Two rounds of SSE Airtricity League Premier Division action remain so Athlone Town’s margin for error has reduced significantly.
Defeats to Limerick FC and title-chasing Dundalk ensure that Friday’s Richmond Park contest with St Patrick’s Athletic can be classed in the critical category. Athlone trail second from bottom UCD by a point so a couple of positive results could secure a promotion/relegation play/off berth against either Shelbourne or Galway FC.
Athlone were spirited when examining Dundalk’s resolve early on at Lissywollen, but the red card picked up by Brian Shortall altered the complexion of that fixture hugely. Dundalk had the passing pedigree to exploit the extra space and gaps eventually emerging convincing victors. Manager Keith Long admitted that Athlone had started well before Dundalk seized the initiative.
“We were very much in the game in the first half,” was Long’s verdict. “I thought we gave Dundalk as good as we got. I thought we were good in passages. Our play was good, we were competitive and we matched them in every aspect of the game up until the sending off.
“I thought it was a soft sending off, but in the modern game you cannot raise your hand. You are giving the referee licence to send you off and give you a red if you raise your hand. I thought the player went down a little too easily. It is something you don’t like to see, but you are giving the referee no other choice.”
With UCD encountering plenty of brutal beatings themselves, Long thinks that Athlone can climb above the Students in the standings. One hundred and eighty minutes of important play awaits for Athlone and Long feels that a play-off berth can be attained. “Effectively the situation hasn’t changed too much albeit that we have a game less. We have two games, we are one point behind UCD and we know what we have to do in the next two games. Hopefully we will get into a play-off position as it is certainly very much there for the taking for us. We aren’t too despondent about the Dundalk result. They are a good side and when we only had 10 players they took full advantage of that and they made us pay.”
Having worked so hard to make Athlone difficult to defeat, Long is slightly worried about the concession of seven goals in the last two fixtures. Goalkeeper Ryan Coulter did make several splendid saves in the Dundalk loss, but Long wants Athlone to demonstrate the grit and determination which was evident in the six-match drawing spree. “We have conceded seven goals in two games which is disappointing, but that being said we have been a little bit braver in how we have approached games. Even when we were down to 10 men we had a go. It didn’t work out, we got caught out because we were down to 10 men and they punished us as they dominated possession. It is very much in our hands. We have a superior goal difference to UCD. If we can win a game great, if we win the two then it would be fantastic. We will have Premier Division survival if we do that, but we can only look at the St Pat’s game. We cannot take it any further than that. We want to give a good account of ourselves in Inchicore.”
With Athlone’s top flight status at stake Long is hopeful that followers of the club can play an active role in the upcoming collisions with Pat’s and Bray Wanderers. “I thought the supporters were great the other night. Dundalk brought huge numbers, but to hear the Athlone Town supporters give us backing was encouraging. We will need them between now and the end of the season. We need them to get behind the team to give them as much encouragement as possible. I think to be fair the players gave them something to shout about in the first half. We were disappointed with the red card and it was always an uphill task thereafter unfortunately.”
With UCD making an awkward trip to the Brandywell for a clash with Derry City, Athlone are adamant that they can finish in 11th place. Shortall’s suspension does ensure Athlone will be forced into a defensive reshuffle, but the versatility of Kealan Dillon and Dylan Hayes and the return from injury of Aidan Collins gives Long options. Pat’s willingness to pass the ball means Athlone must be especially diligent in the centre of the park where Eric Foley and James O’Brien could occupy important roles for the visitors. Despite a barren spell which now stretches back to July, Philly Gorman still carries Athlone’s attacking hopes on his shoulders. Whatever opportunities Athlone create at Richmond Park, the Midlanders trust that Gorman will be sufficiently cool to convert them.