Athlone IT produced a turnaround in fortunes to dump Letterkenny IT out of the Colleges and Universities’ Football League at the semi-final stage on Wednesday night and avenge their Umbro CFAI Cup hammering seven days’ beforehand.
Athlone IT 3
Letterkenny IT 1
The LYIT side managed by Niall McGonagle would’ve fancied their chances at McSharry Park in Sligo having battered the side under the stewardship of Michael O’Connor by four goals to nil on home turf a week earlier. But Athlone learned from that hiding and tailored their policies in a chilly night by the Garavogue, starting with a sweeper and a much more physical approach.
Goalkeeping and defensive errors, a missed penalty and a succession of what ifs made for an entertaining contest but one, in the end, that left more questions than answers as the LYIT made their way back through Barnesmore under a sheet of darkness.
Right from the moment Ray Flynn blew the whilstle, the midlanders played a high octane game in which LYIT couldn’t settle and despite a spate of yellow cards - four of the Athlone IT players were cautioned in the first half alone - their leaning on the rule book worked.
Ciaran Gallagher in LYIT’s goal had an awkward first half. On 13 minutes, David Kelly got in behind from Neil Hanley’s ball over the top and Gallagher, the Finn Harps goalkeeper, lay proprietorship with a call as he raced from his line. However, Kelly got the touch ahead of Gallagher having won the race and rolled the ball into the empty net.
An aberration of sorts, Gallagher compounded that error four minutes later when he conceded a penalty. Following a shot from outside the box by Italian Danielle Turano, which was parried by the LYIT shotstopper, Eoin Morris snapped on the rebound but was take down by Gallagher. Turano smashed the spot kick in off the base of the post for a 2-0 advantage.
LYIT were shocked by the poor start and for the remainder of the half improved slightly. It was, however, a medicinal recovery with no quick fix. Only on 43 minutes, when Davitt Walsh tested Bernard Power from a free-kick, did the Athlone goalkeeper get called into action.
With only 45 minutes to save their dreams of the double, the second half started in whirlwind fashion and the game was played at a pace normally reserved for stoppage time. However, just when the scattered neutrals presumed it would be LYIT forcing the issue, it was Athlone that went the closest to adding the crucial third goal.
In a pin-ball episode in the LYIT penalty area, Gallagher saved from Morris and Stephen Relighan of Athlone Town and Johnny Logue also cleared off the line as his team had considerable difficulty in clearing.
LYIT survived and five minutes into the second half halved their arrears when Oisin McMenamin smashed in high at Power’s near post when Walsh got the slightest of touches to a ball into the packed area by Tony McNamee. Game on - or so everyone thought.
Right from the restart, though, LYIT’s frailties at the back were apparent once again. From a rather agricultural ball forward by Turano, who really ought to have been booked twice in the first half, Kelly skipped cleared to slot past Gallagher for 3-1 and the screams of celebration could be heard piercing the night air.
The frenetic nature of the contest meant with 39 minutes left there was still time to play for and seemingly content with the two-goal cushion Athlone sat back in an effort to absorb. LYIT went three at the back but with the simplicity of Athlone’s third goal fresh in their minds the element of trepidation was understandable.
On 54 minutes, referee Flynn handed the north-westerners a golden opportunity from a stonewall penalty. Barry McNamee had skipped his way into the penalty area and controlled a bobbling ball, taking it around Power and about the shoot home before being tugged by the goalkeeper, who got a yellow when a red might’ve been more appropriate. However, up stepped McMenamin, who show low and hard, but Power got down well to his right to save and LYIT were left to wonder what might’ve been.
Those over-exertions caught up with LYIT and although over half an hour remained their plight became increasingly desperate and nothing would materialise in front of goal. Athlone turned the tables on them so the concentration will now be on the Umbro CFAI Cup, where they will return to Sligo on Wednesday, March 7 for another semi-final and one in which they will hope to make amends.
LYIT: Ciaran Gallager; Johnny Logue, Mark Harkin, Proinsias Forker, Barry McNamee; Josh Mailey, Oisin Grant (Paul McVeigh 48), Luke O’Farrell, Tony McNamee; Davitt Walsh, Oisin McMenamin.
Athlone IT: Bernard Power; James Furling, Neil Hanley, Kevin Dunne, Aidan Reilly, Adrian Torries; Flavio Squillante (James Morrissey 59), Stephen Relighan, Danielle Turano (Andrea Balestra; Enda Morris, David Kelly.
Referee: Ray Flynn.