A stuttering Finn Harps surrendered second place in the Airtricity League First Division following their home loss against Athlone Town at a sunny but sparsely populated Finn Park.
Finn Harps 2
Athlone Town 3
The Twin Towns was still in celebration mode following Stranorlar native Jason Quigley’s European Boxing Championship gold medal in Belarus earlier in the day.
And even at one stage in the second half, Donegal’s victorious hurlers, who won the Nicky Rackard Cup at Croke Park, were across the road getting welcomed home at Sean MacCumhaill Park.
Harps, though, failed to make it a treble in the north-west having twice surrendered the lead when Michael Funston’s opener was cancelled out by debutant James O’Brien before Garbhan Coughlan levelled a goal from Keith Cowan. Mark Hughes’ 54thminute goal proved to be the winner for Athlone.
The Athlone win did a favour for the rivals Longford Town, who now lead the division by nine points. Mervue United, who saw off Cobh Ramblers by a goal to nil, are now second and Athlone leapfrog Harps into third spot. It was a good end to the week for the midlanders, considering they were toppled in the FAI Cup against non-league Bluebell United on Tuesday.
Much to the frustration of Roddy Collins, Harps took the lead as early as the 10thminute, when, following an Athlone corner, Ciaran Gallagher gathered possession and cleared instantly.
With the visitors still funnelling back into position, the ball was allowed to bounce and Funston improvised superbly to lob the ball over Paul Skinner from the angle of the penalty area into an empty net.
The equalising goal on 23 minutes was also into an unguarded goal when Ciaran Gallagher came for man and ball. The Harps goalkeeper caught Philip Gorman as he punched clear but O’Brien pierced a volley from the edge of the box with his teammate still grounded. It was a fine introduction to life in the Athlone first team.
Athlone might’ve edged in front eight minutes before the break when Gorman snuck in behind a static Harps defence from a lock-picking pass into the channel from Barry Clancy. Gorman was the only person alive to the ball and opted to lift the ball over Gallagher first time, only to see it nestle on the roof of the net.
Gorman was involved in the lead-up to Harps going back in front, although the Athlone striker, with some justification, may have felt he should’ve been awarded a free-kick when Cowan raised his foot high in midfield on 41 minutes.
There wasn’t anything particular malicious in the challenge and referee Rhona Daly waved play on. Cowan broke into space and having been freed following a neat give-and-go with Johnny Bonner, got through one-on-one with Skinner and drove into the bottom corner with the confidence of a centre-forward.
It was Cowan’s second goal of the season, after scoring eight nights’ beforehand against Wexford Youths in the FAI Cup and Harps went in 2-1 up at half-time.
Peter Hutton, the Harps manager, left four first-team players from his squad following their participation in a seven-a-side competition on Arranmore on June Bank Holiday weekend, against his wishes.
Shaun McGowan, James Doherty, Mark Forker and Paul McVeigh - ‘The Arranmore Four” -were given a two-week suspension by Hutton on Monday. Harps were also missing top-scorer Sean McCarron, who was suffering from ‘flu.
Athlone had won the preceding clash between the two teams that joined the League of Ireland on the same day in 1969. Coughlan’s goal had settled the meeting at Lisseywollen in March.
On 52 minutes on Saturday, Coughlan was on the mark again when he stabbed home from a yard out after Gorman centred in a cluttered box after a free-kick delivery from Hughes.
Two minutes later, with the hosts still reeling, Athlone forced their way in front of the first time. Hughes packed plenty behind a shot from 20 yards and Gallagher got his hands behind it, only for it to tantalisingly spin off the crossbar and over the line.
Harps failed to test Skinner for the remainder of the match as the contest petered out as the sun set. Losing was a blow to their promotion hopes but Athlone might just believe theirs are falling into place.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Damien McNulty, Thomas McMonagle, Keith Cowan, Ciaran Coll; Thomas Bonnar, Aaron O’Hagan, Michael Funston; Gary Merritt, Kevin McHugh, Johnny Bonner. Subs: Thomas McBride for McNulty (46), Marc Brolly for Merritt (66), Michéal Doherty for Bonner (86).
Athlone Town: Paul Skinner; Roddy Collins, Aidan Collins, Robert Clarke, Neil Harney; Mark Hughes, Garvan Broughall, James O’Brien, Barry Clancy; Garbhan Coughlan, Philip Gomley. Subs: Niall Scullion for O’Brien (68), Niall Lanigan for Coughlan (74), Tzee Mustapha for Gorman (87).
Referee: Rhona Daly.