Sunday 21 July 2019

Depleted Drogs still 'four'midable

Soccer, SSE Airtricity League First Division: Drogheda Utd 4 Athlone Town 2

Marcus Cavaroli at United Park

The phrase 'goals win matches' is most closely associated with Gaelic games, but Drogheda United seem to have adopted that mantra judging by their tremendous run of five victories on the bounce.

Tim Clancy's team haven't looked too convincing at times in terms of their defending, but that doesn't matter quite so much when you're scoring as frequently as they are and 17 goals in their last five games is some achievement.

Already this season they've found the net three times or more in seven different games and scored nearly 50% per cent more often than title favourites Shelbourne.

And all this despite being badly depleted in terms of playing resources, with empty places on the substitutes' bench for the second week in succession against Athlone on Saturday evening.

Once again the Drogs were without Thomas Byrne (now departed), Mark Doyle, Stephen Meaney, Adam Wixted and Paul Skinner, while skipper Jake Hyland also sat out this game because of a family bereavement and Mark Hughes played when he probably shouldn't have and only lasted 45 minutes.

What transpired was an entertaining game for the neutral, but one which the Boynesiders made hard work of considering they were almost home and hosed when leading 3-0 at the interval.

Even in the first half they presented a couple of decent chances to Athlone, but the game began with Drogheda on top and when Chris Lyons chested the ball down to Luke Heeney the Bellewstown man deserved better than to smack his shot off the crossbar from 18 yards.

Remarkably, the woodwork was struck at the opposite end inside 60 seconds as Mark Hughes' interception bounced fortuitously into the path of Aaron Brilly who went one-on-one with Luca Gratzer. The Athlone midfielder placed his shot to the keeper's left, but Gratzer produced an excellent save, finger-tipping the ball against the butt of the post.

Two minutes later Gratzer went full-length in the opposite direction to turn a Kaleem Simon effort away for a corner, and there was a big scare for the Drogs from the set piece as Kealan Dillon's floating kick almost dipped straight into the net under the crossbar.

The hosts survived that mini rally, though, and Sean Brennan had a long-range free kick scrambled clear for a corner kick before Lyons fired straight at Athlone keeper Aaron Myles.

Athlone, who went into this game having taken just two points from a possible 33 since winning in Bray in mid-March, were proving spirited opponents, though, and Dean Williams volleyed over the bar from a Dean Casey cross on 22 minutes.

Drogheda's best chance of the game to date arrived moments later as Leaving Cert student James Clarke robbed Dillon in a dangerous area and advanced towards goal before curling his shot a yard wide.

The breakthrough arrived just before the half-hour mark and had simplicity - and class - written all over it. Luke Gallagher's pinpoint pass from midfield found James Brown rampaging down the right flank and he crossed superbly towards Brennan whose crisp first-time shot flew past Myles.

Drogheda's next meaningful attack - on 36 minutes - produced their second goal. Athlone lost possession in the opposition half and Lyons waited for support to arrive before releasing the on-rushing Brennan whose 30-yard shot was parried by Myles before Lyons arrived to squeeze the rebound past the hapless keeper.

Athlone almost halved the deficit immediately after an untimely slip on the damp turf by Gallagher, but Williams delayed his shot, allowing the defender to make a partial block, and when the ball was returned into the box Drogheda heaved a sigh of relief as the unmarked Williams headed meekly into the grateful arms of Gratzer from point-blank range.

It could easily have been 2-1, but instead Drogheda went straight up the other end and went 3-0 up. Heeney set up Lyons initially, and after the centre-forward's shot was saved he seized on the rebound and rolled the ball back to Heeney who fired home from close range.

The only worry for home fans was that Drogheda might become complacent in the second half, and there were signs almost straight from the kick-off that intensity levels had dropped as Casey drove forward and smashed an angled shot off the inside of Gratzer's left-hand post.

Then the keeper needlessly came off his line and made a complete hash of his clearance kick, and Drogheda's slackness was eventually punished on 62 minutes when Cian Kavanagh's terrible back-pass was seized on by Athlone sub Evan Pierce who gave Gratzer no chance with a composed finish.

Two minutes later it was a case of 'game on' as Simon struck a venomous 25-yard shot which nestled in the net despite the best efforts of Gratzer who did get his fingertips to the ball.

That was a huge wake-up call for Drogheda and they responded with their first shot at goal of the second half as Lyons teed up Clarke who sliced his effort wide under pressure from his marker.

However, Athlone immediately won a corner kick, from which Gavin Kearney headed over the bar, and Gratzer fumbled an awkwardly bouncing Brilly shot before grabbing the greasy ball at the second attempt.

So the relief was palpable when Drogheda made it 4-2 with nine minutes of normal time left. Evan White bundled over Lyons out on the left, near to the clubhouse, and Brennan's whipped-in free kick was spilled by Myles into the path of Clarke who had a simple tap-in.

Athlone were a spent force after that and the Boynesiders saw out the remaining time with no further difficulties. And with Bray losing and Cabinteely also dropping points, the result strengthens Drogheda's position in terms of the promotion play-off places and keeps them on the coat-tails of Shelbourne and Longford at the top of the table.

Drogheda Independent