THERE was somewhat of an anti-climatic feeling in the air when the full-time whistle sounded at Lissywollen last Friday, following Athlone Town's 1-1 draw in the Airtricity First Division with Finn Harps.
Athlone have, to date, possibly surpassed pre-season expectations by getting themselves in a position to challenge for a promotion play-off at the end of the campaign. And with several new signings adding more excitement, and strength to the panel, over recent weeks, hopes were high that last Friday's game would see the Town continue their attempt to finish in the top-three.
Unfortunately, a very flat first-half performance led to Athlone falling a goal behind against Harps. Noel McGee's seventh goal of the season saw them claim a share of the points, but the result did little for their promotion play-off prospects.
Recent loan signing Mark McGoldrick had chances to win the game for Athlone, but ultimately they were forced to settle for a single point (which takes them to 27 points from 17 games), leaving them eight points off third-placed Waterford Utd, and a further four from joint-leaders Limerick and Longford Town.
Athlone travel to Mervue Utd this evening (Friday, Fahey's Field, 7.45pm), and assistant manager Padraig Moran feels there's enough positives to be taken from the Finn Harps game heading to Galway.
"The overall performance was not what we expected beforehand, that's being honest," said Moran.
"The first half was very poor, from both sides, but we picked it up after the break. We now have a situation where we've added to the squad in recent weeks and have good options, so shirts are up for grabs. Unfortunately for some of the lads that started against Finn Harps, they didn't really take their chances to nail their places in the team, so the manager (Mike Kerley) can quite rightly consider making changes against Mervue.
"But we have to remember that a good portion of the team are new signings, and had little playing time of late, so it's going to take time to gel. They will get better and better, and get used to each other. We made changes at the break, and probably would've done so even if Damien Rushe hadn't got injured, and were more positive thereafter. If Mark (McGoldrick) had taken one of his chances, we're looking at a 2-1 win, and there wouldn't be any criticism of the performance," he added.
Moran praised the impact of second-half substitutes Neil Harney, Noel McGee (who scored the equaliser) and McGoldrick, and said that while McGoldrick enjoyed little good fortune in front of goal, he showed "great movement" and will be a threat to First Division defences over the coming weeks.
McGee will miss Friday's match through suspension, while Rushe (groin) and Jason Hughes (hamstring) are doubtful.
Youngster Val Feeney (16), who has played regularly this season but was given a break last weekend, could come back into the squad against Mervue, while recently signed midfielders Shane Dunne and Sean Skelly are in contention.
Speaking about Feeney, Moran said: "It's our policy to give the younger players plenty of game-time, and then to take them out of the action for a bit. You have to be careful with young players. Mike (Kerley) had a chat with Val before the Finn Harps game, and assured him his performances have been brilliant. He's a massive part of what we're trying to do."
Moran also acknowledged that the majority of Athlone's players have never been in a position whereby they need to win every game to stay in contention for promotion.
"We told the lads they have two options; they can try to gatecrash the top-three or else sit in mid-table for the rest of the season. Hopefully, they'll choose to push for the first option. There hasn't been a winning mentality at the club for some time, and we're trying to change that. On the evidence of the first half (against Finn Harps), you could perhaps say that point is relevant, but hopefully we can pick up three points against Mervue and stay in touch with the leading teams," he said.