Airtricity League 1st Division
Athlone Town 0 Limerick FC 1
A last-gasp winner by Limerick forward Rory Gaffney maintained his side's push for the Airtricity League First Division title at Lissywollen last Friday, and in the process inflicted a hugely unfortunate defeat upon a courageous Athlone Town.
With a keenly-fought encounter still deadlocked in the dying minutes, the often cruel nature of football was rammed home to Athlone supporters and their young side.
With almost 86 minutes gone, Athlone substitute Sean Skelly, a lively customer when introduced, orchestrated a great opportunity for fellow replacement, Jason Hughes. But the former Limerick midfielder's low effort was brilliantly saved (with his trailing right foot) by visiting 'keeper Barry Ryan.
Almost instantly, the ball was sent upfield by Limerick, and when a fortunate break fell Gaffney's way, the former Mervue Utd hitman made no mistake, and rammed home the winning goal in ruthless fashion.
Though Limerick bossed much of the first half, Athlone managed to keep their opponents at arm's length (and ultimately scoreless) until the break. In the second period, the Town beavered away in admirable fashion and created some good chances of their own.
Perhaps the most telling difference between two sides constructed on vastly differing terms was best encapsulated in those closing minutes, when Limerick's more expensively assembled outfit showed the undoubted benefit of having proven goal-getters in the ranks.
To this end, Athlone were unfortunate to field without top-scorer Noel McGee (seven league goals to date, equal with Limerick's joint-leading scorers). McGee aggravated a calf problem earlier in the week and could miss another couple of games, while Damien Rushe and Eric Molloy joined him on the absentee list through injuries.
Sixteen year-old midfielder Val Feeney was also withdrawn from the line-up that faced Mervue a week earlier (in a 2-0 loss) through a shoulder complaint.
Joe Woods replaced Brian McCarthy at the heart of the back four, where recent signing Stephen Last, snapped-up from Bray Wanderers, excelled against Limerick's dangerous strikeforce.
Barry O'Mahony's defensive midfield role was handed to Mark Walshe, while Neil Harney (right-back), debutant Shane Dunne (midfield), and young, local winger Eoin Monaghan were drafted into the side.
The league leaders were without experienced duo Joe Gamble and Stephen Bradley, but didn't appear fazed early on.
Most their initial probing came down Athlone's left, while Athlone also had to defend stoutly against some of Gaffney's booming long-throws.
Athlone were playing very much on the counter-attack, with Niall Scullion their most effective 'out-ball' in the first half. However, lone striker Mark McGoldrick was fighting an almost impossible battle for much of the opening period, as support for him was too often lacking.
Limerick's best opportunity of the first half fell for Denis Behan in the 19th minute, but he somehow failed to connect (from six yards) with Gary Sheahan's dangerous low cross.
Stephen Last showed up well during this early Limerick assault, but Athlone slowly quelled the visitors' attacking intent, and with Walshe, Dunne and Monaghan beginning to impress, the Town gradually fought their way into the contest.
Brian Gill was booked for a rash tackle on the edge of Athlone's area (on Jeffrey Judge), but Behan's powerful free-kick hammered into Athlone's defensive wall.
Mike Kerley handed Sean Skelly (the younger brother of former Town attacker, Austin) his debut on 50 minutes, and he almost made a dramatic impact. The hard-working Dunne won a free on the edge of Limerick's area, and Skelly's rasping low free was brilliantly held by Barry Ryan.
Prior to that, Harney's well-delivered free (again earned by Dunne) was headed narrowly over the bar by Last, who was then uncharacteristically almost caught in possession inside his own box by Gaffney, but the situation was eventually resolved by 'keeper Pat Jennings.
A miskicked clearance by Kevin Williamson then fell invitingly to Sheahan, but his drilled effort flew across the face of goal and wide.
Dunne was harshly booked (for a foul on Shane Tracy) in the 60th minute, but by this point Athlone had stamped their authority around midfield, and looked as much a threat as their opponents.
Williamson had dampened the obvious threat of Sheahan, while Walshe kept it simple and effective. Dunne became more and more influential, as Skelly showed touches of class. McGoldrick was now receiving more adequate support, while Harney's deliveries (from the right) continually asked questions of the visitors' rearguard.
With 20 minutes remaining, Woods mistimed his header (from Harney's free) and the ball drifted harmlessly wide, before Monaghan (under major pressure from Pat Purcell) snatched at a chance to lob Ryan.
McGoldrick almost slotted substitute Mark Sherlock in on goal, but the latter was fractionally offside, before Scullion defended excellently as Gaffney threatened.
Last almost got on the end of Harney's free-kick on 82, but Slovakian defender Robert Kluciar stood his ground to clear.
Though only moments remained, there was still a clear sense that a goal could come. It duly arrived for Limerick - but could just as easily have come for Athlone.
Close on 86 minutes, Athlone broke quickly from their own half. McGoldrick and Skelly combined but the latter's pass, directed at Sherlock, was cleared for a throw, from which Skelly set-up Hughes for his golden chance. However, the ex-Limerick man saw his effort somehow saved by Ryan's trailing leg.
From there, Limerick raced upfield and when a fortunate break fell for Gaffney, he rifled home the winner.
Limerick's sense of relief was very evident from the vigour in which the goal was toasted within their technical area (and rightly so, given their pursuit of the title), but also gave an indication of the difficulties Athlone put in their path.
There was almost a dramatic twist when, three minutes into injury time, Last headed into the unmarked Hughes' path, but he lacked composure and shot into the side-netting.
With that, Limerick had survived a testing examination of their title credentials, and Athlone's winless streak stretched to four games (a run that's all but ended their outside chances of finishing in the top-three).
Athlone Town: Pat Jennings; Neil Harney, Kevin Williamson, Stephen Last, Joe Woods, Mark Walshe, Shane Dunne, Brian Gill, Niall Scullion, Mark McGoldrick, Eoin Monaghan. Subs: Sean Skelly for Gill (50 mins), Mark Sherlock for Monaghan (75), Jason Hughes for Harney (86).
Limerick: Barry Ryan; Shaun Kelly, Shane Tracy, Pat Purcell, Robert Kluciar, Steve McGann, Gary Sheahan, Jeffrey Judge, Rory Gaffney, Denis Behan, Sean Brosnan. Subs: Dominic Foley for Behan and Garbhan Coughlan for Brosnan (both 57), James McGrath for Sheahan (80).
Referee: Ray Matthews.