Athlone Town fell further out of contention for a promotion play-off spot as Finn Harps battled to a 1-1 draw in Lissywoollen on Friday night.
A scrappy first half was edged, on the scoreboard at least, by the visitors as they soaked up some early Athlone dominance before gaining parity in the midfield battle and exerting some pressure themselves as the half wore on.
That pressure was rewarded with five minutes to go in the first half as Aaron O’Hagan capitalised on a weak punched clearance from Pat Jennings to slot the ball into an unguarded net.
The home side had dominated the first half hour but couldn’t find the ball that would unlock the Harps defence. They employed Mark Sherlock in a lone striking role that required support from midfield that all too often failed to materialise.
Kevin McHugh was having similar problems at the other end as Harps employed a five man midfield that had their hands full as the home side were largely on top without creating any clear cut chances.
Mark Sherlock had the best opportunity as we approached the half hour when he was slipped through by Brian Gill but his effort was weak and wide. Finn Harps finally began to get some possession in midfield and new signing Michael Funston was getting forward well to support McHugh and showing some nice touches in the opponents half.
Pat Jennings just about beat McHugh to a through ball before Funston had to be withdrawn after going down from a challenge outside his own area. He had barely left the field when Harps scored. A free kick from the right wasn’t properly dealt with by Jennings, who was under pressure from Harps attackers, and the ball fell to O’Hagan who turned and fired home.
Mick Kerley rang the changes at half time by introducing Noel McGee and Neil Harney with McGee playing up top alongside Sherlock in a more traditional 4-4-2 formation. Finn Harps moved to the same formation, necessitated by Funston’s injury which meant Tommy Bonner moved from full-back to his more accustomed striking role.
Neil Harney wasted little time in introducing himself to the home fans as he was booked for a challenge after only three minutes of his debut. Noel McGee also needed little time to demonstrate his finishing abilities, rounding off a neat Athlone move involving Barry O’Mahoney and Mark Sherlock by sticking the ball past Ciaran Gallagher in the visitors goal.
Town were a much improved team with two main strikers and the cavalry charge for the winner was further boosted by the introduction of another new signing, Mark McGoldrick.
Joe Woods saw his header go narrowly wide and the home crowd thought McGee had doubled his tally on 75 minutes but his shot flew just past the post.
McGoldrick then missed another chance for the home side before Harps nearly got an unlikely winner as Jennings first denied Adam Clarke and then James Doherty when they really should have scored. Doherty redeemed himself by heading off the line before Mark Sherlock shot over the bar in the last real action before the full-time whistle.
The draw will be of more benefit to Finn Harps as they seek to put some distance between themselves and the bottom two. Athlone needed a victory to keep up their play-off push and can scarcely afford to drop anymore points if they are keep up with the other contenders.
Athlone Town: Pat Jennings; Damien Rushe (Neil Harney 46), Stephen Last, Joe Woods, Kevin Williamson; Eric Molloy (Mark McGoldrick 62), Mark Walsh, Barry O’Mahony, Brian Gill, Jason Hughes (Noel McGee 46); Mark Sherlock.
Subs not used: Brian Collopy, Ross Kenny, Brian McCarthy, Niall Scullion.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Tommy Bonner, Thomas McMonagle, Mark Scoltock (Adam Clarke 78), Keith Cowan; Ciaran Coll, Shaun McGowan, Aaron O’Hagan (Shane McGinty 78), Michael Funston (James Doherty 39), Gary Merritt; Kevin McHugh.
Subs not used: Rory Kelly, Matt Harkin, Jordan Duffy, Hugh McFadden.
Referee: Adriano Reale (Kildare).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Noel McGhee (Athlone Town).