Niall Scullion is a familiar name to League of Ireland followers who have watched the 30-year-old defender lead his side to success and through more turbulent times in recent months. He has decided to end his spell in the first division, opting to re-join his local junior team, St Peters.
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Athlone Town fans are likely to hold Scullion in high regard after he helped lead the team to first division glory back in 2013. The successful team of four years ago were managed by Dubliner Roddy Collins who was re-appointed to lead the side once again in May 2017. Collins also featured for the club as a player during the 1980s so his connection to Athlone Town is strong.
Collins took over from Portuguese coach Ricardo Monsanto who left after just two months in the dugout. His tenure lasted just 42 days as he failed to make an impression on the players and seemingly the hierarchy too. The club’s statement confirming his departure called him ‘Roberto’ with eagle-eyed social media users quick to point out the error.
Results failed to pick up under Monsanto’s tutelage with the club losing seven of their eight games between the beginning of March and end of April, including a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Cobh Ramblers and a topsy-turvy 4-3 defeat at home to Longford Town in the League Cup. Athlone picked up a rare 1-0 success against Wexford under caretaker boss Ricardo Cravos just 48 hours after Monsanto’s exit.
Collins didn’t get off to the best start on his return to the dugout as he watched his side lost 2-0 at the hands of Cabinteely before they were hammered 6-1 at home to Waterford just days later with the home crowd venting their frustrations throughout the 90 minutes. The players did show plenty of fight however in their subsequent 2-2 draws with Wexford and Longford but it wasn’t enough to move them up the table.
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It hasn’t gone according to plan for Collins so far and, despite the presence of Scullion and a small number of players who were part of the triumphant squad of 2013, he hasn’t been able to get a tune out of his men.
His tactics were recently called into question by fans who witnessed the embarrassing 7-0 FAI Cup defeat at the hands of finalists Cork City with Athlone Town finding themselves 2-0 behind inside the opening ten minutes. Scullion didn’t feature in that game due to injury.
That rout comes quickly off the back of a 7-1 defeat to Longford Town and, on the 22nd of September, they were also beaten 6-2 at Cabinteely. Unfortunately for the club, they’ve been embroiled in a match-fixing scandal this season, which has given them the wrong kind of publicity and has seen them come under thorough investigation from the authorities. The FAI decided to charge them for bringing the game into disrepute and this definitely hasn’t helped matters on the pitch. The allegations relate to two matches involving Athlone Town but these occurred before Collins was appointed in May.
It’s a far cry from the exciting football played under Collins’ previous regime. Athlone were crowned Airtricity League First Division Champions in 2013 after securing a 1-0 victory over Waterford United at the end of September. The club had been stuck in the division for 18 years prior to their promotion and it was a joyous occasion inside the Athlone Town Stadium with those long-suffering fans sticking around to toast their success and celebrate the clubs magnificent and somewhat unexpected achievement.
The departing Scullion had just shy of 100 appearances for his hometown club throughout his numerous spells at Athlone. His last outing came in the 1-1 draw at home to Wexford at the beginning of August helping his side battle their way to a rare point. Unfortunately, he was dismissed in the 90th minute after picking up his second booking of the contest but his team-mates held on with ten men.
An injury-hit campaign meant he was limited to just ten league appearances (18 in all competitions) during the triumphant 2013 campaign but he was an important part of the successful squad nevertheless. Scullion didn’t feature during their brief spell in the Premier Division with his last goal arriving in October 2012 against Waterford.
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He has opted to re-join his local junior side St. Peters following his departure and this will be his third spell with the club. He helped guide them to the Combined Counties Football League Senior Division title during the 2015-16 season and is a popular figure in the dressing room. They clinched top spot with a thumping 7-1 victory over Mullingar Town to ensure they couldn’t be caught at the top of the standings. St Peters also reached the Semi-Finals of the FAI Junior to round off a very successful season for the club with Scullion leading by example and donning the captain’s armband for the campaign.
He said he was ‘delighted to be back at St Peters’ and reflected on his achievements fondly suggesting ‘Not many local lads from Athlone have a winners medal for their hometown’.
His previous spells at the club have been largely to work on his fitness and build up a head of steam before eventually returning to Athlone. An ankle injury kept him sidelined for a number of months in 2009 and appearing for St.Peters helped him ease back into the game before stepping up to the first division.
He praised his new side suggesting ‘they are a club on the up’ pointing to the new facilities which are in the process of being erected. They’ve made a decent start to the new season and remained unbeaten in their first four games with Scullion netting on his latest debut courtesy of a bullet header during their recent 4-0 success against Shiven Rovers.
it’ll be a long time before Athlone Town will be challenging for promotion again but the fans and players enjoyed their season in the top flight and picked up plenty of admirers along the way. The Airtricity Premier Division continues to go from strength to strength and a number of young players have recently been called up to the Irish Under 21 squad including Shamrock Rover’s Trevor Clarke and Rory Hale of Galway United. The latter, who recently signed from Championship side Aston Villa has impressed so far this season and has received his reward for his performances with a call-up to Noel King’s 24-man squad.
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Despite being born in Belfast, Hale has opted to play for the Republic of Ireland alongside brother Ronan. He’s always been a fan of Martin O’Neill’s men and despite representing Northern Ireland at youth level, he decided to push for the switch. He cited a lack of game time as one of the main reasons for his change of allegiance but his decision hasn’t pleased Michael O’Neill.
The Northern Ireland boss has previously bemoaned the FAI’s pursuit of younger players and believes his side has been affected negatively as a result. Results don’t appear to have been hindered though with O’Neill successfully guiding his squad to five successive victories in their World Cup Qualifying Cup group. That sequence of results includes a 2-0 success at home to the Czech Republic at the beginning of September as predicted by Oddschecker with Windsor Park also witnessing yet another clean sheet in the process. That victory puts some daylight between themselves and their opponents who remain in third place following that defeat.
Niall Scullion may be making his departure from the first division following a tumultuous season for Athlone Town and fans will be desperately hoping Roddy Collins can improve matters on the field next season. Another promotion push is extremely unlikely but some stability is something the supporters crave and even without the steady influence of the veteran defender, things can surely only better for the crisis-club.