League of Ireland fans find themselves growing in frustration with the lack of clarity regarding the 2021 Premier and First Division campaigns.
Key issues such as a solid start date, league sponsorship and fixtures are just some of the things that are up in the air when it comes to our domestic league.
While football understandable takes a back seat for many people during this current climate. The fact the league is an after thought once again can’t be shushed away.
Despite this, clubs still carry on with their preparation for the return of Irish football in 2021. Whether that be in terms of hashing out new deals, recruitment or getting ready to return to training. Once it’s safe and makes the most sense, everyone involved with this league we love so much will just be happy to see it get back up and running.
A new season brings with it, new excitement. It’s a fresh start for clubs to aim for higher heights and try improving on their finishes in 2020.
One such club with a lot of positivity around them is Athlone Town.
In what is setting out to be another tight scrap for promotion in the First Division. Athlone are putting the groundwork in to try get themselves back in the Premier Division for the first time since 2014.
Initially, people were eyeing up Galway United under the guidance of John Caufield for his first full season to get promoted. Shelbourne are also tipped for a speedy return to the top tier, especially with their fantastic recruitment from the word go.
Athlone wouldn’t have been a side people fancied for possible promotion, whether that be automatic or via the play offs.
You may have found some loyal believers in Westmeath, but fans situated outside of the beautiful Midlands town rightfully wouldn’t have gave them much of a prayer.
Poor 2020 For ‘The Town’
They finished second from bottom in the First Division last season, level on 12 points with bottom place side Wexford. Only goal difference pushed them above their Leinster rivals.
‘The Town’ couldn’t buy a win at the start of the 2020 season. With their first league win coming in September, at home to Cobh Ramblers.
In fairness, they went on a nice little run during this time. Only losing one game out of five that month.
While that sort of form suggests the team was abysmal, you’d be somewhat wrong. Right, this is a team sport, and the team needs to be singing off the same hymn sheet to be successful.
What Was The Issue Last Season?
The issue was clear for anyone looking at it, the defence wasn’t up to par at all last season.
Goals weren’t an issue for Athlone. During the entire shortened season, they only failed to score a goal during four league games. Not bad for a side glued to the wrong end of the table.
Ronan Manning finished up as the side’s top scorer with eight goals.
While Dean George impressed everyone watching their 4-1 win over Shelbourne in the FAI Cup quarter final. The 22-year-old bagged himself a hattrick and ran the show for Athlone.
Overall, Athlone netted 21 goals in 18 league games. The same amount as Cobh Ramblers who just missed out on the play offs by the skin of their teeth.
While their stats in terms of scoring goals weren’t the worst in the league, their ones for goals conceded were.
Athlone finished up the 2020 season with the worse defensive record in the league. They conceded 43 goals in 18 games. While the likes of goalkeeper Aaron Myles and defender Scott Delaney became important figures in the side, those numbers are what really let them down last season.
This is what ultimately kept them out of the promotion conversation coming into the new year. That, and the fact they haven’t got a sniff of the play offs since their relegation six years ago.
In fairness to Athlone, their business in the off season has been inspired and they are starting to build a nice little side.
As I said goalkeeper Aaron Myles was a consistent figure between the sticks last season. However, the addition of league veteran Micheal Schlingermann is an instant upgrade in personnel.
The Mayo man makes his return to Athlone for his second spell at the club. This comes after his grand return to the League of Ireland last season after a two-year hiatus.
Most importantly, manager Adrian Carberry has new recruits to put in front of the keeper to help improve their dire defensive record in recent years.
Bringing in the likes of Dylan Hand from Longford, Aidan Friel from Shelbourne and impressively courting Killian Cantwell from Bray already gives that defence a more assured look about it on paper.
Vital improvements were made, and a better quality of player has entered the fray.
Hand and Cantwell were regulars for their respective sides last season. With Cantwell especially impressing as one of the top defenders in the league at Bray.
Other players have also come in like Jonathan Carlin from Cabinteely. That’ll just give them that extra bit of depth to their defence that they were lacking last season.
Better Attacking Options Too
Of course, in the league there is always plenty of squad shake ups in the off season.
Plenty of players will arrive at your club, but you will lose players too. When you are a side like Athlone that finished at the wrong end of the table, keeping hold of your better players can be a difficult task.
When talking about Athlone’s main man last season, that certainly was Ronan Manning. Unfortunately for Athlone fans he has left for pastures new to sign for Galway United.
This happened early in December, before some of these good signings were announced. While a side like Athlone will miss a talent like Manning, the club has done brilliant in terms of replacing him.
Both Kurtis Byrne and Shane Barnes have come into the club. Two quality players for Athlone to bring in, a real signal of intent by the Westmeath side.
The recruitment of guys like Derek Daly, Stephen Meaney, Adam Wixted and James Donna will really bolster their midfield and add much more creativity to try and feed chances to the strikers.
Overall, the squad they are putting together now is a vast improvement from last season. They are easily one of the sides doing the best business and making the biggest strides from both leagues.
It’s a side that has better strength in depth, quality, and experience, while still keeping the squad relatively young. With a lot of the new signees being in their early 20’s.
When you add a manager like Carberry who has committed himself to the club for the next couple of years, from the outside looking in there seems to be a perfect storm brewing at Athlone Town.
They have some consistency on the touchline that hasn’t been there in the recent history of this historic club.
So, How Far Can They Go?
Of course, when you make such a major overhaul to a squad it may take some time for everyone to gel together.
But, if I were an Athlone fan, I would be feeling optimistic heading into the 2021 league campaign, whenever that may be.
So, realistically how high can Athlone go?
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I feel Shelbourne and Galway will be up near the top of the table, with Shels possibly being the team to beat.
You will have the likes of Bray Wanderers and UCD that are reliable and always pose tough competition.
While another tight league season can be expected, I would be willing to say Athlone could make the play offs with some amount of confidence.
There has got to be a feel-good factor around the club with all this incoming talent. While that doesn’t always mean success, I think it’s evident for all to see the good work that is being done at Athlone, with time remaining, more players could still come in yet.
Obviously, closer to the start of the league season, us lot here at the Big Kick Off will give a more comprehensive prediction on league proceedings.
For now, in this one writer’s humble opinion, Athlone have enough to certainly see themselves make it to the play offs and after that who knows.
One thing I would be very confident on saying is this, I don’t think they’ll be having another battle with Wexford for the unwanted position of rock bottom in the First Division.