A Rory Gaffney double secured the win for Limerick FC at Jackman Park on Friday night but Athlone Town will consider themselves unlucky not to have returned home with a share of the spoils.
Gaffney's opener after 17 minutes was the only highlight of a poor first half, but when Garvan Broughall equalised after 74 minutes, it looked like the visitors would grab a point only for Gaffney to strike for the winner with 11 minutes left. In stoppage time Mark Sherlock was denied when his free kick was brilliantly pushed away by goalkeeper Dave Ryan as the home side held out for a valuable win to keep up the pressure on league leaders Longford Town.
With both Tommy Barrett and Noel McGee unavailable, Niall Scullion and Mark Walsh started for Athlone with Damien Rushe pushing forward into his more accustomed midfield role as Kevin Williamson dropped to the bench.
The first half was poor fare as Limerick struck for the opening goal on 17 minutes in one of the few highlights.
Athlone lost possession on the halfway line and when Dave O'Leary cleverly dummied Steve Bradley's cross, Gaffney was handed the chance to open his goal account. The former Mervue player still had work to do but got past Brian McCarthy to fire a low shot to the net from just inside the penalty area.
It should have settled Limerick nerves but the home side failed to build on the good start and still headed off for the break with a narrow lead. The first Town chance had fallen to Scullion but he failed to find the target as he fired over from the right. Gaffney's long throw-ins provided some concern for the Athlone defence but generally it was a fairly easy time for Pat Jennings and co.
Broughall had another chance after 29 minutes but keeper Ryan advanced to gather his free kick from the right with the Town midfielder then shooting over soon afterwards. Limerick did have the ball in the net again in stoppage time but the effort was ruled out as the half-time whistle sounded soon afterwards.
Joe Woods made a welcome return to action as he replaced Walsh at half-time and it was a much improved Town side that got back into contention after the game restarted.
The first second-half chance fell to Denis Behan but his header from a Garry Sheahan left wing cross was saved by Jennings. The Town number one also denied Barry Sheedy after 55 minutes, but then for a long spell neither keeper was seriously troubled as much of the play took place in a crowded midfield zone.
Athlone improved steadily and their solid progress was rewarded after 74 minutes when Broughall struck for the equaliser. A ball from the left picked out Broughall, who coolly finished to the net from the right edge of the penalty area, chipping the ball over the advancing keeper for a deserved equaliser.
With confidence growing Athlone earned their first corner of the game a minute later and followed up with a second soon after. However having seemingly come to terms with the home threat Athlone was struck with a sucker punch with 11 minutes remaining.
The goal was not without controversy, though, as Scullion claimed to have been fouled as he attempted to deal with the danger when Gaffney broke clear from half way. In a swift counter attack the home striker brushed aside Scullion's challenge close to the touchline to race clear down the left. Jennings was beaten at his near post by Gaffney's strike and in the aftermath a number of Athlone players were booked as they protested at the referee's decision not to penalise the home player.
It was unclear whether it was a foul or not, but the match official was sure and ultimately that's what counts.
Athlone's fight was not over just yet and on 82 minutes goalkeeper Ryan dropped a Scullion free kick but no visiting player was on hand to punish the handling error. Soon afterwards, Woods was just off target with a long range effort which threatened to creep in under the crossbar while the home side's last chance fell to Pat Purcell but he fired wide from a corner kick.
Deep into stoppage time Athlone were handed a final chance to return home with a point when they were awarded a free kick some twenty yards out. Sherlock stepped forward and his well struck goalbound effort was brilliantly pushed up in the air by Ryan with the loose ball then put behind for a corner. There was just time for Broughall to take the corner before the final whistle blew, with Limerick relieved to claim the points in spite of a brave second-half Athlone display. A point would have pushed the Town up to third spot on the league table, but even at this early stage it looks like a straight battle for the title between Limerick and Longford, with the fight now on with Waterford and Wexford for that remaining play-off slot.
Limerick FC: Dave Ryan, Shaun Kelly, Pat Purcell, Shane Guthrie, Rory Gaffney, Shane Tracy, David O'Leary, Garry Sheahan (Steven McGann, 81), Denis Behan, Stephen Bradley, Barry Sheedy (Sean Brosnan, 66).
Athlone Town: Pat Jennings, Niall Scullion, Ross Kenny (Kevin Williamson, 49), Mark Walsh (Joe Woods, h/t), Brian McCarthy, Stephen Relihan, Damien Rushe (Sean Guerins, 84), Brian Gill, Garvan Broughall, Mark Sherlock, Jason Hughes.
REFEREE: Keith Callanan (Cork).