The sending off of Brian Shortall late in the first-half was a blow from which the midlanders never recovered and while they made it to half time with their net unbreached, thanks in no small part to a string of wonderful saves from Ryan Coulter, Patrick Hoban found space and crashed the ball to their net within 60 seconds of the restart to condemn the hosts to at least one more week at the bottom of the table.
When the same player showed some lovely footwork to find space in the Athlone penalty area and slip the ball underneath Ryan Coulter 10 en minutes later, the celebrations could begin in earnest for the large number of Dundalk supporters. Richie Towell added the icing on the cake for the Lilywhites in injury time with a stunning side footed volley.
Dundalk showed far more edge in their attacking play early on and wasted no time in drawing a wonderful save out of Ryan Coulter, testing the Athlone keeper after just five minutes.
Brian Gartland looked certain to score when he found space in the Athlone penalty area and put a firm header on Darren Meenan’s free kick, but his eight yard effort was somehow parried over the crossbar by Coulter.
Coulter was called into action again 10 minutes later and once more he proved his worth to the bottom-of- the-table side, deflecting Kurtis Byrne’s close range effort from the edge of the six yard box.
Athlone began to settle into the tie midway through the half, but the game turned decisively against them seven minutes before half time when Dane Massey and Brian Shortall clashed on the stand-side touchline. The Athlone full back was always likely to be in trouble when he raised his arm towards the Dundalk player, but there appeared to be little or no contact between the two.
Referee Tomás Connolly took decisive action, however, brandishing a straight red to the Athlone player while Massey received treatment on the ground.
Within 60 seconds of the restart Hoban was compounding Athlone’s misery as he placed the ball into the top corner of the net after collecting Darren Meenan’s cross and with Athlone really stretched due to their numerical deficit, Dundalk began to force their hosts onto the back foot. Meenan and Seán Gannon were rampant down the right wing and a series of excellent deliveries from that flank caused chaos in the Athlone area, including the one that Hoban turned home for the game’s second goal.
Again Meenan was the provider when he slipped a low ball into the striker and with all the composure that one would expect of a player converting his 19th goal of the season, Hoban calmly took Alan Byrne out of the game with a neat dummy and then slipped the ball in between the legs of the advancing Coulter.
Athlone continued to battle gamely in a bid to salvage something from the tie but they were now badly exposed at the back and Dundalk could easily have added several more on the counter attack.
Subsitute Donal McDermott was particularly unlucky not to add a third goal when he was sent clean through with just the keeper to beat, but his meek attempt at a lob was easily parried by Coulter.
When the third goal finally came, it was a strike of real beauty. A right wing corner fell perfectly for Richie Towell on the edge of the Athlone penalty area and with the side of his boot he placed an immaculate volley into the bottom corner of the net.
ATHLONE TOWN: R Coulter; B Shortall, D Prendergast, A Byrne, K Knight; K Dillon, E Foley, J O’Brien, D Doyle; I Sweeney; P Gorman.
Subs: G Rusk for Knight (61), B Clancy for Gorman (78), A Collins for O’Brien (86).
DUNDALK: P Cherrie; S Gannon, B Gartland, A Boyle, D Massey; C Shields; D Meenan, R Towell, K Byrne, D Horgan; P Hoban.
Subs: D McDermott for Horgan (70), M Griffin for Byrne (81), S O’Donnell for Hoban (86).
Referee: Tomás Connolly.