The Athlone Town squad that played Waterford on April 12, 1981, the day they were presented with the trophy as League of Ireland champions for the 1980-81 season. Back row, l-r: Frank Devlin, Pat Whelan, Tom Conway, Noel Larkin, Mick Smyth, Anthony Keenan, Jimmy Jackson, Stefan Fenuik, Harry McCue. Front row, l-r: Larry Wyse, Kevin Smith, Michael O’Connor, Padraig O’Connor (captain), Derek Carroll, Dennis Clarke, Joey Salmon, Eugene Davis.

Six of the best in Athlone Town's march to league glory

Athlone Town’s ultimately glorious march to League of Ireland success in the 1980-81 season actually started in very inauspicious fashion.

Athlone’s league campaign began with a surprise defeat to Home Farm in front of 200 patrons at Tolka Park, as recalled by Robert Reid in his match by match breakdown of the season published in Frank Lynch’s book on the history of Athlone Town FC.

Indeed, Athlone lost two of their first three games but Turlough O’Connor’s charges banished that shaky start in magnificent style by going undefeated for the rest of the league campaign.

Here, we take a look at six key victories in Athlone’s journey to their first League of Ireland title, with particular reference to the title-clinching victory over Limerick United.

And 40 years ago, to the day, Athlone Town captain Padraig O’Connor was presented with the league trophy following the 2-0 win over Waterford on April 12, 1981.

Cork crushed as Athlone show intent

Athlone Town 5 Cork United 1 (September 27, 1980)

This emphatic win at St Mel’s Park was the start of Athlone’s 27-match unbeaten run. It came in response to a 1-0 defeat to Sligo Rovers and the comprehensive nature of the victory served notice that Athlone were capable of emerging as genuine title contenders.

Dennis Clarke and Michael O’Connor scored two goals each, with Larry Wyse netting the other.

“The sparsely populated terraces saw a game that produced passages of good football from both sides,” noted Robert Reid, but he added that “Athlone were in command from the word go”.

First win on the road

Drogheda United 2 Athlone Town 3 (October 5, 1980)

This was a significant result as it was Athlone’s first away win of the season, and it came after two successive defeats on the road.

Eugene ‘Pooch’ Davis scored from the penalty spot and Michael O’Connor grabbed a brace in a deserved victory at United Park.

Rovers routed in Milltown

Shamrock Rovers 0 Athlone Town 3 (November 30, 1980)

“Rovers were completely outclassed by an Athlone team who turned in a stunning performance,” wrote Reid of this victory at Glenmalure Park, Milltown, so often a fortress for Shamrock Rovers.

Goals from Michael O’Connor and Larry Wyse gave Athlone a 2-0 lead at half-time and Eugene Davis embellished the victory by adding a third in the second half.

Pooch makes Sligo pay the penalty

Athlone Town 3 Sligo Rovers 1 (January 4, 1981)

This game was remarkable for the fact that not only did Eugene Davis score a hat-trick – his first in senior football – but all three of his goals came from the penalty spot.

In addition, Pooch’s third penalty saw him break Val Wallace’s record of 14 league goals in the 1970-71 season.

Athlone down Dundalk in show of strength

Dundalk 0 Athlone Town 3 (March 22, 1981)

To defeat title rivals Dundalk on a 3-0 scoreline in their Oriel Park backyard was a landmark victory for Athlone.

“This undoubtedly has to be Athlone’s best away performance of the season and indeed possibly their best all season,” wrote Reid.

Davis opened the scoring (with a goal described as “a gem”), with Michael O’Connor and Tom Conway also on target in a wonderful victory.

Historic day and another honour for Davis

Limerick United 0 Athlone Town 2 (April 5, 1981)

This was the victory that secured the league crown on a historic day for the club.

“Keeping the best wine until the end, Eugene ‘Pooch’ Davis stuck twice at the Markets Field on Sunday to ensure the final resting place of the League of Ireland championship for the 198O/81 season would be St Mel’s Park,” opened the Westmeath Independent report on Athlone’s victory which clinched the title.

The first goal came from the penalty spot, with Davis once again the scorer after Michael O’Connor had been taken down by Limerick’s Joe O’Mahoney.

That goal saw Davis collect a tasty prize at the time of £1,500 from ‘Soccer Reporter’ magazine for his achievement of being the first player to score 22 goals in the season. The rest of the Athlone players were given a £750 share of that prize.

The victory over Limerick (then under player-manage Eoin Hand, who also managed the Republic of Ireland team) saw Athlone stretch their marvellous unbeaten run to 26 games.

They subsequently made it 27 by defeating Waterford 2-0 in the last game of the season, with goals from Noel Larkin and Dennis Clarke on a day of celebration.

“Celebration plans were at the final stages when the second half began and the determination of the players suggested that nothing could wreck the plans this time,” stated the Westmeath Independent report on the game against Limerick.

During a spell of Limerick pressure, Padraig O’Connor “marshalled his forces superbly and with the determined trio Stefan Fenuik, Jimmy Jackson and Tom Conway aiding him, the Limerick forces were kept at bay”.

The goal that “sent the corks popping came” in the 14th minute of the second half. “It seemed natural that Padraig O’Connor would be in the middle of the action for the all-important goal,” stated the Westmeath Independent report, adding that O’Connor “wriggled his way through the Limerick defence”.

Although O’Connor was foiled, the ball eventually reached goal poacher supreme Davis, who finished to the net for his 23rd league goal of an incredible season.

Interestingly, the corresponding fixture at St Mel’s Park the previous season saw Limerick win the title and, on this occasion, “Turlough O’Connor’s battalion would not be denied”.

The O’Connor brothers, Padraig and Michael were key figures on the pitch throughout the season and with their brother Turlough the manager, it was an occasion to savour for the Athlone family. However, there was a poignant aspect to the triumph, with their father, Turlough Snr, having passed away during the season.

For guiding his hometown club to their first league success, Turlough was honoured as the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Personality of the Year for 1981.

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