John Caulfield’s men enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 win when they last visited the Midlands in March but Athlone’s form has improved immensely since that time and arguably they were the team who were most deserving of the victory last night.
Cork opened very brightly and could have found the net in the second minute through John O’Flynn, who neatly intercepted Mark Hughes’s sloppy lateral pass and bore down on goal from midfield. His shot from the right side of the penalty area was well saved by Ryan Coulter, but that was a rare foray forward for Cork as Athlone enjoyed the lion’s share of possession for the remainder of the first half.
City did take the lead when a lack of concentration allowed Darren Dennehy to collect Mark O’Sullivan’s knock-down and volley the ball to the net unchallenged from the edge of the six-yard box, but that was one of the very few occasions that O’Sullivan gained any traction against Athlone’s centre-back pairing of Alan Byrne and Derek Prendergast.
Athlone lined out with a much more attacking formation than normal, deploying Ian Sweeney on the left wing and playing with John Mulroy as a second striker. These two were central to Athlone’s equaliser shortly before half-time.
Sweeney’s deft pass sent Kevin Knight clear down the left flank and he was able to pull the ball back onto Mulroy’s left foot. The Town striker’s effort was weak, but it somehow crept under Mark McNulty and over the line.
The Rebels were slightly improved after the break and the decision to send on Liam Kearney and Danny Morrissey just before the hour mark looked like a wise move as they brought a noticeable increase in tempo and attitude to the game.
Shortly after his introduction, Kearney produced a left wing cross that fell to Garry Buckley at the far post, only for Buckley to get under the ball and send it high and wide.
Kearney also helped initiate the fast break out of defence that led to Mark O’Sullivan’s tap-in goal with 20 minutes left to play.
Kearney played in Billy Dennehy down the left and after Dennehy’s cross ran through to Buckley, the midfielder sent a stinging shot towards Ryan Coulter. The Athlone keeper initially parried the ball up in the air, but as he back-pedalled to catch it, he lost his bearings and stumbled into the net, allowing the ball to fall kindly off the crossbar onto O’Sullivan’s head.
The lead was to be shortlived, however, as four minutes later O’Brien made a sensational impact, blasting the ball to the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the area after Philip Gorman set him up with a good layoff.
Athlone then had a glorious chance to steal all three points in injury-time when Hughes got on the end of O’Brien’s cross, but the midfielder failed to get a clean contact on the ball and City were able to clear.
R Coulter; B Shortall, D Prendergast, A Byrne, K Knight; S Brennan (J O’Brien 75), K Dillon, M Hughes, I Sweeney; J Mulroy, P Gorman.
M McNulty; J Dunleavy, D Murray, D Dennehy, R Gaynor (L Kearney 58); C Healy; J O’Flynn (G Morrissey 58), G Buckley, G Morrissey, B Dennehy; M O’Sullivan.