Andrew Dempsey (@AndrewDempsey98)
Longford Town boss Stephen Henderson has plenty of experience managing in the First Division during spells with Cobh Ramblers and Waterford – but even that could not prepare him for the job he faced as Town manager this year.
Appointed late in the day after the end of the 2022 First Division campaign, Henderson had just two players – Shane Elworthy and Cristian Magerusan – from the previous squad left to retain. And that meant he needed to rebuild a squad that enjoyed relative success last year.
But that was not without its additional struggles.
Injuries, suspension and unwanted off-field issues hit Town at the worst possible times – but they were still able to stay in the play-off hunt up until the final few games of the season.
“We had a really poor start, really good middle and finished off with a poor end,” Henderson admits. “It’s easy for me to make excuses but there’s a lot of facts and extenuating circumstances there that we had to deal with.
“But the success of it was that we got young players in and through that process we hung in there and we got to the last four games of the season where we had a chance to make the play-offs. If you looked at what we were, you wouldn’t think that was possible.
“A lot of credit goes to the players and especially the younger players for keeping us in there and fighting it out because ultimately we were too young at times and we gave ourselves too much of a mountain to climb in relation to challenging for promotion in any context.
“There’s a lot of learnings to take from and there’s disappointment for the brilliant support we’ve had. We’re gutted over that. We would have liked to have given them so much more.
“Hopefully we can give it a right kick next year for the club’s 100-year anniversary.”
While injuries and suspensions cost Longford at crucial junctures of the campaign, Town boss Henderson admitted he was surprised by the way the club were treated by organisations before and during the season.
“I didn’t realise the apathy towards Longford and I was shocked with some of the stuff that went on at the start of the season from organisations,” he explained.
“This is a club that has been in existence for 100 years because of its prudency in how it goes about doing its business. But this isn’t a case where you’re going into the players and you’re saying, look, it’s us against the rest of the league, it actually felt that way.
“You genuinely felt that way, that there was so much going on against us. It took me back. I spoke to Jim (Hanley) about it a few times and there were times that I would have liked to have done something but he talked me out of it a few times!
“But I think it’s time that we stand up to certain things that went on and to and to how certain people treated us. I think that kind of accumulated in what happened in relation to the situation down in Kerry. We needed to be looked after better than what we were.
“I think that was just an accumulation of how we were treated from the start to the season to the finish.”
But Town did enjoy a purple patch during the summer months – and perhaps it was no surprise that it arrived following the arrival of Beineon O’Brien-Whitmarsh in May and the return of other key men from injury.
“We needed a striker that was prepared to make those runs in behind and try to stretch teams,” Henderson added. “Beineon was quite prepared to run the channels for and gave us something different. He was able to push teams back and then we were able to play a bit.
“When Cristian came back, the two of them hit it off and they had a great partnership.
“Beineon had certain things that were organised throughout the course of the season and that broke up that partnership but it gave us the chance to become a bit more expansive in how we played because of the players that we got back. We went on a really good run.
“We were scoring goals and were exciting to watch but it only takes two or three players to go on the injury list and that’s where we were in relation to the squad. We needed our best players on the pitch to help the younger players.
“But Kyle O’Connor didn’t need any help. Kyle O’Connor is one of the real success stories. He came in and didn’t know if he was a midfielder, winger or a full-back.
“He’s someone that’s really grown into that role and he’s been phenomenal. But he still has a lot to learn. He’s getting better and better all the time.”
And while Henderson admits he needs to add more physicality to his squad during the coming months, he is keen to retain a number of players as well.
“There’s a lot of really good players in the club that we’ve already started the process of speaking to,” he added. “We want to have that core with the likes of Jack Brady, Shane Elworthy, Kyle O’Connor and these kinds of boys.
“We’re looking to form the spine of a team and get them all back together.
“We can then start the process of bringing in a couple of more players that will just make us physically stronger. Set pieces are huge in this league. I’ve never seen so many players with long throws before.
“These long throws are proper corner kicks and we need to be able to stand up to that stuff and earn the right to play. But I don’t want to play in a way that insults Longford people because they’re used to the team trying to play a certain brand of football.
“We have to be able to continue to do that but we have to earn the right to do that. So we need to bring in players that can do that for us.
“Hopefully we’ll be in a completely different position to when I came in last year. We had two players from the previous squad so if we can have 10 or 12 lads as a baseline to move forward from, I think we’d be really competitive.
“But we still have two games to go and they are important. Even against Cobh we created 11 opportunities and they created four. They took two and we took none. But it’s a credit to the players that although there was nothing to play for, they kept going.
“They kept working really hard for the club. That’s very pleasing and I hope they do the same now against Bray. I hope they go out and put on a show for the supporters in the last home match of the season.”