So off on another League of Ireland ground-hop, into the Midlands this time to see Athlone Town, from the county of Westmeath and into the heart of Ireland.
Athlone town (“The town of Luan’s ford” in Gaelic) with a population of about 21,000, is sitting proud on the great majestic River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland, nicely splitting the town into two.
Luain was an innkeeper who guided people across the treacherous waters of the ancient ford. Later, a settlement was established around the crossing point and, later, a wooden bridge was built across the river in the 12th century, and with it a fort for protection built by Irish chieftain Turloch Mór Ó Conor, and, next, the Normans built a motte and bailey, and later still a castle. Basically the town itself was built over time around these varying structures, strategic pinpoints to crossing the Shannon and indeed Ireland itself.
Getting to the town is easy as it is well served by both train and bus. Irish Rail have daily trains coming and going from Dublin Heuston and westwards to the Westport/Ballina lines as well as to Athenry, Oranmore and Galway. Bus Éireann, the national bus operator, runs beside the railway station and provides an hourly daily service to Dublin and Galway. For getting around the town, a local Athlone bus service is also in operation. By car, coming from Dublin you can get on the M6 motorway, that connects Athlone to the capital city (90 minutes) and to Galway (60 minutes). The town itself is small enough and well easy to walk around on foot and see most of the sights within the day, or in my case visit a good few of the boozers in a couple of hours!!
Athlone has two things that make it stand out from other midlands towns, the Shannon and the regional third level college, The Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT). The Shannon brings tourism while the college brings students. These amenities are a huge boost to the area, bringing technical and pharma jobs to the town, and with it the development of the area. The town has two big shopping centres, the usual top quality hotels to cater for all the tourists (Prince of Wales, Hodson Bay, Sheraton and Radisson ), has a few state-run and semi-state-run organisations (The Department of Education, Revenue Commissioners, Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland all have bases in the town), and money is flowing into this up and coming hub beside the Shannon. Sports wise too, the Athlone IT International Arena is Ireland’s first world class indoor athletics arena, while the town hosted the prestigious European Triathlon Championships in 2010, when approximately 5,000 athletes participated in the event.
On the River Shannon, one can take a cruise, or even go on a Viking adventure trip up the River on a replica Viking boat. Lough Ree is just up the road and a great place for boating. The promenade on the River Shannon is popular among anglers, birdwatchers and swimmers.
Landmarks and good markers for directions are the Church of Saints Peter and Paul which stands tall beside Athlone Castle, with its Visitors Centre, built for England’s King John in 1210. It is one of the oldest surviving castles in Ireland, situated next to the bridge across the Shannon. Also St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, at the other end of the town, dominates the skyline of the small town.
Well known people who are from the town of Athlone include Going for Gold host Henry Kelly, the international renowned tenor John McCormack, country singer Brendan Shine, Irish politician Mammy O’Rourke, and two well known Youtubers, Jacksepticeye who is septic, and Stefan Molyneux who is anything but.
Address: 13 Main Street, Athlone
Well there could only be one bar that I could start the day of fun in and that would have to be Sean’s bar, just around the corner from Athlone Castle on the banks of the River Shannon.
The oldest pub on the island of Ireland, and also even in the whole wide world, with a history dating back to AD 900! Yes you read that correctly, nine hundred AD! But this isn’t just an Irish tale, the Guinness World Records have confirmed this amazing fact to be true, no fake news here!
I was lucky enough to get chatting to Timmy O Donovan who works in Seans Bar and who was kind enough to sit down with me for a small talk about the history behind the pub.
Was well impressed with Timmy’s vast knowledge of the olden times and it is quite clear that the bar does have an old, old history.
The bar itself looks very quaint from the outside, looks a bit small, but once inside you can wander around and see that it is quite big actually, a few floors too. A lot of history with many ancient artifacts on display, and the front bar is a nice and cosy place for a quiet pint. They do have a lot of space out the back and they have a large beer garden to cater for bigger crowds and to help ease the congestion from the nightly music sessions they like to have here.
When I was there early in the day there were a good few tourists in the bar, but also a nice mix of locals too, a good atmosphere was building, and the pints were a flowing. They do have a good selection of beers on tap and I tried their own stout and the red ale, both very good particularly the stout, excellent. Also had a wee drop of their whiskey. Now not a whiskey drinker, yeah I know as an Irishman that’s a mortal sin, but it tasted ok to me, least it was smooth enough! Sat at the bar and took in all the atmosphere and the mystique of the place. Loved it and would have been quite happy to have stayed here all day, but alas I had to continue on my trip around the town. Ancient Irish history, in the settings of a cozy relaxed bar, drinking great pints. If only history class in school was as interesting as this!!!
Great bar, and even if it had none of the history it still would be a top spot. Recommended, and I will be back!!!!!
Address: 9 Mardyke Street, Athlone
After Seans I went for a stroll, to have a look at John McCormick’s old house, walk past the Castle and take in the cool breeze of the Shannon air as I ventured across the bridge to the other side of the town. Went into Nuts Corner, in the centre of the town, as it had a nice exterior, old fashioned and inviting.
A few customers, looked like regulars, the horse racing on the box, ordered a pint of the black stuff, Guinness, which tasted good, service was fine. Nice, small enough little bar, with a traditional interior, a place for music at night, but not much happening this time of the day.
The Bottleneck Bar
Address: 5 Mardyke Street, Athlone.
This place was a little busier than the last bar, busy enough for the time of the day that was in it, bar was pretty full, still managed to get a place at the top table! Ordered a pint of Smithwicks from a friendly bar lady, who looked like she was worked off her feet, all alone in a busy bar, in a bar with some rather interesting characters!
Anyway, pint was fine, bar had a good atmosphere, if a little edgy, but all good fun.
Address: 88 Sean Costello Street, Athlone
After a quick detour via SuperMacs (love the old SuperMacs!), dropped into this small bar for another quick pint. Small bar divided into two sections, went past all the regulars giving me the eye to the quieter section at the back. Ordered a pint of Smithwicks, my usual. Got chatting to the bar man who was great craic, very good sense of humour, good bit of ribbing.
Pint was fine, atmosphere in the bar was great, and I enjoyed this bar, good bit of banter with the bar man, and if back in the town will be back. Recommended!
Address: 3 Barrack Street, Athlone
Popped in as this pub was recommended by quite a few people online. A family run pub with a nice traditional smart decor. I ordered a pint of Smithwicks, in a pretty deserted pub for a Saturday afternoon. Pint was fine, served quick and drank quicker. Not much to report, unfortunately.
Walsh’s Pub and Grocery
Address: 72 Connaught Street, Athlone
Final pub before I headed out to the game. Dropped in here for a quick pint. Got a pint of Smithwicks, and sat myself down at the side of the entrance which was well comfy and secluded to the rest of the bar. Near the bar there was a massive screen with the horse racing on, a few punters in the darkly lit bar, relaxed atmosphere and pint was fine. No problems.
Pub is run by the Walsh family for six generations and is a cosy little place.
Athlone Town A.F.C.
Arena/Stadium: Athlone Town Stadium
Location: Lissywollen, Athlone
Capacity: 5,000 (2,500 seated)
Manager: Terry Butler
Leagues: League of Ireland First Division
League of Ireland/Premier Division: 2 (Last 1983)
FAI Cup: 1 (1924)
Nickname: The Town
Athlone Town Association Football Club are the oldest football team playing in the League of Ireland, founded in 1887. They play their home games in Athlone Town Stadium, which was opened in 2007. The club’s colours are blue and black.
They first joined the LOI in 1922, played for a few years to 1928, then did not partake in competitive senior league football until 1969! But they did take part in the FAI Cup and even won it in 1924, beating Fordsons from Cork one nil, there one and only FAI Cup win.
The club finished second in the league in the 1974–75 season earning a place in the UEFA Cup, the first time they had ever qualified for European competition. Their first-round game was against Norwegian side Vålerenga who they beat. Athlone’s second round tie is legendary, against Italian giants AC Milan drawing 0–0 in the first leg at little old St. Mel’s Park setting a record attendance of 9,000 before losing the second leg at the San Siro 3–0. At St Mel’s they even had the demetrity to miss a penalty!
A first league title came in the 1980–81 season. As Champions of Ireland, they played KB from Denmark in the European Cup, the following season, earning a draw in the first leg away but going out by the away goals after a one all home draw at St. Mel’s. Another title came in the 1982–83 season. Their opponents in Europe on this occasion were Belgian outfit Standard Liège, losing 3–2 at home and 8–2 in Liège.
In the late 80’s and in the 1990’s the club went through a period of relegation and promotion over a few years. Relegation in the 1996 season seeing them spend quite a while in the first division. In the early noughties, the club went through a succession of different managers,all with little success with Athlone nearing more the bottom half than the promotion places throughout each season, depressing stuff.
But by 2007, with the new move to the Stadium, confidence was up for a change in the direction of the club. That confidence was ill founded as the club had to go to the fans to help it out of some financial difficulties, a patron scheme with over 350 loyal fans contributing to the club staying afloat.
If you are thinking that that was as bad as it got well then you aint seen nothing yet! A debt of about 500,000 Euros, incurred through the building of the new stadium, was a noose around the neck of the old club. I dont understand how the club managed to have so much debt considering their new ground was meant to have been a direct land swap between them and the local council, but heh this is Fianna Fail country (irish political party and sometime crime syndicate) and it is better not to ask questions! But suddenly in 2011, the debt was paid, in full, by a mysterious backer that had the whole league gossiping to the identity of the new owners of the club. The supporters were rubbing their hands with glee, what Galactico’s would be relocating by the Shannon, better get those guest houses spruced up! Well they didn’t get any superstars but they did get Roddy Collins, and under his guidance and with a decent squad, Athlone finally clinched the First Division title with a 1–0 win over Waterford United, in September 2013, and thus promotion to the Irish premier. But alas, the club were relegated the very next season!
But years later what happened was far worse than what any supporter could have ever dreamed off, far, far worse. A consortium of shady characters from Portugal had taken over the club, with money seemingly supplied from China. Debts were wiped out for sure, but so was any semblance of a decent team as very average footballers from all over the place turned up to play for the town. Added to this were two Portuguese managers, Ricardo Monsanto and Ricardo Cravo, who didn’t really get what LOI football was all about, or was that the purpose? It seemed like football was secondary, and that other trivial pursuits were more important!I The upshot of all this was that Athlone went three seasons where they were rock bottom, last in the league, and even went one whole season without a win, shocking stuff from Ireland’s oldest club. Some of the players didn’t seem up to scratch and had their minds on other things. The end result of all this was that in September 2017 the FAI banned goalkeeper Igors Labuts and midfielder Dragos Sfrijan for 12 months after a UEFA investigation found “clear and overwhelming betting evidence” of fixing in one of Athlones games (against Longford). Just the one, I add! (cough!)
Crowds dropped, some games had attendances less than a 100! Added to this Athlone had 10 managers in a seven year period, with players coming and going, and all the background shenanigans to boot. No wonder the crowds stayed away. Through all of this it has to be said, all this bull went under the watch of club chairman John Hayden. The result is there is a long term boycott of all Athlone games from some of the more die hard Athlone Town fans who won’t return until Hayden is gone.
Athlone Town Stadium, or “Lissywollen” as it commonly known to the fans, is the home stadium of Athlone Town. It has a seating capacity just over 2,000 and an overall capacity of 5,000. The stadium was built in 2007, replacing St Mel’s Park which the club had played out of for near 80 years. In 2018, a dispute over ownership of Athlone Town Stadium arose between the club and local businessman Declan Molloy, who was majority shareholder in Athlone Stadium Ltd and who had apparently ploughed a lot of money into the club during some of the more darker days. The issue of what to do with a government grant for the installation of artificial turf ahead of the 2019 Season was delayed due to this row. But it eventually resided with the club gaining control of the ground, and so the plastic pitch was layed (unfortunately I say, I hate the plastic!)
To the game
Athlone AFC 0–1 Longford Town
22.03.2019 Athlone Town Stadium
69’ Sam Verdon (Longford)
Getting to the ground itself by foot is a little tricky as it is a bit of a trek from the town centre, but luckily enough I managed to hitch a lift with a Longford Town fan.
Bought a ticket at entrance stile for €10.00 which I think is very reasonable.
They used to have a bar here back in the day, but not these days. Lucky then I managed to bring in two cans of cider to keep me going in the cold dark night that was in it!
The ground itself is fine, or at least the main stand, the only one! For the first half I sat with the Longford Town fans down in the corner.
At half time had a wander around, and grabbed some refreshments from a catering van with some friendly staff, got a nice burger and some hot tea for myself and some coffee for two stewards/ball boys (Ball men?) I had noticed standing in the cold on their own behind the goals and across from the main stand. I wandered over to them for a chat, and a great chat it was, and was well surprised that they do this for the pure love of the game but it seems to me they dont get much thanks for their hard work, not even a cup of hot tea, ffs. Shameful from Athlone Town FC, you should always look after your volunteers.
As for the game, Athlone had a good chance in the first half, good shot with the Longford keeper alert to it and pushing the shot wide. Longford then had claims for a penalty when one of their forwards went down in the box. Have to say where I was sitting it looked like a penalty. Longford’s wingers were really doing well, both left and right I thought and causing a lot of problems for the Athlone defense. And sure enough this is the route where Longford got the only goal of the game, from the right, a cross that everyone missed, expect Sam Verdon who walked it in at the far post. Both teams had a few more chances but Longford held on to notch up another Derby win against their old rivals. Not a bad game really, played in front of a decent crowd with a lively set of fans from each team.
Day was over when my sister, who was waiting in the car park, collected me from the ground and on the way home I was, still sipping from my can of cider!
Highlights of the game here.
The lads in Sean’s Bar pointed me the direction of SuperValu up the town (at least I think that was the direction!), they told me there I would find a certain John Croughan, a long time fan of Ireland’s oldest team, and who would be a well of information on all things Athlone Town FC.
Although he was a bit busy and his sister was eager to drag him off somewhere, sure enough John was only too happy to have a short chat about the fortunes of the club.
So I am with John here
Hello, how are you doing? My name is John Croughan and I have been involved with Athlone Town probably close on 40 years, more even, ha ha
Ha ok, so that was the first question, how long have you been supporting Athlone Town! ok, So why Athlone, so I guess you are born and bred in Athlone, it’s a natural progression is it?
Yes. I was born and bred in Athlone, but my father was a big supporter and brought us and my brothers when we were all young, and you just got into the habit, that just became the norm, every second Sunday.
When I was going to Athlone matches at the start they were only a junior club, then they went into the B division, or what it was called then of League of Ireland, and then progressed into the First division, or Premier League as it is known now. But that was how it developed.
Is it hard to get the people in the town out to support the club?
Yeah, because everyone wants success, whether its rugby, Gaelic, hurling, whatever club you are involved in, and soccer is the same. And if you are doing well everyone wants to be involved. When you are not doing well…..everyone wants to keep their head down and keep away from the club and that’s the situation.
In the good days then what would you say was Athlone’s attendance, would they get a good crowd?
Yeah, I would say they were getting 12, or 15 hundred people, probably even an up on that. Yeah they were probably getting on up on that, two or two and a half thousand, but em….its dwindled off…interest goes…if you are not getting success people lose interest. It’s hard to keep them motivated.
Is it much of a walk from the town? To the ground?
So really there is no excuse then!
It’s not the distance that the pitch is out, and there are fantastic facilities for parking, etc, etc and at one stage there was a local mini bus running out but I dont know if that’s still going or not. But the location of it is ok.
All those years you have been following them, what have been the highlights? …..AC Milan, of course!
Yeah of course!
You are going to say you were at that game!
Oh, of course you were!
I was in the College, and we took the half day off. Lashing rain, and all my friends of my age we were all there
Dare I ask how old you were!?
I would have been 19 or 20.
It must have been great excitement in the town?
It was unbelievable, fantastic. Something you will never see again. Athlone had played a few European teams but Milan was the cream on the cake.
How many people were at the ground that day?
Well, it was literally, absolutely jammed. I dont know what the figure is, but I say it had have to be 4 or 4 and a half or 5 thousand people because it wasn’t a ground, nowhere just to squeeze them in, it was seriously jammed. It was a very wet day but all you could see was people.
Must have been amazing?
It was unbelievable. There is a few photographs doing the circles for a few years. Trapattoni getting off the bus….
Cult heroes of the club for you then?
For me, well John Minnock first of all, I know he missed the penalty (against AC Milan) but I grew up with John Minnock and when I was in the college John Minnock was working out there, but there was loads of them there, Carl Humphries, Eugene Davis, there was so many, Tom Conway, Larry Wise, and then you would have to go into the O Connors, Pauric, whom I met in here only a few weeks ago, and he still looking absolutely fantastic.
So ye guys are used to playing AC Milan, but did you ever think of the rivalry with Longford Town?
That goes on, sure I would be very pally, I was involved in the Athlone committee for years and I’d know all the lads with Longford, there would be rivalry all right.
But you haven’t beaten them in a while, its a few seasons I think.
No, look its local rivalry. Those games….the game you dont think you will beat them is the game you will beat them in. But I get on well with the lads from longford, never had an issue.
The last two seasons were pretty tough for Athlone.
Yeah it was crazy, they lost the focus on what they were at, and at the end of the day you are a football club. You have great development of the youth, and of course that is fantastic and I would be a big supporter of developing youth football and bringing young players through. But it is a football club. And you have to remember that!
So what’s different this year then? You have already got more points than you got last year.
They seem to have set a budget aside for a team of a certain calibre.
Not as many Chinese in the dugout?
No, not as many Chinese or Croatians or any other thing!
Do you follow the present team? Are there any players for anyone coming from outside that we should look out for tonight in the derby?
There are a couple of young players there you know, they would be worth looking at, there is sort of a mix between mature players and young players, Aaron Brilly is a good player, and there is a few more there that need to be looked at, and I think they maybe need this season and doing well to peak.
Well it’s already a progression from the last two seasons.
Ok first time at an EL Classico derby, midlands derby, what should I expect from atmosphere wise tonight, or getting to the ground, or ….will there be any argy bargy……
No no, I dont think that goes on, there might be some slagging between the two sets of supporters, but nothing more than that. It’s good humoured bit of fun.
Ok John thanks, lovely to talk to you.
John has to get back to work now………………………….
Work is right!
Overall I had a good day out in Athlone, the town is great to walk around, lots to do and see, a lot of history on show, and the sounds of the Shannon flowing through the city is energetic to the soul. The town is blessed to have so many good boozers too, and it was great to finally tick off Sean’s Bar on my long list of places to see and do before I…………whatever……..and it was good to see a local derby between Athlone and Longford. Not quite Barca-Madrid or Celtic-Rangers, but for the locals here it’s important to have the bragging rights over the ones up the road!
Will be back in this town again for another day out for sure in the near future. Top class.