"We're looking for the play-offs 100%" says Athlone's Cian Byrne

Safe to say, it has been a dreadful few years at the office for Athlone Town. Two bottom of the table finishes, coupled with a litany of off-field issues have plunged the League of Ireland’s oldest professional club into a state of crisis.

However, there appears, from the outside at least, to be an improved sense of optimism around Lissywoolen. While it will take years to heal the major sense of apathy towards the club, the Blue and Black half of the Midlands look to be trying at least to bring a feeling of positivity back to the club.

Athlone Town have attempted to re-build the club, and under the tutelage of Terry Butler and Mitch Whitty, the club look to be having success of sorts in building a squad capable of competing once again in the League of Ireland First Division.

Signings such as Christian Lotefa, Shane Dunne and Aaron Myles have all lifted the mood at Lissywoolen, alongside the double signing of former Longford Town duo Cian Byrne and Aaron Brilly.

Byrne, a talented wide player by trade, recently caught up with betweenthestripes.ie reporter, Andrew Dempsey to discuss his move to Athlone, while also looking back on an injury-ravaged year at Longford Town, Athlone’s fierce midlands rivals.  

The well-spoken twenty-one-year-old Dubliner endured a frustrating spell at Longford Town. Injuries compounded a miserable spell at the City Calling Stadium for the former Lucan United schoolboy star, who once shared the same dressing room as Liverpool starlet, Conor Masterson.

When opening up on his spell at Longford, Byrne noted that the chance to prove himself once again on the League of Ireland stage was too good to turn down when he was approached by Terry Butler of Athlone Town.

“Last year at Longford was a bit of a disaster. I can’t wait to put this year behind me to be honest. I started off well in pre-season and then I started picking up some niggly injuries, I was on the bench a lot and then I think it was in late April when I ruptured my ligaments and then I left. I signed for Maynooth University Town in the Leinster Senior League to keep myself ticking over until January and then I signed for Athlone to get back at it for next year.”

The project at Athlone Town is a massive task for anyone looking to change the fortunes of the crisis-ridden club in County Westmeath. However, there are vibes of a new, positive era ensuing at the club, a pitch that was sold to the Lucan native.

“Terry and Mitch inherited a mess. They sat me and a few others that were signed up for next year down and said they want to re-brand the club and they want to play a certain style of football there. There’s a new pitch going in there as well, so that will be nice to play on, so that’s what Terry’s put in front of me.”

As mentioned previously, Byrne shared a talented dressing room with twenty-year-old Liverpool starlet, Conor Masterson once upon a time. As he rose through the ranks, opportunities began to surface for the tricky wide man, who has a knack for impressive wing play.

After impressing in the Leinster Senior League with Lucan United, the newly appointed Neale Fenn at Longford Town came calling to give the then twenty-year-old his first taste of a senior League of Ireland environment.

“When I was at Lucan, I played with Christian Magerusan, who is at Bohs now, and we were playing really well. He signed for Bohs first and Dave Henderson brought me down to Bohs to have a look me. I played a game and I didn’t sign but as soon as I played, I knew I wanted to play in the League of Ireland. I knew Neale from before that, I actually done Neale’s Path to Pro when I was younger. I gave him a call and just went up to train with them and signed then for Longford!”

However, things never really worked out on the Strokestown Road for Byrne. An ultra-competitive squad was difficult to make a mark on, while injuries ultimately crushed any hope for the youngster of breaking into “De Town’s” starting eleven.

“When I first signed, I knew I wasn’t going to get much game time before the end of the season. It was a really competitive side to get into with the cup run we had. The team was really tough to get into, but I went into last season thinking I could nail down a spot in the starting eleven. I started really well in pre-season, I got a good chance with Alan Kehoe being injured, and it was just me and Tristan (Noak Hoffman) competing. I was picking up little injuries and Tristan was in and Kehoe was back, so I was kind of brushed aside. I got back from injury, I was working really hard and then I got the injury with my ankle and I was devastated the way it happened.”

As the conversation veered towards its inevitable conclusion, Byrne fired warning shots at those in the First Division who will be looking at Athlone as an easy target for maximum points next term.

“I can’t wait to get going. There’s a really good attitude in the squad, everyone is young and eager to impress. Even Terry and Mitch want to prove themselves as well, especially me. I just really can’t wait to get going. Everyone thinks we’re going to be in and around the bottom with Wexford but that’s not we’re thinking. We’re looking for the Playoffs, 100%. Especially in terms of the local derby with Longford, we want to make it more competitive compared to what it was like last year!”

In terms of writing the wrongs of previous campaigns, Athlone Town appear to be moving in the right direction once more, however, it will take years of hard work to restore the famous old Westmeath club back to her former glories, and with their current off-season activity, they are certainly moving in the right direction.  

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