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The team who ended 18 months without a win by beating the best side in Ireland

Athlone captain Aaron Brilly discusses the club’s remarkable rejuvenation since the start of the new campaign.

An image of Athlone Town's stadium
An image of Athlone Town's stadium

BY THE END of last season, optimism at Athlone was in short supply.

The Town finished bottom of the First Division with a meagre seven points from 27 games. They hadn’t been victorious all season, or they had won one match, depending on your interpretation of the word. Their only ‘victory’ was a 1-0 loss to Wexford — the result had been overturned and awarded as a 3-0 success for Athlone, after their opponents were found to have fielded an ineligible player.

On the pitch, the campaign couldn’t have gone much worse. Off the pitch, it wasn’t much better. The club had several managers over the space of a few months, including Roddy Collins, Aaron Callaghan and current boss Terry Butler.

It has been a turbulent few years for the embattled side, with off-field problems heavily contributing to their dire performances. There were the allegations of match-fixinga High Court battle surrounding the ownership of their stadium, unhappy players leaving in protest, short-lived Portuguese revolutions and fan groups calling for the board to resign among other issues.

When Callaghan stepped down as manager in May last year, he accused the club of a lack of professionalism.

“The last straw was on Monday night when there was no warm-up gear and no physio,” he commented.

With all the controversy off the field and the relentless defeats on it, a number of players considered leaving amid this deeply turbulent period

And so the stakes may have been relatively low when they met Dundalk last month. It was just a Leinster Senior Cup game after all. But they were travelling to Oriel Park to play the reigning league champions. Their opponents’ starting XI featured accomplished players such as Aaron McCarey, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Folan and Georgie Kelly.

Improbably, Athlone earned a 1-0 victory thanks to Dean Williams’ 66th-minute goal.

Some people might dismiss the result. They would say it was little more than a pre-season game that Dundalk didn’t take especially seriously. They would point to the fact that the Lilywhites’ team contained four players from their U19s squad and the knowledge that they will have far greater priorities in the coming months.

But in spite of all the caveats, the win served as the launchpad Athlone’s season badly needed. It meant a lot to their players. In the lead up to the game, morale in the camp had been desperately low. Discounting the defeat by technicality of Wexford, their last competitive win had been a 5-0 victory away to Ballincollig in the first round of the FAI Cup on 12 August 2017 — so that’s 555 days, or 79 weeks, or one year, six months and six days without the experience of coming off the pitch victorious.

And just as remarkably, the club have proven this surprise win was no fluke. After five league games, they have already picked up more points than they did in 27 matches last year. In addition, three more victories will see them surpass their overall 2017 tally.

They began the First Division season with a 4-2 home win over Wexford, their first league victory since 5 May 2017, when they beat Cobh Ramblers 2-1.

They have followed that result with two more wins (against Cobh and Bray) and two losses (versus Shelbourne and Longford). As a result, the team perennially stuck to the bottom of the table last year are now joint top after five games, level on nine points with Shels and Bray, with only goal difference leaving them third.

Terry Butler Terry Butler has helped rejuvenate Athlone since taking over as manager. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

So how does the worst team in the League of Ireland suddenly undergo such a positive transformation?

Team captain Aaron Brilly cites the recruitment of experienced players such as Darren Meenan and Kealan Dillon as key to their improvement, while also pointing to an early start to pre-season as vital.

“They had us in December time, so they had us in long enough for pre-season, whereas last year, we didn’t have much of a pre-season — at the fault of nobody, it was just the way things worked out,” Brilly tells The42.

“Towards the start of [last] season, we were still getting to know each other. We were five or six weeks behind other teams. They were already in late December, early January. It was end of January, start of February before we got the squad finalised with Aaron, Terry and Mitch [Whitty]. We were always catching up with ourselves.

“I was one of the most experienced heads in the dressing room and I was only 22 at the time. I think with any team, bringing in that little bit of experience will always help.”

Brilly also cites the influence of Butler, the assistant boss until Callaghan left, as vital to the team’s rejuvenation.

“If you switch off or training’s been bad, he’ll come in and let you know exactly what he thinks. He’ll be sure to remind you of exactly what’s expected,” Brilly explains.

He’s a people manager. He’ll speak to his players. He’ll speak to everybody. He’s very approachable. If anyone does have any questions about stuff he’s asked to do, you can go and ask the question. He’ll explain exactly what he wants and doesn’t make you feel like you should know.”

The opening of a new Astroturf pitch at Athlone Town Stadium has added to the feel-good factor, while the opening wins have created a sense of momentum that was patently absent last year. Home crowds have also risen, as Brilly notes: “Come the Friday night, people think: ‘We’ll come and have a look at them, they’ve obviously improved from last year, getting a win against a strong Dundalk team.”

He continues: “The [problem] last year was getting that first elusive win. This year, as much as our focus was towards being as successful as we can, we know what we’re capable of doing. It was always nice to get that hoodoo away. Getting the first win of the season on that first night against Wexford creates relief.

“There’s nobody talking about how ‘Athlone haven’t won a game’ anymore. Those people who wrote us off last year, it’s kind of turned full circle now. We’ve won four out of six competitive games this year.

“We had a young squad, a lot of lads coming up from 19s football. It was their first taste of senior football. I’m not saying you should forget about losses or poor performances, they’re the things we have to build on.”

Darren Meenan Former Dundalk player Darren Meenan was among the club's key pre-season recruits. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Positives have been taken even from the two losses this season, and if the club can sustain their current level of form and challenge for promotion, it would surely constitute one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the history of the League of Ireland.

Enjoying this sudden success is a proud moment in particular for Brilly, who despite only being 23, is one of the squad’s most important and experienced players.

Growing up in Kildare, he played with local side Kilcock Celtic all the way up to U17 level, before linking up with the Shamrock Rovers youth set-up.

Coming from a family of GAA fanatics, he eventually chose to play soccer despite the temptation of joining several of his friends in taking the alternative route.

And after just a season with the Hoops, Brilly signed for Longford following a successful trial there, making his first-team debut away to Finn Harps in what was a particularly special 17th birthday present.

“When I went to Longford, there were four lads from the same town as me that ended up signing in the same year, so I had that little bit of a connection,” he adds.

However, first-team appearances at the City Calling Stadium were sporadic. Having left Longford in 2014, a short spell at Newry City followed, before two seasons with Cabinteely, whose signing of Brilly coincided with their debut League of Ireland campaign.

“In the off-season, probably to my detriment because I wasn’t giving myself a break, I’d go and play Leinster Senior League football,” he says of his early footballing days. “That was when I was a little bit younger and I just wanted to play. Now, you’re just happy for your rest that you deserve, after a 35-week sprint between your pre-season and your season.” 

It was at Cabinteely where Brilly first properly got accustomed to First Division football, with manager Eddie Gormley playing him regularly and enabling the youngster to amass “60 or 70″ league appearances.

Since joining Athlone in 2017, Brilly and the club have endured some extremely difficult days. In fact, he initially left only a couple of months after signing, with reports at the time citing his “unhappiness with the management at the club”.

However, with a new coaching team in charge, Brilly returned ahead of the 2018 season and ultimately established himself as an important player.

Some of the stuff, it was difficult to deal with at the time,” he recalls. “A lot of the attitudes and characters in the dressing room now particularly and especially with the management team as well, they drilled into us that no matter what’s happening off the field, anything else, it’s the 18-24 people that are sitting in that dressing room on a Monday and Wednesday in training, or on Friday night for a match, it’s us against everybody else in a way. If it’s in there, it’s just full systems go to getting a result and leaving any difficulties [aside].

“I left for a while and played for Home Farm in the Leinster Senior League while I got a new job and was transitioning with the new job. It was heavy, getting used to that stuff. 

“But once I saw the set-up the lads had and what they really wanted to do, I was more than happy to [re-sign for Athlone in 2018].

“There’s a massive confidence in terms of the club and the players [now], we’re well looked after by everybody when it comes to the gear and training facilities, our food pre and post match. When we get down there on the Friday night, for our travel, everything is covered by the club. It’s nice for the players to kind of know it’s something that’s there for us.”

Athlone Town Stadium Athlone have performed above expectations so far this year, after a number of off-the-field issues hindered their progress in recent seasons. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Nevertheless, despite all this assistance from the club, life for Brilly and co is still not by any means comparable to the glamour of being an elite European footballer.

Like many of the team, he is based in Dublin. The squad split training sessions between there and Athlone. It usually takes Brilly well over an hour to travel up to the latter.

And in addition to his footballing commitments, the youngster is currently in his third year studying Research Management in the Dublin Institute of Technology, combining the course with a job as head office manager for an independent bookmaker.

“The nature of League of Ireland football, everybody else has something else that they do. Me personally, I play football, I work full-time and I study part-time,” he explains.

“My schedule is fairly heavy and I know a lot of lads are either working full-time and playing football as well, or they’re in college during the week and maybe having a part-time job come the weekend to make a few quid for themselves.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult for everybody, transitioning from work to football to college or whatever. But we’re all there because we bought into it — we knew exactly what it entailed and we’re all willing to do it, because we want to play football at the highest standard we can.”

Brilly also believes his story should serve as inspiration for all aspiring young footballers, who hope to play in the League of Ireland or elsewhere some day.

“If you look at me, I didn’t leave local football until I was 16, but once I realised that this was what I wanted to do, I understood and accepted the challenge and the difficulty that comes with it.

“There are a lot of people that want to play football at a higher standard. I suppose there’s no substitute for getting the head down and working hard. It’s known, and I’m not afraid to say it, that I’m not this technically gifted midfielder or anything like that, but it’s my willingness to work hard that’s got me where I am.”

Premier Division fixtures

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First Division fixtures:

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- Originally published at 07.00

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Paul Fennessy

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