On the weekend that Athlone Town played their opening home game of the season against Galway United, the club were celebrating lifting their first league title forty years earlier.
Having re-joined the senior ranks in 1969, the early 1980s were a great time to be following one of the oldest clubs in the world. Two league titles were lifted in three years as Turlough O’Connor managed his home town club to great success and onto the European cup stage.
When O’Connor returned to Athlone, it was his ambition to bring the League title to the Midlands for the first time. His second season in charge though gave no early indication that Athlone would be celebrating at seasons end. Two defeats from their first three League outings had the Town well down the table. An amazing run of results thereafter saw Athlone remain unbeaten until the end of the season.
Athlone visited Tolka Park on the first Sunday of September 1980 but were shocked by Home Farm. First home game saw the Town beat UCD but there was little consistency as a second defeat followed to Sligo Rovers. St Mel’s Park was sparsely populated for the visit of Cork United but two goals apiece from Dennis Clarke and Michael O’Connor lifted some of the gloom. The unbeaten run took off in earnest and the year ended with a plucky scoreless draw against reigning champions Limerick at St Mel’s.
The calendar year 1981 started with a visit to the capital where UCD were edged out in Belfield. The winning run continued into March and a second win of the season over big rivals Dundalk left Athlone with one hand on the league trophy.
The three nil win in Oriel Park was one of Athlone’s best performances of the season. Eugene Davis eased away nerves in the opening half and further goals from Michael O’Connor and Tom Conway left Athlone now just needing a win to secure the title.
Another huge crowd turned up at St Mel’s Park at the end of March but Shamrock Rovers spoiled the party by returning home with a share of the spoils. It meant Athlone travelled to take on Limerick at the Markets Field on the first Sunday of April just needing to avoid defeat to secure the title. It was a tough task nonetheless but the season ended in fairytale fashion for Davis who scored twice to clinch the handsome monetary award for the first player to score 22 league goals.
The unbeaten run was extended to 26 games as Limerick surrendered their crown. The O’Connor brothers featured prominently both on and off the pitch as Padraig was man of the match on many occasions while Michael weighed in with some valuable goals.
The final game of the season saw Waterford stage a guard of honour as the league trophy was presented to the hosts for the first time ever.
The title was won again two years later but Athlone have never got close to those glorious moments since then.