O'Brien's fab form hits new heights
IT'S said that statistics don't lie, but the scoreline from this entertaining Premier Division clash on Friday night was definitely mis-leading.
Quite how Drogheda were made to sweat for a victory in the end is a mystery, because for long periods they were much the better side and full value for the 3-0 lead secured courtesy of a Declan O'Brien hat-trick.
Ultimately, poor defending from corners might have cost them dearly as Athlone scored from two such set pieces, and Drogheda will need to focus on that aspect of their play before the visit of Bray.
In fairness to the midlanders they did play some attractive football, but every time possession was lost they looked wide open to the counter-attack. Former Drogs boss Mick Cooke's approach was hardly gung-ho, but he might have to adopt a more cautious approach until his new charges can get some points on the board.
The Boynesiders exposed that weakness in the opposition armoury when scoring from their first real attack on nine minutes. Athlone lost the ball just inside the Drogheda half and it was immediately played to the feet of Gavin Brennan whose clever flick sent Shane Grimes away down the wing.
The left-back whipped in a superb cross towards the six-yard area and Declan O'Brien netted with a powerful header beyond the flailing right arm of Paul Skinner.
Drogheda seemed to adopting a shoot-on-sight policy and a 40-yard shot from Eric Foley which rose a yard over the bar was hit with such venom that the ball comfortably cleared the Crosslanes road. Gavin Brennan also tried to chip Skinner from inside his own half after spotting the keeper off his line, while Daire Doyle also failed to test the netminder from long range.
Athlone threatened for the first time when Sean Brennan's deep cross was headed wide by Philly Gorman, and a minute later Dave Ryan had to sprint from his goal to clear after Sean Byrne had beaten the offside trap.
Foley nearly caught Skinner napping with a free kick attempt low to the near post, and an attempted chip from Declan O'Brien bounced wide after he was teed up by Doyle.
James O'Brien made a superb run into the box for Athlone and threatened to set up a scoring opportunity, but Alan McNally got back to make a vital block and the visitors were nearly caught out on the counter-attack again in the 30th minute.
Barry Clancy gave possession away to Brennan who instantly launched a long diagonal pass to the advancing Declan O'Brien. The striker bore down on goal but never really got the ball totally under control and as defenders closed in he teed up Gary O'Neill whose shot was blocked by Byrne.
O'Brien then steered the ball wide from close range following a corner kick and Gavin Brennan had a 25-yarder charged down by Aidan Collins.
There were two scares in quick succession for the Boynesiders involving four former Drogs as Graham Rusk's cross was volleyed wide by Jason Marks from a tight angle, before Derek Prendergast's header grazed the outside of the post from a well-worked free kick taken by Sean Brennan.
Declan O'Brien should have added to his tally when steering a close-range header wide from a Gavin Brennan corner, but the first half ended with another warning for Drogheda as a short Ciaran McGuigan back-pass put his keeper in trouble and Ryan just managed to clear his lines.
The second period started in bizarre fashion as Sean Brennan got a yellow card for wrestling his brother Gavin to the ground, before Skinner produced heroics with a magnificent stop from O'Neill, tipping the ball over after the striker had latched onto Carl Walshe's pinpoint downward header.
Unfortunately for Athlone, Skinner's defenders didn't respond to what should have been an inspirational moment and they left Declan O'Brien all alone to score with a simple header from the resulting Gavin Brennan corner - 2-0.
Three minutes later Doyle played a long ball up to Walshe who turned inside and curled the ball narrowly wide, with the hat-trick seeking O'Brien frustrated that the winger didn't tee him up instead. Then, after Gorman had headed wide at the other end, O'Brien and Gavan Holohan combined and the latter's cross was fired straight at Skinner by Brennan.
Athlone's defence was under siege at this stage and when substitute Stephen Maher tried to set up O'Neill, the ball eventually broke to O'Brien who curled wide from 15 yards - another great chance.
Inevitably, with Athlone forced onto the attack, they left gaping holes at the back and Drogheda profited again on 71 minutes. Foley cleared the ball long to O'Neill and he spotted the run of O'Brien in behind right-back Kealan Dillon. 'Fabio' ran unchallenged into the box and steadied himself before shooting low past Skinner for the hat-trick.
Surely there was no way back now for Athlone, but five minutes later Gorman popped up in the six-yard area to convert a corner kick for 3-1. The towering Ryan should perhaps have made that ball his, and, incredibly, exactly the same scenario came to pass in the 80th minute as Gorman out-manoeuvred the keeper to nod home from almost on the goal-line - 3-2.
Athlone pressed forward again and Byrne unleashed a low drive which was blocked by his teammate Conor McMahon.
At the other end, Brennan and O'Brien combined to set up Holohan whose powerful shot was brilliantly parried by Skinner to keep Athlone in the game, but other than a Sean Brennan free kick that drifted wide the visitors couldn't engineer another chance and it didn't help that they had former Drog Stephen Quigley sent off for a slightly high challenge on Brennan in the 89th minute.
A minute's silence was observed before kick-off in memory of former Bohemians youth-team player Graham Parkinson, who died last week aged 21 following a long battle with cancer.