Ever since the First Division fixture list for 2014 was released just after Christmas, the excitement and anticipation has been building rapidly up and down the land as seven teams get set to battle it out for promotion to the Promised Land of Irish football, the Premier Division next season. Every fixture on the opening weekend has its own unique feel, for example Shamrock Rovers ‘B’ play their first ever game in the league at last season’s goal haven St.Colman’s Park, Finn Harps and Waterford meet in a re-match of 2013’s opening encounter while Shelbourne begin life in the First Division at home to a potential dark horse in Wexford Youths.
However, it is the match up of Galway FC and Longford Town that has everybody talking, with President Michael D. Higgins set to take in proceedings on Friday night at Eamon Deacy Park.
Galway FC, like Shamrock Rovers ‘B’, are taking part in the League of Ireland for the very first time having only formed during the off-season, with years of work of forming an all-Galway team finally coming good. Former Cork City manager Tommy Dunne has plenty of experience at this level, having guided the ‘Rebels’ to the First Division title in 2011 and the Dublin native has been extremely busy and successful in the close season by building a squad full of quality and strength.
Mervue United’s amazing success of 2013 has, as expected, seen a large number of their players make up the Galway FC squad for the coming season with young striking sensation Ryan Manning the stand out of those arrivals. However, Dunne has also been able to add experienced players to his ranks with Ryan Connolly arriving from Sligo Rovers, following a very successful loan spell with Longford while Derek O’Brien is a name well known to both sets of fans having played with ‘De Town’ last season and having appeared for the former incarnation of Galway United FC.
Alan Murphy and Vinny Faherty are two more well respected forwards that have signed up for Galway’s promotion push and when you look at the players that will be on show on the opening weekend, you really would have to say there should be goals aplenty to keep the President, and the large crowd expected to attend, entertained on Friday night.
Longford Town FC kick-off the 2014 campaign as hot favourites, both among fans in general and most importantly the bookies, to finally claim the First Division title having gone so close in recent years. 2013 was without doubt the closest of calls so far when it came to promotion for Town since they dropped down to this level back in 2007. At the half-way stage of last term, Tony Cousins’ team held a massive nine point advantage over local rivals Athlone Town only to let it slip away prior to losing 5-4 on aggregate to Bray Wanderers in an astonishing but equally heart-breaking play-off final. Many pundits felt it was the loss of our captain, Mark Salmon that cost Longford the league last season and when you look at the fact Tony Cousins was without almost all of his regular midfield and back four options, it is hard to disagree with those claims. If you are going to win a title you need to have a strong starting eleven and an equally strong subs bench and reserves list as well as a bit of luck along the way and during the off-season Tony Cousins has aimed to put that in place with the acquisitions of some of Irish football’s best and most experienced players.
Stephen Rice, Pat Sullivan and Pat Flynn won it all at Shamrock Rovers, as well as experiencing football at the top level in Europe. It is the addition of those three players in particular that should help bring an air of steel and confidence into the Longford dressing room.
Elsewhere, the return of striker Don Cowan from English football will terrify opposition defences as he was top scorer when he departed the club a couple of seasons ago. His pace, power and finishing ability is sure to give defenders nightmares this season.
Peter Hynes returns from a successful three year stint with Premier Division outfit, Drogheda United while local lad Daryl Carrigy looks set to have a bright future in the game having returned from Derby County. In midfield we have the aforementioned Stephen Rice who will Captain the team in 2014 with Kevin O’Connor also an option in the centre of the park having signed from Bray Wanderers. O’Connor is the player who effectively kept Longford down by scoring a thirty-yard thunderbolt for Bray in the dying seconds of that play-off.
Sean Russell is one of the younger additions to the squad from UCD AFC but he also brings Premier Division experience having played over thirty games for the ‘Students’ last season and along with twenty-one year-old winger, Lorcan Shannon, has been one of the stand-out performers in pre-season. Despite all the magnificent signings made by the Midlands club it was the re-signing of last season’s League of Ireland top scorer, David O’Sullivan that looks like it could be the key to the puzzle in the year ahead with ‘Sully’ bagging four goals in six pre-season games to give Longford fans real hope of seeing the Wicklow native match if not better his unbelievable tally of 27 goals last campaign.
Obviously with this being Galway’s first game ever in the league combined with the fact it is the opening game of the campaign there is little history to go on when looking at the stats but in ten games against Galway opposition last season, Longford Town won five and drew two with Mervue United picking up three wins in a row against the Midlands club before finally bowing out in the First Division play-off final on penalties. Town’s last trip to Eamon Deacy Park was back in 2012 when they defeated SD Galway by three goals to one and it is a ground that should bring positive memories to the large travelling support as the Town famously knocked Galway United out of the FAI Cup a few years ago.
With a massive home game on the cards next weekend against Shelbourne followed by difficult away trips to Wexford and Cobh, Tony Cousins will be eager to see his side get off the mark right from the get go against their main title rivals. While many would see a point as a positive result, the message from inside the Longford camp is they are heading west with every intention of taking home the three points and that should make for a classic opening day match up.
NOTE: Seats on our supporter’s bus are still available. Departing Longford at 5pm on Friday. Book now on 083 167 0304.