Finn pulls strings to get Rovers on the move
Athlone Town 1 Shamrock Rovers 4
After suffering opening-night nerves last week, Shamrock Rovers showed no sign of stage fright this time, producing a performance and result to get their season moving.
Yet while they improved in practically every department from the Derry game, it also has to be noted they had things considerably easier.
Athlone were poor, gifting Rovers two first-half goals which did nothing for either their morale or the game.
What they needed was a bright start. Instead, their floodlights failed in one corner of the ground, explaining a brief delay before kick-off and then a lengthier stoppage after a minute of play.
So by the time the lights were sorted, the concern turned to Athlone's defence, which was under siege almost immediately, and though reasonably well organised, and assisted by Alan Byrne's deployment as a deep-lying midfielder, quickly got found out.
Rovers' secret was to go wide, where their rampaging full-backs, Simon Madden and Luke Byrne, doubled up as auxiliary wingers, offering a constant outlet to their midfield triumvirate.
From here the pressure mounted and they could have scored twice in the opening quarter, firstly when Ronan Finn's clever pass found Ciaran Kilduff, whose path to goal was blocked firstly by Athlone's keeper, Paul Skinner and by centre-back Derek Prendergast.
Then in the 22nd minute, it was Finn's turn to shoot – but Aidan Collins diverted his effort away for a corner. The reprieve didn't last long, however, because from Sean O'Connor's resulting set-piece, Skinner mishandled the ball, dropping it straight at Kilduff's feet, who, from six yards, tapped it into the empty net.
Eleven minutes later it was 2-0, Gary McCabe getting a goal his performance richly deserved, when he timed his run perfectly to receive Shane Robinson's through ball, beating first Athlone's offside trap, and then, with a carefully placed shot, Skinner.
There could have been more prior to half-time but Athlone rode their luck, watching on as a McCabe shot rebounded safely off the post and then as O'Connor dragged a shot wide.
But any hope of a comeback was quickly extinguished within four minutes of the second half when yet another driving run from Madden discomfited the home defence and ended with the right-back delivering a fine pass to Kilduff, who hooked his shot beyond Skinner and into the net.
At this point, you feared the worst for Athlone but they can draw some comfort from the resilience they showed thereafter, and while a triple substitution by Mick Cooke on 65 minutes hinted of desperation, the changes worked. From there on, Athlone looked livelier in attack.
Not as lively as Rovers, however, who came into this game with a completely restructured team from last Sunday, as Trevor Croly made five changes.
Of those, Finn made the biggest impact – directing play from his attacking midfield position – yet he will be the first to admit that Shane Robinson's presence in behind him offered steel to the Rovers midfield.
Similarly, Jason McGuinness' addition to the backline provided much-needed physicality and with McCabe on form, and Madden looking as effective as ever, the seeds for victory for sown.
It helped that Athlone proved such generous hosts, of course. Rovers will not get things as easy next week against Bohs, a point typified in injury-time when substitute Eamon Zayed ran unmarked from the halfway line to score Rovers' fourth. Immediately afterwards, Alan Byrne scrambled in a consolation for Athlone.
Athlone Town – Skinner; Dillon, Prendergast, Collins, S Byrne (Clancy 65); A Byrne; Brennan, Hughes (Sweeney 65), O'Brien, Marks (Rusk 65); Brennan; Gorman.
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy; Madden, Kenna, McGuinness, Byrne; Brennan, Robinson, Finn; McCabe (Kelly 78), Kilduff (Zayed 78), O'Connor (Sheppard 67).
Referee – T Connolly (Dublin).