Prologue: Some would call it intuition, an assumption based on past experiences; others would credit neurons calculating trajectories at the speed of light. Whatever it was I knew, I just knew – as soon as the ball was struck – that ball was going to not only nestle in the net, but also consign Longford Town to another season of toil in Ireland’s second tier.
The ‘City Calling Stadium’ which only moments before seemed so warm and full of hope-filled breath now empty, an empty container of hard reality in the frigid November air.
What was most striking was the silence, save for the hundred or so jubilant away fans that had made the trip – they could hardly believe their luck. The 2,500 home fans could only curse theirs and hang their heads in lament on the culmination of a season that had got away from them. No talk of next season and what might be, only what might have been. 7 years bad luck.
Take the short drive out from the county capital to the place ‘De Town’ call their home and it becomes evident that the past seven years have not been kind to this boggy part of Ireland’s midlands.
On each side of the newish roads lie half finished developments – cavernous retail parks still with the plastic covers on the windows and scaffold-clad domiciles, so called ‘Ghost Estates’ complete with faded signs offering modern family living. They still stand 7 years on, monuments to unabated greed and fly-by-night developers.
The fortunes of the county’s football team have somewhat mirrored the economic rollercoaster which Ireland’s 2nd smallest county has endured.
Rewind to the start of the century and the outlook could not have been more different. The effects of he governments ‘rural renewal scheme’ had ignited an economic revival. New houses were being bought as quickly as they were built, new shiny cars were the norm and disposable cash was being freely expended every weekend in the town’s three nightclubs.
In a resurgence mirroring the ringing cash registers Longford Town F.C were experiencing the newly attained heights of Ireland’s Eircom Premier division. Lead by Stephen Kenny - The youngest ever manager when appointed at age 27 in 1998 - a mid-table finish was no mean feat in the club’s debut season.
This was surpassed by an FAI cup run which brought ‘De Town’ to the final in Tolka Park where the midlanders came undone against League Champions Bohemians. The fact that ‘Bohs’ had already secured the title meant that, rather unfathomably, UEFA cup qualification was Longford’s.
Kenny’s managerial wonders had not gone unnoticed, and despite heartfelt attempts to convince him to stay, the young man could not resist the bright lights and more expansive budgets of Dublin.
During the economic boom – dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” – there were those, mainly bespectacled economists, that warned (or at least tried to warn) the public of the precarious nature of the economy – a temple of glass built on a foundation of quicksand. Those few cautions were unheeded, drowned out by a heady mix of liquid assets, villas in Croatia and champagne.
The blip for ‘De Town’ followed directly after their record-breaking season.
The European sojourn to Lovech, Bulgaria was, although undeniably an adventure, ultimately fruitless. Under manager Graham Lawlor Longford suffered from ‘2nd album syndrome’ with a penalty shoot-out in the relegation/promotion play-off providing the most tenuous of escapes from a return to the first division.
The warning sign, much like those spectacled economists, seemed to spell out disaster just around the corner for Longford Town FC. What occurred confounded the most ardent harbinger of doom.
Perhaps stung into action by the previous seasons near-miss Alan Mathews and his squad set in motion the most successful period in Longford Town’s history. For the next four seasons lowly Longford camped out in the top 6 of Ireland’s premier division. The N4, the motor way which links Longford to the Irish capital saw its fair share of convoys clad in red and black flags; with four cup finals being reached in two years, three of them yielding silverware. Longford’s travel agents were left consulting their guidebooks as demand rose for cheap flights to Liechtenstein and southern Wales to follow De Town’s quest for continental domination.
It’s often the simple things that undo you. The economy crashed behind the ignoring of the most simple of economic principles – Supply and Demand. The 2007 season saw Longford Town F.C deducted six points for mistakes in the registration of the club’s licence. That deduction made all the difference and Longford Town’s high flying adventure in Ireland’s top flight had come to an end.
As the building sites around Longford shuddered to a halt, places of frantic energy eerily silent, so to was the ‘Flanciro’ - The moniker attributed to a the club’s links with a local distribution company - with the sounds of unprecedented success replaced with harsh reality.
Following a brace of missed opportunities to regain Premier League status Longford’s hierarchy employed Tony Cousins as the man to build a young squad with the sole aim of promotion. And, by the midway point of this season that looked to be secured.
Propelled by the goals of new striker David o’Sullivan ‘De Town’ moved ahead in the first half of the season clear at the top by 9 points. With talk of Ireland exiting recession and the warmest summer in a decade an air of oft absent optimism hung in the in the lazy June air.
Games between Longford Town and their closest neighbours Athlone Town are referred to as ‘The Classico’ , tongue-in-cheek no doubt, but the rivalry between the two midland clubs is one of the fiercest that exists out side of Dublin. In the build-up the anticipation was high for Longford Town, a win would put them 12 clear of their nearest rivals - they would be on cruise control.
Longford lost by two goals. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that game was the reason why Athlone Town went on to overtake their rivals - and subsequently secure automatic promotion – in truth Longford’s squad endured a crippling injury list and of course, a young squad brings with its own disadvantages. This did not make the capitulation any less spectacular.
Longford limped and stuttered through the 2nd half of the season and into the play-offs. A penalty shoot-out was just enough to get Longford through to the two-legged ‘final’ versus Bray Wanderers. Expectation had given way to desperation. And, as the ball nestled in the net in the 86th minute, the cold of autumn came in and blew away the warm summer dreams, reality came to pass. Not this year.
Epilogue: Three months have passed since that cold November night, but the air has that same snap to it, the same genes as that which hung over the heads of those silently filing out of Longford Town’s home ground after their last competitive fixture.
The lament of a season lost had festered, turning increasingly into discontent – a gnawing fear that Cousins’ youthful project would be dismantled and, with momentum lost, ‘De Town’ would be starting from scratch.
In fact the close season proved – so far at least – a triumph for Longford and a vindication of the hierarchy’s decision to retain the managerial status quo. The losses to the squad have been minimal and the club has added a raft of experience to their talented youngsters – most impressively Stephen Rice, a talented midfielder who scored for Shamrock Rovers at White Hart Lane in their Europa league excursion in 2011.
Longford’s St.Mel’s cathedral is nearing the end of its restoration – the grand, neo-classical structure was gutted in a fire on Christmas day 2009. It’s steeple forms one of two stand-out features of the county town’s skyline. The other is the glass tower jutting out from the unoccupied shopping centre, a cavernous reminder of economic folly – which, if reports are to believed, may soon find use as a hotel.
It could well be that by the time both structures regain their purpose they could do so looking down on a town celebrating Longford Town F.C’s return to Ireland’s top tier. It will take more than this to undo the damage inflicted on the region since the economic bubble burst – but it will no doubt be a welcome distraction. God knows the town needs it.
Charlie is on Twitter @clonmacart