2017 was arguably Athlone Town’s worst year in its 130 year history. This season is bound to be interesting, writes Dylan O’Neill
Last year was a turbulent time for Athlone Town AFC, to say the least. Player unrest was quickly becoming the norm, wages were being delayed, matches had been canceled the year before due to floodlight failure, and merely weeks before the new league campaign in February mysterious investors, shrouded in complete secrecy, had shown an interest in purchasing the midlands-based First Division side.
Without much hesitation, the oldest league side in Irish football history soon found itself under new ownership. Many speculated who or where this funding was coming from. Why did they choose to invest in a lowly, struggling, slightly dilapidated side like Athlone? Were they bringing anyone with them? What was the upcoming season going to hold for the Westmeath-based team? It was an issue that bemused locals to no end.
1975 was an incredible time to be alive as a fan of The Town. Following a best ever showing in the league in second place, Athlone progressed to the 2nd round of the UEFA Cup. This was a big deal. They had very seldom travelled outside of Ireland for a competitive match, never mind dreaming of salivating ties against some of Europe’s best teams.
On paper, this tie against Italian behemoths AC Milan was a complete mismatch. Think David v Goliath; Leicester v the Premier League title. Hell, even Trump v the Presidency. However, after a tense back-and-forth for 90 minutes the scoreboard at the end read: Athlone 0-0 AC Milan (although it could have, and should have, been so much sweeter had striker John Minnock laced his penalty past Italy’s 1970 World Cup stopper Enrico Albertosi).
Sadly a 3-0 reverse victory for the Italian outfit dumped the plucky midlands side from the competition. They would subsequently win League and domestic cup honours in years to come. Fast forward 42 years from that blissful October day and Athlone faced a completely different predicament.
May 2017 signaled the first time that the 1887 established club were the subject of a match-fixing scandal. They had essentially become a laughing stock within the Irish domestic football scene after numerous crazy score-lines; score-lines of which they would constantly find themselves on the wrong side of: 4-1, 5-1, 7-1, 7-0, 6-2 and 6-1 were only a handful of embarrassing results for The Town throughout 2017.
However, it was, what seemed, a fairly mundane league fixture against Longford Town on April 29 that caught the attention of UEFA, football’s governing body for Europe, and Interpol. It became national news, with the FAI announcing an investigation in early May following the suspicious result.
A week later The Asia Times, a widely-read media conglomerate based in Hong Kong, alluded that FIFA agent Mao Xiaodong and his Hong-Kong registered company, Anping Football Club Ltd., were pulling the strings on the metaphorical Athlone Town AFC puppet. There was a far more sinister reason for the takeover than to merely act as an aide to the club, it seemed.
For those uninitiated, Asia is a billion-dollar industry when it comes to gambling. Several syndicates, or groups, often attempt to fix certain markets of a match in order to guarantee themselves a profit. So in essence, they are gambling on events they already know will happen ahead of time. This, of course, is illegal.
There was a far more sinister reason for the takeover than to merely act as an aide to the club, it seemed
This seemed to be the case with the Longford fixture as there was an exorbitant amount gambled on two particular markets of the match: two goals to be scored in the first half and four goals overall in the match, with a goal to be scored in the final minutes of the first and second half garnering most of the gambling interest.
What was notable about this fixture was that an estimated sum of €400,000 was bet across these markets (and many more) during the match. An astounding amount to be gambled on such an innocuous and uninteresting Irish First Division fixture. Interestingly, as the fixture neared its end with just five minutes left, the odds of another goal to be scored seemed to become incredibly likely, obviously not a normal occurrence with such little time left.
With time running out Athlone’s Dragon Sfrijan, who has subsequently been suspended for 12 months from any football activity, oddly dropped back from midfield into a centre-back role and was at fault for a ‘mistake’ which allowed Longford’s Enda Curran to score in the third minute of injury-time.
Speaking to the Irish Sun last May regarding the fixture, Francesco Baranca, the Director of Federbet, which is an anti-match-fixing organisation, said “activity” on this game was “suspicious”.
“I have no doubt that this match was fixed,” he continued, “according to those numbers.
“For the odds to change that much, it requires significant amounts of money to be placed.”
Other games were subsequently investigated. Although unnamed, these games were later dropped as there was insufficient evidence for any charges to be made. If this attempted save against Longford or this conceded penalty against Cabinteely are anything to go by for Athlone goalkeeper Igor Labuts, who incredulously declared himself “not a top-class keeper” amid the allegations, it doesn’t exactly strengthen the case that he was innocent in these games.
The fall-out of the Longford fixture was significant. As was aforementioned, Sfrijan was suspended for 12 months in an announcement by the FAI made last September. As was 27-year-old Latvian goalkeeper Igor Labuts. Jason Lyons, who had captained Athlone in a few games, was also suspended for seven games for betting on matches, some of which he was involved in. Players left the club in droves. Club captain Niall Scullion returned to amateur level with local side St. Peter’s. Val Feeney, a midfielder with the side for two of the previous three seasons, peculiarly vanished from the squad altogether. Mysterious Portuguese manager Ricardo Monsanto also left his post as manager, 42 days after taking on the job, a week prior to the Longford fixture. (Oddly, striker Enda Curran, who returned to Athlone from Longford last summer, was also bizarrely listed as assistant manager in Athlone’s 6-2 defeat to Cabinteely late September.)
This year Athlone are starting fresh. Fran Gavin, FAI Director of Competitions, last week confirmed that those elusive owners of the Westmeath club are no longer present. As well as this, former Athlone and Bohemians manager Aaron Callaghan outlined his plans for this season when speaking to Extratime.ie last week, saying this year is all about returning to “normality.” “Hopefully”, he continued, “we can do that”.
For fans of the club though, this recent period of uncertainty has turned many away. According to an Athlone Town Facebook fan page, the club were the worst supported team in the Irish isle with an average of just 182 supporters last season. “Match fixing”; “deception”; “hypocrisy”; “a padlocked annual general meeting” were just a few of the disparaging comments made. Interestingly, no prominent fans, or even the club itself, would speak on the record when reached for comment ahead of their first match.
If their 4-0 defeat to Galway last Friday is anything to go by, it could be another very long season for Athlone Town.