Galway United the big winners on weekend one of First Division
Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS
With the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division being touted as the most open and competitive in League of Ireland history, even before a ball had been kicked, the importance of a quick start this season was not lost on those involved with the big kick-off at the weekend. The fixtures machine had thrown out on paper what looked to be an extremely tight set of opening weekend fixtures and for the majority that is exactly how events played out.
Sadly, Drogheda United's and Finn Harps return to the second tier must now wait as issues regarding the floodlights at United Park, saw Friday night's scheduled encounter between the two relegated sides of last season postponed. However, given the fact both sides had suffered similar fates last season, this was proving to be the most difficult fixture of the weekend to call in either division.
As for the First Division games that did take place and kick-start the 2018 season, it was last season's sixth versus seventh at Stradbrook, where many people's dark horse for a play-off place this season, Cabinteely were taking on Damien Locke's youthful Wexford FC. Despite many pundit's excitement regarding "Cabo" for 2018, this was always going to be decided by small margins and it took a single strike from Wexford FC man Sean Hurley to settle matters in the Capital as the team from the South-East left Dublin with all three points. Considering Wexford only picked up four league wins throughout 2017, this really was a wonderful way for Damien Locke's charges to start the new campaign and pick up an early confidence booster, ahead of some big games in the coming weeks.
Speaking to Between the Stripes reporter, Kieran Burke following Friday's game, a clearly delighted Damien Locke was keen to keep Wexford feet grounded despite the big away triumph.
"It was good to come away with three points because it's a difficult place to go and Cabinteely threw everything at us, so it was impressive to also leave with a clean sheet"
"It's a good start, but that's all it is, a start. We need to go again now and hopefully build some momentum early on."
In the other game First Division game held in Dublin on Friday night, there was a similar morale boosting win for the division's consistent overachievers, UCD, as the "Students" came from behind at home to play-off fancied, Shelbourne. With the arrival of goal-machine, David O'Sullivan, in the off-season, many have tipped the "Reds" to push at the higher end of the table this season and things looked to be off to a flyer when James English scored for Owen Heary's men on twenty-seven minutes. However, second half strikes from Greg Slogget and Timmy Molloy put the "College" in the driving seat with twenty-five minutes to play and despite relentless "Reds" pressure, UCD hung up to keep up their recent strong form in head to head meetings with their Dublin rivals.
Kicking off their 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division season on their traditional 7:30PM Saturday time-slot was Neale Fenn's new look Longford Town. Last season's runners up, Cobh Ramblers were the visitors to City Calling Stadium but despite falling 2-0 behind on the stroke of half-time, Stephen Henderson's "Rams" showed the sort of fight and character that brought them so close to promotion in the past two seasons, as Andrew Wall's and Cian Leonard's goals claimed an unlikely opening game point for the County Cork side.
In honest fashion, Cobh manager, Stephen Henderson admitted his side were lucky to escape the Midlands with three points when he spoke to Kieran Burke:
"We got out of jail. We never got going as an attacking entity and looked naive defensively at times, which Longford took advantage of."
Despite Henderson's frank assessment of his team's performance, the former Waterford United manager was naturally delighted with the fight shown by his players to rescue a point.
"We never gave up, it was through hard work and two great finishes that we managed to get a point, which we would've been happy with before the start."
As a result of Longford's slip-up, the big winners on the opening weekend were title favorites, Galway United. Not only did the "Tribesmen" see a number of their touted promotion rivals drop opening round points but Shane Keegan's men managed to notch up the most comprehensive win of the weekend with a 4-1 home victory over Athlone.
Keegan's smart swoop for lethal hit-man, Danny Furlong towards the end of the transfer window has certainly brought a fresh sense of optimism to Eamonn Deacy Park in recent weeks and the former Wexford Youth's strikers debut hat-trick against the Midlanders will now only add to the excitement levels for the 2018 season in Galway.
While the result itself may have come as little surprise given Athlone's bottom place finish last season, it was an encouraging display from Aaron Callaghan's Town team, who managed to register their first goal of the season through new signing and former Real Madrid youth, Felix Perez. The Spaniard looks to be a thoroughly exciting product and with the return of Etanda Nkololo and another promising talent, Aaro Brilly to the Athlone Town Stadium, we should see a much better showing from the League of Ireland's oldest club in 2018.
Sadly, round two's fixtures in the SSE Airtricity League First Division have been postponed, as have the Premier Division fixtures, due to Storm Emma. However, the scheduled First Division fixtures did look set to be equally as tight, with some really intriguing ties to sink your teeth into. Facing off in a battle of one-hundred percent records, it would've been Wexford FC V UCD at Ferrycarrig Park. While Collie O'Neill's men did claim the scalp of Wexford twice last season, the points were shared in the other two league meetings, meaning another close encounter was expected.
Due to take place at the same time in County Donegal, Finn Harps were finally set to begin their SSE Airtricity League First Division campaign with a home-tie against old foes, Longford Town. There have been many classic encounters between the two clubs down the years, with the 2002 promotion/relegation penalty shoot-out survival for "De Town" still a sore subject for the Harps faithful, who also lost out on the same ground to Longford in an FAI Cup replay shoot-out three seasons ago.
Having missed out on competitive minutes last weekend, thanks to the Drogheda postponement, Harps boss Ollie Horgan was understandably upset by back to back postponements, as his Harps side now look Monday's scheduled EA Sports Cup tie versus Mayo League to get competitive minutes at last.
Looking to bounce back from their opening day derby defeat to UCD would have been Owen Heary's Shelbourne, who were to host Drogheda United at 7:45pm on Friday. The "Drogs" were probably the countries top performing side in pre-season, with big results against the likes of Derry City and Bohemians, but sadly their wait for competitive action is now extended following the postponement of their opening home game versus Finn Harps and now, Shelbourne FC.
New United chief, Tim Clancy would have been hoping to capitalise on Shelbourne's disappointing start to the season, while also laying down a marker of his own ahead of some winnable looking games in the coming weeks.
Finally, in perhaps what could have been the game of the round, early league leaders, Galway United were due to travel to St.Colman's Park to tackle a buoyant Cobh Ramblers. Following their late comeback away to Longford Town, the Cobh faithful would have been excited to host Keegan's star studded "Tribesmen" but they must now wait for the opportunity to turn United over. "Rams" had the best home record, bar the champions Waterford, last season and will be looking to send a clear message out to the entire First Division with a shock win over Shane Keegan's Galway when the rearranged fixture takes place.
Below are the new dates set for both the Premier and First Division matches postponed by Storm Emma:
SSE Airtricity League Premier Division
Bray Wanderers v Waterford - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Cork City v Bohemians - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Derry City v Dundalk - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Limerick v Shamrock Rovers - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
St Patrick's Athletic v Sligo Rovers - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Limerick v Cork City - Changed from Saturday, March 17 to Friday, March 16
Limerick v Waterford - Changed from Saturday, March 31 to Friday, March 30
SSE Airtricity League First Division
Athlone Town v Cabinteely - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Wexford v UCD - Rescheduled for Monday, March 19
Cobh Ramblers v Galway United - Fixture to be rescheduled at a later date
Finn Harps v Longford Town - Fixture to be rescheduled at a later date
Shelbourne v Drogheda United - Fixture to be rescheduled at a later date