Coming into the game on the back of eight straight defeats, the law of averages suggested that Athlone Town would eventually pick up a point somewhere along the line and they almost got it against Dundalk in Lissywoollen on Easter Monday.
In the end it took a controversial Richie Towell penalty, coming in the fourth minute of stoppage time, to break the Midlanders down and keep Dundalk level on points with league leaders Cork City.
The penalty decision didn’t sit well with the natives and it was easy to see why. Referee Graham Kelly, who should have awarded a spot-kick to the visitors 12 minutes earlier, adjudged Declan Brennan to have impeded Darren Meenan when it looked like the Athlone player was guilty of nothing more than good defending.
To add insult to injury, Kelly dismissed Brennan and Towell sent Craig Sexton the wrong way with an ice cool penalty to give Dundalk three points when it looked like they would have to settle for just the one.
It was a contest that won’t live long in the memory.
Both sets of players looked to be in bank holiday mode during an uninspiring first-half. The hosts had an early opportunity after just 27 seconds. James O’Brien found himself in on the left of the Dundalk penalty area but his shot lacked power and confidence and trickled wide.
Dundalk set about exerting their authority on the ball and they almost pulled ahead in the 9th minute. Athlone goalkeeper Craig Sexton rushed from his box to clear from the breaking John Mountney. The ball landed kindly for Patrick Hoban but his effort was cleared off the line by the covering Barry Clancy.
Stephen Kenny’s side were playing their ninth game in 30 days and the gruelling schedule looked to be taking its toll. The Lilywhites looked lethargic for most of the first-half with the influence and energy of injured captain Stephen O’Donnell, who was present in the main stand, badly missed.
Sexton was rarely called into action before the break with two Towell volleys going well off target. A Hoban header, from a Darren Meenan corner, resulted in the same outcome.
Athlone Town caused problems of their own at the other end with Sean Brennan enjoying the upper hand against Sean Gannon. The Lilywhites full-back was excellent in the 2-2 draw against Shamrock Rovers on Friday night but, like many in the first-half, he looked well off the pace and Brennan almost capitalised in the 35th minute when he nicked the ball off Gannon’s toe only to run out of pitch before he could attempt to harm the Dundalk goal.
The second-half opened in the same vein with Kurtis Byrne - a half-time replacement for Daryl Horgan - blazing over. Likewise Darren Meenan couldn’t keep a half volley down after a burst of pace saw him carry the ball for 30 plus yards.
As the minutes elapsed, there was always a fear that Athlone Town would pull a rabbit from the hat and that moment almost arrived in the 71st minute when Sean Byrne’s long range effort looked to be swerving past Peter Cherrie only for the Scot to save with his legs.
There was more urgency in Dundalk’s play after that and their best chance arrived in the 76th minute. Substitute David McMillan’s devilish cross looped into the air of the nervy Conor McMahon but Byrne rifled a well hit volley just over the top.
The visitors turned the screw and they were denied what looked to be a certain penalty a minute later. Meenan found himself in the clear 12-yards out with the ball dropping from the sky. A touch from Clancy saw the Dundalk winger hit the deck but referee Graham Kelly ignored the appeals, much to the annoyance of Kenny.
The Dundalk boss threw Marc Griffin on for the final eight minutes and he almost made an instant impression, setting up McMillan for a shot that was blocked when Richie Towell seemed better placed.
It looked like Mick Cooke’s side were on course to register their first point of the campaign but Kelly became public enemy number one when he adjudged Brennan to have impeded Meenan with the ball heading behind for a goal kick.
Towell, for the second game on the bounce, showed nerves of steel to blast the ball to the bottom corner of the net, saving Dundalk’s blushes and leaving Athlone Town rooted to the basement.
ATHLONE TOWN: Craig Sexton; Stephen Quigley (Ian Sweeney 86), Conor McMahon, Declan Brennan, Barry Clancy; Kealon Dillon, Sean Byrne, Mark Hughes, James O’Brien, Sean Brennan (Jason Marks 74); Philip Gorman. Unused subs: Graham Rusk.
DUNDALK FC: Peter Cherrie; Sean Gannon, Andy Boyle, Mark Rossiter, Dane Massey; Ruaidhri Higgins, Richie Towell; Daryl Horgan (Kurtis Byrne HT), John Mountney (David McMillan 60), Darren Meenan; Patrick Hoban (Marc Griffin 82). Unused subs: Brian Gartland, Chris Shields, Simon Kelly, Gabriel Sava (GK).
REFEREE: Graham Kelly.