A SUDDEN rise in the number of people looking for directions is a sign for Mick Cooke that now, after almost two decades of anonymity in the First Division, Athlone Town are back with the big boys.
For the first time since 1996, Athlone will host a Premier Division game, Shamrock Rovers due in town tonight for a match that Athlone boss Cooke expects to be a sell-out.
"I have lost track of the number of people who have been on to me in the last few days looking for directions to the ground, asking what exit they need off the motorway and that's a great sign," says Cooke.
"Being back in the top division after such a long gap is great in itself, but to have Shamrock Rovers here for our first home game is even better. I hear that Rovers will bring 600 or 700 fans down and our own supporters will pack the place out.
"People here remember when Shamrock Rovers would come down at a time when the two clubs would be going for the league title and us being back in the Premier, and Rovers coming for the first home game in the top division for nearly 20 years, really has caught the imagination."
That excitement among the long-suffering football public in the midlands can cause problems as well, something that boss Cooke is aware of. "It's a big occasion, but we have a job to do and I have to make sure that the players don't get caught up in a sideshow.
"It is great to have this match to look forward to, but we can't let ourselves get distracted by the off-field stuff, I want us to go and win the match, get three points," adds Cooke.
Defender Derek Prendergast, due to make his league debut tonight as he was suspended for last week's defeat to Sligo Rovers, is alert to that danger. "We're professionals and we have to go out there with that approach, we can't let the occasion get to us," says Cabra lad Prendergast, signed from Drogheda United at the end of last season.
"Being back in the top division and having Rovers in town is a big deal for the supporters, they have put up with a lot over the last 18 years, so we are happy for them. We know there is a great buzz around the town about this game."
Athlone came close to winning, on the opening weekend of the new season as they took the lead away to Sligo, only to lose 2-1. "I think the lack of experience showed in that game and we will all have to learn," says Prendergast.
"Athlone did really well to win the First Division last season, but because the standard of opposition wasn't as high, they could afford to concede goals as they'd win the game anyway. But the standard in the Premier is so much higher, when you play a side like Sligo Rovers, you can't give them anything as you will get punished. I think the lads will do better as the season goes on.
"Almost every year now, you have a surprise package. Two years ago it was us with Drogheda when we did really well in the league, last year you had Dundalk go from fighting relegation to finishing second. I'm not saying we will finish in the top two but I feel we can finish mid-table," adds the defender.
Manager Cooke is optimistic about the club's future, pointing to a promising crop of players in Athlone's U19 and U17 sides. "The outlook is good," he says.