Athlone Town sprung a surprise when a Ryan Gaffey penalty kick saw the home side share the spoils with UCD at the Athlone Town stadium last Friday night.
The Students went into the game in third place on the league table and could have edged closer to a promotion play-off spot with a victory, but now find Cobh Ramblers just a point behind following this latest slip-up. In spite of the draw, Athlone drop back into bottom spot after Cabinteely leapfrogged them following a surprise home victory over high-flying Drogheda United.
Already without the suspended Cormac Raftery and injured captain, Colm Coss, Athlone also lost Sean McGrane through injury in the warm-up, with Gaffey getting an unexpected call-up from the substitute’s bench in his place in midfield.
There was very little goalmouth action in the opening half an hour, with the game only coming to life in the 10 minute spell before the half-time break. Both teams lost possession far too easily in an error-ridden opening, with Greg Sloggett for the visitors and Chris Reid for Athlone having early chances.
All the action was compressed into the closing stages of the half as Gaffey tested goalkeeper Niall Corbet and Jason Lyons almost got onto an inviting left-wing cross from Claudio Silva before Corbet again collected.
The deadlock should have been broken on 37 minutes but with the goal at his mercy UCD's Daire O’Connor somehow fired wide when it looked easier to score. Athlone recovered from this major let-off to end the half on the attack. Aidan Byrne played in Lyons, but UCD centre half Maxi Kouogun got a saving block in that allowed Corbet to safely gather the loose ball. The action ended in the opening half when Silva fired a shot across the goalmouth from the left which drifted just wide of the far post.
There was a lot more goalmouth action in the second half with the students hitting the front after 69 minutes, but the lead was short-lived as the home side levelled matters soon after from the penalty spot. The first chance fell to Tomas Boyle who headed wide following a free kick, while Gaffey in action at the other end sent a shot on the turn into Corbet's arms.
The first corner kick of the game was earned by the students after 56 minutes, with Georgie Kelly then off target as the tempo further increased. Lyons and Gaffey had more chances for The Town, but poor defending at the other end allowed UCD to open the scoring instead. Goalkeeper Dylan Owens failed to gain much distance with a punched clearance in a crowded penalty area, and when the ball fell to fullback Scales on the left edge of the box, a low shot was flashed to the net.
Five minutes after going behind Athlone were back on level terms after UCD were penalised by the referee for a trip on Byrne inside the box. Gaffey stepped up to take the spot kick and confidently fired under the keeper for his first goal of the season in an amazing evening for the 19-year-old.
The remainder of the game drifted towards a neutral conclusion with few further chances for either team to claim full points. Athlone did come close to creating a shock as Lyons had a shot blocked and a free kick from Silva was punched away by the UCD keeper.
Another product of the U19 set-up came on in the final minute to make his senior debut, as Shane O’Keeffe replaced Byrne, but there was late drama with the Students having one more chance to steal the three points.
Goalkeeper Owens fumbled a left-wing cross but substitute Ryan Swan did not make the most of the chance as he fired over from a good position much to the relief of home fans. It was the second time this season the spoils have been shared, Athlone making up somewhat for the five-goal thrashing inflicted on them in the last meeting of the sides back in July.