Keith Long: ‘We're probably everybody's favourite for relegation - but we can use that to our advantage’
Waterford boss Keith Long insists that the Blues are ready to dine at the top table this season in the Premier Division.
Long was out of work after leaving Bohemians in August 2022 but returned to the League of Ireland ranks with the Blues midway through last season in the First Division.
And the Dubliner delivered his sole aim of promotion via the play-offs at the RSC.
But 2024 will provide Long and the Blues with a new test of their credentials as they return to the top-flight.
“Lots of players from last year who were integral to our promotion left the football club so we tried to regenerate the squad during the off season,” Long told extratime.com.
“But I’m really excited about the season ahead. We know that it's going to be extremely difficult for a team that's come up from the First Division.
“Our job is to make sure that we're as competitive as we possibly can be. What that looks like from our point of view is still to be determined but we want to be highly competitive.
“We want to make sure that we represent the club really well. We want to play to our strengths, be organised, be disciplined and be difficult to play against.
“Hopefully that can lead us in a good direction this year.”
While there is an optimism in the South-East surrounding Waterford’s chances, the omens do not look especially good.
Cork City returned to the First Division straight away after winning the First Division in 2022 last year, while the same fate has also befell Longford Town and Shelbourne recently.
But Long is hopeful they can defy the odds and survive.
“That's something which teams in the past have struggled with,” he conceded. “So we don't want to be one of those teams. We don't want to be in that situation.
“But we have to understand we need to be pragmatic in terms of the difference in the level and it's going to be a big challenge and task for us.”
Waterford will also have to replace almost 36 goals worth of talent with Ronan Coughlan joining sister club Fleetwood Town during the off-season.
But any hope of Coughlan remaining at the RSC was unlikely according to Long.
“You can see the quality and influence that he had across the team last year,” he added. “But we brought in some other players in that position like Padraig Amond…
“Ronan was really influential for us but we've known for some time that he won't be at the football club.
“He's scoring goals in League One for Fleetwood so it's going to be difficult to replace but it is what it is. Every club has lost players and every club has signed players. And the key to it is obviously recruitment.
“Hopefully we can strengthen our squad between now and the end of the window and we'll see how we shape up once the window closes and the season gets underway.”
But Waterford’s partnership with Fleetwood has been a good one - with the Blues recently going to their training base in England to aid their pre-season training preparations.
They have also signed Barry Baggley and Maleace Asamoah on loan this season, but Long stressed that Waterford must have their own identity at the RSC.
“There's no doubt we're working in partnership with Fleetwood and there's no doubt we've tapped into their resources, knowledge and their expertise. But we're Waterford FC and we have our own identity,” he said.
“We want to bring our players through into the first team from an academy point of view, but also from players recruiting around the league.
“We've got some young players that have done well in the First Division and it's going to be a big challenge for them to step up into the Premier Division. We've got a bit of work to do in terms of strengthening in certain areas of the pitch.
“But if we were to go into the league tomorrow with this team, I'm confident that we've got some half decent players that can go and show their talents in the Premier Division….”
He then added: “We're under no illusion in terms of the task that faces us. We're very much the underdogs. We're probably everybody's favourite for relegation and we can use that to our advantage. Maybe we might surprise a few people.
“But we know the challenge ahead. We're an experienced group between myself, the backroom staff and we're excited and invigorated by the challenge ahead.”
But do Waterford enjoy the tag of being underdogs?
“There's not a lot I can do about it,” Long quipped. “The team that comes up from the First Division is always the team that's heavily fancied to be relegated.
“Our job is to provide stability at the football club. We brought sporting success to Waterford last year and success for us this year is to be as competitive as we can be in the Premier Division.
“That's what we're trying to do. Our job is to provide stability and to remain in the Premier Division. We'll be doing everything that we possibly can to give us that platform.”