A Late winner from Rory Gaffney kept Limerick’s title ambitions on rack as they overcame a hard working Athlone Town side at Lisseywoollen on Friday night.
The opening half was one that didn’t flatter either side. Athlone had little to offer going forwards, preferring the long, ambitious ball to a more considered approach, while lone striker Mark McGoldrick spent his time struggling to make something of the few scraps that came his way.
Limerick, meanwhile, always looked the better team but were unable to turn their more imposing presence into anything that might resemble a goal. True, they should have taken the lead on 12 minutes when a low ball from the right by Garry Sheahan somehow escaped the attention of Denis Behan who failed to connect just four yards from a gaping goal.
But that was the sum total of Limerick’s goalmouth threat in an opening forty five minutes that failed to excite either sets of supporters. Too many balls were over hit when a bit more composure might have yielded more genuine opportunities.
Despite occasional breaks down the right through the energetic Niall Scullion, and the committed midfield play of Shane Dunne, Athlone were left to rely largely on the defensive solidity of new signing Stephen Last at centre back. And the feeling at half time was that the home side would need to remain at their best defensively as the second half looked like Limerick’s to win.
Four minutes after the restart and Last nearly had Athlone ahead with a header from Neil Harney’s free. The home side were clearly up for what would prove to be a highly entertaining second half and the introduction of Sean Skelly on 50 minutes added to what was already a committed midfield unit.
Within a minute of taking to the field, Skelly had forced Ryan into a sharp save low to his left from a a free kick won by Dunne. In general, the roles remained the same. Limerick looked the better side albeit unconvincing in their latent superiority. Athlone continued to soak up pressure and hit on the break, doing so with increasing confidence and creating an ever burgeoning sense of threat.
Garry Sheahan almost provided an opening goal on 55 minutes when he broke through on the right but his daisy-cutter slipped just wide of Jennings’ far post. Another clear opening did not present itself until Athlone defender Joe Woods was a natz away from connecting with Harney’s spinning free kick in the 70th minute.
Young winger Eoin Monaghan almost slipped through two minutes later but he never looked confident chasing a high ball over the top and he was run down by Pat Purcell and his eventual shot lacked conviction.
As the final minutes approached Athlone’s challenge grew stronger, swelling confidence fuelling their efforts and with just six minutes left to play they almost took the lead. A throw in from the left found it’s way to Jason Hughes just eight yards from goal, but the substitute’s shot was saved by the feet of keeper Dave Ryan. One minute later and the result had swung the other way.
A ball broke off an Athlone defender and into the path of Rory Gaffney who displayed the kind of ruthless finishing that one might expect of league leaders, dispatching his shot past Jennings to claim the three points and condemn Mike Kerley’s side to a defeat which they will struggle to accept as fair reward for their evening’s work.
Athlone Town: Pat Jennings; Kevin Williamson, Stephen Last, Joe Woods, Neil Harney (Jason Hughes 84); Niall Scullion, Brian Gill (Sean Skelly 50), Mark Walsh, Shane Dunne, Eoin Monaghan (Mark Sherlock 75); Mark McGoldrick.
Subs not used: Brian Collopy, Brian McCarthy, Ross Kenny, Barry O’Mahony.
Bookings: Gill (30), Dunne (66), Scullion (88).
Limerick FC: Dave Ryan; Shaun Kelly, Pat Purcell, Robert Kluciar, Shane Tracy; Garry Sheahan (James McGrath 80), Jeffrey Judge, Stephen McGann, Sean Brosnan (Garbhan Coughlan 57); Rory Gaffney, Denis Behan (Dominic Foley 57).
Subs not used: Shane Cusack, Shane Guthrie, Barry Sheedy, Cian Collins.
Referee: Ray Matthews.
Extratime man of the Match: Stephen Last (Athlone Town).
Simon O'Gorman began reporting for Extratime in 2010. He remembers Milltown and Flower Lodge and, back in the mists of time, saw Diego Maradona play at Lansdowne Road. He now lives in Co Kildare and reports on Shamrock Rovers among others. Simon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org