has grown into a holding role stronger and stronger by the game, his midfield partner Kevin O'Connor just can't seem to rediscover his 2014 form.
With O'Connor reaching the latter stage of his career and Zambra more of a destructor than creator, there is a clear lack of mobility in the Longford midfield, which has been overrun on multiple occasions by opposition sides this season.
So can these issues be fixed by a couple of simple tweaks in the upcoming transfer window? A young box to box midfielder similar in style to when Mark Salmon signed from Athlone would certainly add some much needed mobility to a robotic looking Longford midfield. In wide areas ''De Town'' are crying out for some much needed quality but unless the club are willing to let go of some of the current squad already at their disposal, it is unlikely the board would be willing to spend any more on a wage bill that is already the second highest in the league.
Despite Longford's troubles this season, the back four has looked a lot more solid than it did at the start of the campaign with Langtry, O'Reilly, Walsh and particularly Hofmann impressing greatly. With Noel Haverty out injured at present and Rhys Gorman and Aidan Friel ready made options on the Longford bench, that part of the squad needs no real adjustment. In fact, If the coaching staff can find a way to just cut out the needless unforced errors at the back, it would be among one of the more solid back-fours in the division.
At the far end of the pitch, O'Sullivan has failed to rediscover the First Division form that brought him to prominence in 2013 and 2014, while Enda Curran has been a real disappointment since arriving from Galway United in the off-season. With free scoring strikers at a premium, Mathews may be forced to look outside of the League of Ireland if he is to consider a new front man and that constitutes a gamble in itself, although David O'Sullivan is a prime example of the talent that can be found in the non-leagues, having signed from Wayside Celtic in 2013 prior to becoming Longford Town's all-time leading goalscorer by the mid-way point of the 2014 season!
However, even if Longford were to make adjustments in the transfer window it is unlikely they will ever claw back the fifteen-point gap that now separates themselves and Waterford, who occupy the only promotion place on offer this season. That begs the question, with nothing of note to play for, attendances on a dramatic slide and sponsors unlikely to get involved between now and the end of the season, would a more dramatic approach make sense?
The issue of local players, more so the lack of them within the senior set-up at the club has been a talking point ever since Longford Town joined the League of Ireland in the mid-eightees. While Darragh Doherty, Aodh Dervin and Dan Beya have all represented the club in pre-season and in a Leinster Senior cup tie away to Firhouse Clover, they have yet to feature in the league.
Bar Tristan Noack Hofmann, no local player has represented the club at senior LOI level since Michael Lee. The fact that four local players saw action against the likes of champions Dundalk in pre-season garnered great attention on both social media and local press so you would have to imagine that would be amplified if they were to play a number of First Division games in the second half of the season. With only 245 people turning out for the last home game at City Calling Stadium versus UCD, it is possible that figure could fall even lower when bottom side Wexford visit on Saturday. Prior to the UCD clash there was still a faint hope Longford could mount a title challenge this season but following that defeat to UCD and now to Waterford, those hopes are now long gone and with no relegation from the second tier, Saturday's tie is now effectively a dead rubber.
As already mentioned, only Waterford spent more on their playing squad than Longford for the 2017 season. With attendances as low as they are, the end of season prize money not even worth mentioning and a lack of match day/pub sponsors now likely given the lack of interest in the club locally, one would have to question if the wages been paid out are worth it going forward? Sitting third from bottom in an eight-team division and level on points with a side who are currently subject of an FAI investigation into irregular betting patterns, it does raise the question if a predominantly locally based side could do much worse?
Sadly senior local league football in Longford is a far cry from the strength it experienced decades ago, with a lack of suitable playing surfaces available within the county and the standard suffering greatly as a result. However, with the under 17's and under 19's LOI now in place, there is finally a proper pathway on offer to talented youngsters with an ambition of playing LOI football. However, even those young players will admit the gap between under-age and First Division football is a large one to bridge so the club would have to explore other options.
Nearby counties such as Westmeath and this season in particular Roscommon have grabbed attention with their local sides performing well on a national level. Boyle Celtic's FAI junior cup run saw them surpass any local media coverage Longford Town have gained this season and the fact that a huge crowd came to show their support at their semi-final at the Showgrounds in Sligo shows the feel good factor that can be generated by a local team. Recently, Boyle had two of their players selected to represent the Republic of Ireland's amateur international side, a team that David O'Sullivan was a key player for during his non league days. Perhaps these are the sort of players Longford could look to add in around young local lads such as Doherty, Beya, Dervin and Hofmann?
These suggestions are of course just that, they would require a hell of a lot more thinking and analysing by the powers that be at Longford Town Football club, however we all saw the consequences of a lack of action at the top last season, when though decisions clearly had to be made but in-action followed. While there are no sporting consequences for finishing towards the bottom of the First Division, it would be a dangerous move for the club to just allow this season to drift away without some sort of plan for the future in place, other than just tossing money at another new manager and squad of players next season. Now is the time for a long term plan at Longford Town and perhaps a local emphasis is the way to go both on and off the pitch?