by Robert O'Reilly
Bottom of the table Athlone Town scored a dramatic stoppage time equaliser as they earned a pivotal point away to Drogheda United.
The home side had taken the lead through in-form midfielder Gavan Holohan just before the half hour mark but the basement club refused to give in and were eventually rewarded through Ian Sweeney’s 93rd minute strike.
Drogheda made one enforced change from the side that won convincingly away to Limerick last week as Paul Andrews replaced Ciaran McGuigan at the heart of United’s defence while Kevin Long selected the same eleven that held Cork City 2-2 at Lissywollen last Friday.
Persistent rain throughout the night made the pitch perfect for passing football but the ball spent much of the opening stages in the air as neither side were able to string a consecutive number of passes together.
The visitors had the first shot in anger of 14 minutes as former Drogheda player Sean Brennan picked up the ball on the halfway line and he advanced to the edge of the box unchallenged but the winger’s 22 yard drive went wide of Micheál Schlingermann’s far post.
Athlone looked the hungrier in the opening stages as Philly Gorman was only inches away from connecting with Kevin Knight’s left wing cross but they were made to rue their missed chances.
Gary O’Neill, who has been in fine form of late, cut inside on the left wing and released Cathal Brady in behind the full back and the pacy winger cut the ball back for the onrushing Holohan who notched his fourth goal in his last three games.
While that strike came against the run of play, Athlone regained control of the game for the remainder of the half. Within seconds of each other, both Gorman and John Mulroy got in behind the Drogheda backline though neither striker managed to test the home side’s goal.
The Town ought to have levelled on the stroke of halftime as Athlone quickly countered a Drogheda corner as Brennan picked out Mulroy on the edge of the box who expertly dummied for Kealan Dillon only for the former Hull man to fail to hit the target from 18 yards much to the shock of the crowd.
A serious injury to Mulroy took some of the pace out of the game in an error strewn second period though it was the relegation candidates that continued to create and squander chances.
Gorman headed wide from Alan Byrne’s pinpoint delivery before James O’Brien’s introduction gave Athlone’s play a different dimension with the midfielder bringing an impressive save out of the Drogheda goalkeeper within minutes of his introduction.
Schlingermann was called into action once again as he denied Dillon following some kamikaze defending from a United side that looked to be stumbling over the finish line for their fourth win on the bounce.
There was to be one final twist in the tale as a high ball into the box from Eric Foley was only half-cleared by the Drogheda defence as Sweeney struck a sweet half-volley into the bottom corner of the net for a well deserved share of the spoils.
The draw brings Athlone to within three points of UCD in the relegation playoff position with six games to play while Drogheda will know that a marked improvement will be required ahead of next week’s season defining FAI Cup quarter-final clash against Derry City.
Peter McGlynn (Stephen Maher 89)
Garreth Brady (Paul Crowley 86)
Gary O’Neill (Declan O’Brien 66)
Kealan Dillon (Dean Ebbe 85)
Mark Hughes (Eric Foley 68)
John Mulroy (James O’Brien 53)
Gavan Holohan (28)
Ian Sweeney (93)
Peter McGlynn (43)
Michael Daly (72)
Garreth Brady (75)
Mark Hughes (32)
Sean Brennan (96)