Noel McGee displayed his goal-scoring credentials with a wonderful second-half brace as Athlone Town got the better of Finn Harps in a scrappy encounter in the midlands on Friday night.
by Aidan O'Donnell [Donegal News]
The Athlone captain struck twice in the space of ten minutes midway through the second period as Mike Kerley’s side continued their bright start to the new campaign.
The Midlander’s, coming off the back of a narrow derby defeat at the hands of Longford, climbed to joint-second in the First Division table, while Harps struggled to produce the same levels of energy and intensity that yielded four against Mervue and pushed Limerick all the way in their previous two encounters.
Athlone showed the more offensive intent in a first half which saw the hosts’ 4-1-4-1 formation disrupt Harps’ attacking creativity.
In fact, Athlone goalkeeper Pat Jennings, the son of the former Arsenal and Northern Ireland legend who shares the same name, wasn’t properly tested until five minutes before the break, the custodian getting down brilliantly to turn a Kevin McHugh shot around the post.
The home side were extremely positive going forward and created a series of excellent chances to really trouble the Harps rearguard.
On seven minutes, McGee raced in behind, only to be thwarted by the onrushing Ciaran Gallagher, while Ciaran Coll did well to clear a Ross Kenny follow-up off the line from the resulting corner.
Moments later and Harps’ opposite full-back, James Doherty, produced a brave last-ditch block on Joe Woods following a knockdown by Brian McCarthy from a Garvan Broughall corner.
Harps rarely entered inside the opposition half and a twenty-five yard free-kick by Thomas McBride did little to unsettle the home side, who continued to charge forward at every opportunity.
Athlone were then denied a penalty midway through the half after Broughall released McGee free in behind the Harps back-four. The Town striker appeared to be impeded by the backtracking Aaron O’Hagan just as he was about to pull the trigger, but referee Adriano Reale saw nothing in the challenge and allowed play to continue, much to the annoyance, and slight shock, of the home support.
At the other end, McHugh showed typical awareness to pounce on a quick throw-in by McBride before turning and forcing Jennings into a top save down to his left side.
Athlone, though, almost caught Harps napping after racing straight up the other end, with Kenny providing a delicious cross for Broughall, who was very unlucky not to find the back of the net with a first-time flick that skidded just past the post.
Harps re-emerged after the half-time interval without Stephen O’Donnell, who was a big doubt before the game, with Ciaran Greene taking his place and then swapping positions with Ciaran Coll on the left side.
Athlone went agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock just before the hour when McGee headed over the crossbar from a matter of yards after another header by Woods fell invitingly into his path from another Kenny corner.
Harps’ best chance of the second-half fell to Blaine Curtis who did excellently to take Ciaran Coll’s through-ball in his stride to steer clear of the Athlone rearguard. The Harps striker, however, was denied the breakthrough by a wonderful save from Jennings before then hammering the rebound past the woodwork, with the ‘keeper still grounded.
It proved a costly miss as barely a few minutes later Athlone took advantage of a moment’s hesitance among the Harps defence to move ahead in very avoidable circumstances.
The Harps players were appealing that Mark Sherlock handled the ball, but, with nothing given by the referee, the winger pulled square for McGee, who had the simple task of a tap-in from fifteen yards.
The Athlone skipper then doubled the home side’s advantage after curling a quite magnificent free-kick, which he earned himself following a foul by O’Hagan, into the top corner from twenty-five yards.
McGee had the chance to complete the hat-trick with the last kick of the game but blazed his effort into the car-park as Harps were spared a hammering of sorts.
Athlone Town: Pat Jennings; Joe Woods, Tommy Barrett, Brian McCarthy, Ross Kenny; Darren Coleman; Garvan Broughall, Jason Hughes, Mark Walsh, Mark Sherlock; Noel McGee.
Subs: Kevin Williamson (Walsh, 15 mins), Paul Danaher (Barrett, 32 mins), Niall Scullion (Broughall, 86 mins).
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; James Doherty, Aaron O’Hagan, Thomas McMonagle, Ciaran Coll; Adam Clarke, Hugh Carlin, Thomas McBride, Stephen O’Donnell, Blaine Curtis, Kevin McHugh.
Subs: Ciaran Greene (O’Donnell, h.t), Thomas Bonnar (Carlin, 73 mins).
Referee: Adriano Reale (Kildare).