When Stephen Kenny waltzed into Strokestown Road in the summer of 1998 to the sound of resounding indifference, the idea of Longford Town winning, or getting near to winning, the FAI Cup was an impossibly fanciful notion.
To anyone who had followed the Town from the middle of the 1990s onwards, the latter part of 1998 was an extremely disorientating time. A team who managed to scrape the odd win once every dozen games (in a decent spell) for the previous few seasons began to win games relentlessly.
They had a raft of new players. Stephen O’Brien had replaced Andy ‘Jelly’ Keenan as goalkeeper and would become a fixture between the posts for almost a decade. Wesley Byrne captained the side from left back. Paul Perth shone as the towering centre half and his brother Vinny was a busy, tenacious midfielder.
Keith O’Connor (who was honoured by the lyrically-uncomplicated chant, “Su-per, super Keith, Su-per, super Keith, Su-per, super Keith, Super Keith O’Connor!”) scored freely from centre forward. Joining him up front was the returning Richie Parsons, shorn of his 1980s’ Liverpool-style moustache and flowing locks, who again proved his worth in the Town strike-force.
By Christmas, the Town found themselves on top of the First Division. Supporters (there were still very few – crowds didn’t increase massively during the ‘98/’99 season), used to moral victories and consoling themselves with black humour, were suffering from vertigo. The team’s form tapered off somewhat in the new year and they finished the season in 4th place, a performance with which we were still chuffed.
Kenny’s difficult second album, the ‘99/’00 season, turned into a glorious triumph as Longford Town were promoted to the Premier Division, narrowly missing out on the title behind Bray Wanderers.
The first season in the top flight began with a magnificent 1-0 win over Derry City in the Brandywell and ended with the side comfortably ensconced in mid-table and facing into an FAI Cup final against league champions Bohemians. Tony O’Connor clinched victory for the Gypsies that day.
Kenny’s whirlwind three-and-a-half years in charge ended halfway through the next season when the champions prised him off the Town after Pete Mahon’s disastrously short spell in charge at Dalymount Park.
Alan Mathews took over as manager of Longford Town in July 2002 after Martin Lawlor’s relatively short, but extremely fraught, period in charge. Mathews had, in the twilight of his own playing career, played briefly with Longford Town under Dermot Keely’s impressive management during the Town’s comparatively successful 1992-94 period. He also worked as Keely’s assistant at Shelbourne from 1998 to 2002, during which Shels won the League title at a cantor in 2000 and again in 2002 (this time by default. St Pat’s, who won the most points on the pitch, were docked 15 points for repeated player registration violations).
As with Stephen Kenny four years earlier, Mathews settled into the groove immediately, with results hitting an upward curve and never looking back. A 1-0 away win over the then dilapidated, clapped-out, down-on-their-luck aristocrats of Irish football, Shamrock Rovers, was a signal of things to come. Mathews’ Town sides consistently performed above their station and became associated with direct – but highly effective – football.
Their cup record soon became, understandably, the element the national media latched onto. They reached the League Cup finals of 2003 and 2004, famously outplaying St Pat’s in Inchicore in 2003, only to somehow fail to score and go down by a single goal. The following year, the Town, almost accustomed to success at this point, swept to a 2-1 League Cup win over Bohemians in Flancare Park.
Of course, he delivered two FAI Cups for Longford Town in 2003 and 2004. Provincial clubs had won the cup before; the Johnny Glynn-inspired Galway United win in 1991, Gavin Dykes led Sligo Rovers to the Cup in 1994. Longford Town’s achievement of winning back-to-back Cups is fabulous testament to Mathews as a manager.
The team scaled new heights in the Premier League, reaching as high as 4th in 2003. Even during the season in which they were relegated, Mathews’ team performed impressively. The Town would have found themselves nestled in 8th or 9th position in the League in 2007 but for a points deduction for late filing of accounts.
Mathews presided over the most dizzyingly intense period of success Longford Town has ever known. However, when Stephen Kenny arrived in Mullologher, the place was a wasteland. By the time he left, we had, unbelievably, an all-seater stadium and European football.
Mathews is Paisley, Kenny is Shankly. While Alan Mathews presided over the glory days, Stephen Kenny is the most important man in the history of Longford Town FC and is therefore the greatest manager we ever had.