Late Harps strike bitter note for Athlone

ATHLONE Town missed an opportunity to close the gap on the pack after they surrendered a two goal advantage against Finn Harps. The Town led 2-0 by the hour mark thanks to superb goals by Emeka Onwubiko and Noel McGee. However, when Athlone squandered several chances to build upon this lead and Finn Harps got back in the contest through Sean Houston"s header with 15 minutes remaining, the situation looked somewhat ominous for the Town. It then appeared Athlone had managed to weather the storm and would see the game through, before young and inexperienced substitute Cathal Joyce - making only his third substitute appearance at senior level - mistimed a tackle in Athlone"s box two minutes into stoppage time and Conor Gethins levelled matters. Although it"s hardly a devatating blow to Athlone"s reasonable start to the season, this was most certainly a case of two points dropped against very average opposition that Athlone should have beaten on home soil. Finn Harps came into the game with only a single victory from the opening six matches. They showed admirable character to drag themselves back into the match during the latter stages of the contest, but Athlone possibly showed a bit of complacency, maybe even tiredness, in the final quarter of the game and this also contributed to Harps" comeback. Perhaps it"s somewhat understandable that Athlone"s players would feel a little jaded, too, with this their third match in the space of seven days. The Town went into the match in confident form having twice beaten local rivals Longford Town in the previous week. Athlone were missing the injured Damien Rushe but Kevin Williamson rejoined the squad after missing two games through a back complaint. Indeed, Williamson would be called into the action at the interval after midfielder Anthony Hayes, who has started every Athlone game this season, picked up what looks like a cruciate ligament injury. It"s now feared that Hayes could miss a very lengthy period of action but at time of print there was no official clarification on the extent of the injury. Finn Harps" playing budget is greatly reduced this season after relegation from the Premier Division, however, their budget is believed to still be more than double Athlone"s. Included in the Finn Harps defence was former Athlone right back Ian Rossiter, who spent three seasons with Athlone before moving to Ballybofey. It would turn out they also had good performers in towering centre back Mark Mukendi, midfielders Sean Houston and Michael Funston, and their front pairing of the ever reliable Conor Gethins and David McDaid, the latter of whom is on loan from Premier Division neighbours Derry City. Athlone had control of the opening period but Stephen Place hesitated in front of goal when set up by Anthony Hayes on four minutes. Noel McGee picked up some delightful positions throughout the match and did so in the 7th minute. His pass found Emeka Onwubiko but his disappointing effort dribbled across goal and wide. McGee and Onwubiko were consistently good in an attacking sense for Athlone and have now netted nine goals between them in all competitions. It was no surprise when McGee set up Onwubiko to open the scoring on 43 minutes. Robbie Benson initially did very well to work the ball to McGee and he again picked out Onwubiko"s dart into the box. Onwubiko still had plenty of work to do but managed to drive a formidable shot into the top corner of Ciaran Gallagher"s goal, despite been surrounded by several Finn Harps defenders. Finn Harps had previously had just fleeting glimpses of Athlone"s goal and Town "keeper Aaron Shanahan was more than equal to anything they threw his way. Prior to Athlone"s opener, McGee had set up another opportunity for Onwubiko but Gallagher was able to stop the Nigerian native"s effort on that occasion. Also of note during the first half was a yellow card for Stephen Place for handball and in the 40th minute, Anthony Hayes suffered an awkward fall and immediately looked in serious distress. Hayes managed to continue in Athlone"s engine room for the remainder of the half but had to be substituted at the break. As a result, Brian Cleary moved from left back to central midfield with substitute Kevin Williamson comfortably filling the left back role for the second half. Athlone had a half hearted penalty appeal on 49 minutes when McGee forced his way past the commanding Mukendi but was then strongly challenged by Johnny Harkin, but referee Sean Grant waved play on. On 52 minutes, McGee worked a great opening for Place but he took too long before shotting and Gallagher parried the ball wide for a corner kick. McGee and Onwubiko then fashioned a backpost chance for Robbie Benson but his difficult header, inacted in brave fashion under pressure from Rossiter, was off target. Athlone eventually scored a deserved second goal in the 57th minute when Onwubiko neatly played McGee through on goal and his finish was top drawer. Most punters expected Athlone to comfortably wrap up the points at this stage but they became a bit sluggish in their approach and allowed Harps back in the contest. The warning bells first sounded for Athlone when Shanahan was forced to brilliantly tip Gethins" long range effort over the crossbar. Gethins then broke the offside trap and squared for Funston who shouldn"t have given Shanahan any chance. However, the Athlone netminder again came out of top with a good block from Funston. Harps were growing in confidence though, and received a great fillip when Sean Houston headed home from close range after a Funston cross in the 75th minute. Des Hope was forced into one excellent defensive tackle as Harps pushed in search of a late equaliser, while Funston was also unlucky to watch his shot from distance drift narrowly wide. McGee was forced from the field with a hamstring complaint in the 86th minute. His replacement was youngster Cathal Joyce but he won"t want to be reminded of this particular game in a hurry. It was Joyce"s needless foul on Funston two minutes into added time that gave Gethins the chance to drill a penalty past Shanahan and earn a share of the spoils for Paul Hegarty"s men. Sometimes such mistakes occur when depending on young and inexperienced players but everybody in the ground will be hopeful that Joyce will learn and grow stronger in the aftermath of this mistake. ATHLONE TOWN: Aaron Shanahan; Robbie Hamm; Brian Cleary; Thomas McGauley; Des Hope; Kieran O"Reilly; Emeka Onwubiko; Anthony Hayes; Stephen Place; Noel McGee; Robbie Benson. Subs: Kevin Williamson for Hayes (45 mins); Cathal Joyce for McGee (86). FINN HARPS: Ciaran Gallagher; Ian Rossiter; Ciaran Coll; Johnny Harkin; Mark Mukendi; Sean McGowan; Christy Connaghan; Sean Houston; David McDaid; Conor Gethins; Michael Funston. Subs: Ruairí Harkin for McGowan (63 mins); Mark Forkar for McDaid (68); Oisín McMenamin for Connaghan (68). REFEREE: Sean Grant.