Athlone Again, Naturally
Every Game An Away Game by Bluebeard
(first published in the August 2011 Athlone Town match programme)
Even though it is still only August, we commence our final series of League games tonight, and so we say goodbye to Athlone for another season, seeing as they are out of the Cup too. Our matches with them this season have been kinder to us than them: after a share of the spoils in our opening game, we took three points – and three goals – in Lissywollen in what was to be the old regime’s best result this season.
Since then our manager has changed, fortunes have improved, and we have had a couple of good results, prior to the last two weeks. However, for all the improvements since regime change, I suspect that most of us here tonight expect we’ll be playing Athlone again next season. The combination of a very slow start to the season, and the dramatic improvement and impressive start of three of our four rivals will probably consign us to the First for another year. This is all the more a shame, seeing as it is probable that both Drogheda and Galway would finish below us were they in the First, in spite of our poor start, and yet one of them is guaranteed to stay up, at least on the field…
Such, unfortunately, is football. So it is that next season, for all our history and importance to the League, we are possibly looking at tying the club record of five years unbroken service to the First Division. I am a big believer in the First Division: it gave meaning to the second half of the season for many meandering clubs, and has the potential to bring senior football to some of the breeding grounds of the sport in Ireland, such as Wexford. But believing in the First is one thing, living here is another. Let there be no mistake, two or more seasons challenging unsuccessfully in the First certainly leads to a dreadful depression.
So then, we should spare a thought for our opponents tonight who are possibly on the verge of their best season since 2007. It must be hard for the younger among us to believe that Athlone are one of the true grand old dames of Irish football. The oldest senior club in the country, at almost 125 years, they joined the League in its second season, becoming the first non-Dublin side to field a team in the National League. After a lapse they returned to the League in the late sixties and under Turlough O’Connor, an Athlone man, they won it twice in ‘81 and ‘83, and won three League Cups during his five years in charge. I suspect for some Athlone fans, however, their fondest memory of those early years back in senior football will be the UEF A Cup run of 1975; having won their first round game with Vålerenga, they famously held AC Milan to a scoreless draw in the first leg of the second round at St Mel’s.
With all those trophies in the run-up to their centenary year, even allowing for a dip the previous season, it must have been a shock to the system to be relegated for the first time in 1987. They won their way back in their centenary season, but after four years dropped down again for another season. The reins were then handed to Turlough’s brother Michael, who brought them back once again in 1994.
They survived the relegation playoff in 1995 on penalties, and lost it the following year, again on penalties. Since then, they have come close to returning only once, in 2001, when they lost a play-off, once more on penalties. And since then, things have been ever worse, never featuring in the top half of the First Division, and even finishing bottom once. Financially, things went badly too, and in spite of the move into the new stadium in 2007, the end of 2008 saw Athlone on the verge of financial oblivion. But the fans came to the rescue, and saved the club.
This is Athlone Town’s sixteenth season in the doldrums. Only Limerick have been here longer, by two seasons now, but they at least managed to win the League Cup, and a couple of Munster Senior Cups, since relegation. Athlone’s closest brush with a glimmer of distraction was defeat in the League Cup final to Derry City in 1999, and also that same year to Wayside Celtic in the Leinster Senior Cup final. Their best FAI Cup run in the last ten years was losing a replay in the quarter finals to arch rivals Longford in 2004. By comparison, our dismay of recent years seems paltry – we have had a couple of wins in the Munster, a couple of good Cup runs, appearances in the FAI and League Cup finals. We’ve tended to be at the challenging end of the table, and were within a whisker of going up last season, and a single win from the play-offs the season before.
That said, as long term loyal fans, we expect more, and unchallenged as the dominant team in the South East in recent years, we are probably right to expect that. Many of us have resigned ourselves to another season in the First, but I think we are all hoping that this means that this is to be a season of development in preparation for a proper tilt at the First Division title next year – the longer we stay in the First, the harder it will be to rise again, as the Midlanders know only too well. With the best respects to tonight’s opposition, the only way I want to be playing Athlone in the League again is when they are promoted to the Premier.