Monday 23 September 2019

Drogs in the driving seat after twist in title race

Soccer: SSE Airtricity League first division - Athlone Town 0, Drogheda Utd 2

Marcus Cavaroli at Athlone Town Stadium

Friday's disappointing match in the midlands certainly won't live long in the memory - and yet it could turn out to be one of the most significant nights in Drogheda United history.

Shelbourne have been in pole position for virtually the entire season, but they never managed to shake off the chasing pack and their 0-0 draw at home to Bray Wanderers means that the destination of the First Division title - and of course automatic promotion - is suddenly in Drogheda's hands.

If Tim Clancy's men can beat Shels at United Park on Friday week and then Bray in the Carlisle Grounds the Boynesiders will be the champions unless the current leaders can put 10 goals or more past Limerick in their last match.

Winning those last two games is easier said than done, of course, and whatever happens it's been a tremendous achievement to push Shelbourne all the way on such limited resources. But there are no trophies for finishing second and the Drogs will be desperate to complete the job now.

Defeating Athlone last Friday ensures that Drogheda are mathematically certain of being in the play-offs if they don't finish top, and it also means that Longford Town cannot now win the title.

But a big improvement in performance will be required in the remaining games if Clancy's team are to have something to celebrate come the end of the season, for they were well below par against Athlone despite having a full squad available for the first time this season.

Athlone should have taken the lead inside three minutes when Jamie Hamilton teed up Nika Kalandarishvili inside the box and the Georgian winger skied the ball over the bar with only Luca Gratzer to beat.

Drogheda had their first chance from the resulting kickout as Jake Hyland, Conor Kane and Chris Lyons combined before the latter's cross was headed over the bar by Stephen Meaney.

Athlone had a man sent off in this fixture earlier in the season and an early booking for their left-back John Morgan - a slightly harsh one at that - turned out to be costly for the midlanders here too.

Another flowing move from the visitors, this time started by Kane, Sean Brennan and Lyons, ended with a James Brown cross towards Mark Doyle who could only divert his header high over the bar.

There were a couple of minor wobbles at the back by Drogheda, so the opening goal in the 17th minutes came at a timely moment in the game. A pre-rehearsed routine saw Brennan roll a corner kick to the edge of the penalty area, Lyons darted away from his marker to shoot towards goal and Doyle popped up in the six-yard box to divert the ball past keeper Aaron Myles.

Brennan the sent a free kick dipping just over the bar after a foul on Meaney, before Gratzer was called into action, smothering an awkwardly bouncing Hamilton drive from distance.

On 27 minutes it was Hamilton again who threatened with an audacious volley that flew well wide, that after Luke McNally had been uncharacteristically dispossessed by Duleek native Shane Dunne out near the corner flag.

McNally got his head to a Brennan corner but failed to test Myles, and then it was Brown's turn to be robbed of possession in a dangerous area, but this time Kevin Farragher was on hand to clear the danger from Kilandarishvili's centre.

McNally then tried his luck from 35 yards out as Athlone continued to defend with conviction, and that was illustrated again when Meaney was put under pressure from a Kane cross and couldn't get his header on target.

However, Athlone's chances of getting something out of the game suffered a major setback on 40 minutes when a sharp turn by Meaney out on the right tempted Morgan into a rash tackle that rightly earned him a second yellow card.

A firm header by Meaney was blocked by the head of Ciaran Grogan as Drogheda looked to finish the first half on a high.

On the restart Mark Hughes came on for his first game in 12 weeks, an able replacement for Jake Hyland who was feeling his hamstring, and it remained pretty much one-way traffic towards the Athlone goal, but Lyons, Meaney and McNally all failed to test Myles from early openings.

Drogheda didn't even concede a foul in the game until the 53rd minute when Jamie Hollywood was rather harshly penalised for a hand-ball, but with Brennan wayward from free kicks the single-goal cushion remained.

The visitors were out of luck when Hollywood's great pass released Doyle who smashed a great shot high into the net, but the referee's assistant had flagged Lyons offside even though he didn't seem to be interfering with play.

Ironically, there was a hint of offside about Drogheda's second goal when it came in the 68th minute. Brennan and Brown worked the ball up the right side of the pitch to substitute Adam Wixted. The number 7, who only recently returned from a dislocated shoulder, 'dropped the shoulder' to engineer a yard of space for himself in the box and then dinked a diagonal ball towards Lyons who headed home from four yards.

Drogheda seemed to delay their celebrations, perhaps anticipating an offside flag, but none came and they were almost home and hosed.

Hughes was starting to spray some nice passes into wide positions. One led to a cross from Kane that should have been headed in by Lyons, and another resulted in a Doyle shot that hit the side netting.

Hughes then got in on the act himself with a fizzing shot that grazed the outside of the post, with Myles stranded.

However, Drogheda should have been punished for a moment's loss of concentration when Kealan Dillon sent a corner kick to the unmarked Kilandarashvili who headed wide of the target.

Doyle fired another chance wide after more smart play involving Wixted, who looked considerably sharper than in his two previous substitute appearances.

However, Athlone were unlucky not to grab a consolation from the last kick of the game as Dillon flashed a 25-yard free kick off the top of Gratzer's crossbar.

Drogheda Independent