Keith Cowan celebrates the winning goal with Ciaran Coll and Kevin McHugh on Friday night - Photo by Gary Foy

Keith Cowan celebrates the winning goal with Ciaran Coll and Kevin McHugh on Friday night at Finn Park Photo by Gary Foy

The Harps stretched their lead at the top of the SSE Airtricity League Division One by virtue of a single goal victory over Athlone Town at Finn Park. Keith Cowan scored the only goal of game with a precise header into the top corner at the Town End following a corner delivery from Michael Funston that was headed back into the mix by Damien McNulty.

Alan Foley reports from Finn Park – []

It was a night of slim margins as the top two in the division faced off with neither looking like they were going to give an inch. One goal – it was obvious from a long way out – looked as though it would be enough to win it. That’s exactly what happened.

Harps had two first half goals disallowed. First of all when Raymond Foy lobbed Shane Cusack when the Harps midfielder was just a little too early to make his run and was signalled offside. And then, right on 30 minutes, Cowan was flagged for breaking the line after Kevin McHugh’s free-kick, which ended up in the Athlone net from Wilfried Tagbo’s close-range finish.

However, that statistic might’ve grabbed the soundbites but it was the visitors that were the team that looked the most likely in the first 45 minutes. Garvan Coughlan’s driven cross, in the first real half-chance of the game, was just in front of the inrushing Philip Gorman on 19 minutes.

A couple of robust challenges from Gavin Boyne – after the visiting midfielder had been yellow carded for a foul on Gareth Harkin – kept the temperature level up after a day of glorious sunshine in the north-west. Boyne was replaced before the half-hour mark by Eddie Wallace, the Athlone manager, with perhaps the disciplinary tightrope in mind.

Those closest either of the combatants came to a goal in the first half was when a dangerous cross from Derek Doyle caused bother at the back post for the hosts on 43 minutes. Gorman’s header on goal was headed away by Ciaran Coll, who was on his own goal line, and substitute Thomas Mulroney wastefully drove the rebound over.

Then, in first half stoppage time, the same player went much closer when his drive from the edge of the penalty area flew just over the crossbar after Thomas McMonagle had half-cleared a corner kick from Marco Chindea.

Harps manager Horgan made two changes from the side who drew 2-2 at UCD seven nights’ beforehand with McHugh and Harkin coming in for Tony McNamee and Regan Donelan. That result, coupled with Athlone’s 1-0 loss at home to Wexford Youths, was enough to send the Ballybofey side to the top of the table for the first time this season.

However, the midlanders were forced to line out that night without a host of players and could at least welcome back Doyle, Brian Shorthall and Gorman to the starting line-up in the Twin Towns.

Harps, who lined out with three at the back to begin with, opted to return to the conventional four after the break. Eight minutes into the second half, there was a collective sigh of relief from the home support when a free-kick from Philip Hand was almost curled to perfection over the Harps wall before flying just wide of Ciaran Gallagher’s goal and match referee Marc Lynch signalled for a corner kick. Harps’ wall did its job.

However, Cowan broke the deadlock almost halfway through the second half from a corner that the home team had been awarded when they came within inches of striking the opening blow. Hand stooped to head off his own line to deny Funston after McHugh also went close after Tagbo’s run at the Athlone defence. Harps had to take full advantage of their first corner of the night.

Twelve minutes from time, Gallagher was tested for the first time by a free-kick that was headed for the top corner from Chindea and made an excellent one-handed save. It was in fact Athlone’s first shot on target all night and Harps, following the stop from their goalkeeper, could be content in the fact they’ve kept five clean sheets from their six outings to date this term and are sitting pretty on top of the table.

Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Damien McNulty, Keith Cowan, Thomas McMonagle; Josh Mailey, Michael Funston (Tony McNamee 77), Raymond Foy, Gareth Harkin (Regan Donelon 90), Ciaran Coll; Wilfried Tagbo, Kevin McHugh (Matthew Crossan 87)

Subs not used: Garbhan Friel, Adam Clarke, Tommy Lee McCarron, Brian McGroary

Athlone Town: Shane Cusack; Brian Shorthall, Stephen Dunne, Aidan Collins (Daniel Purdy 71), Philip Hand; Marco Chindea (Sam O’Connor 83), Robbie Gaul, Gavin Boyne (Thomas Mulroney 28), Derek Doyle; Philip Gorman, Garbhan Coughlan.

Subs not used: Paddy Dunican, Ryan Doolin, Gary Burke, Michael Brown

Referee: Marc Lynch (Galway).

Man of the Match: Keiith Cowan

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