UCD A.F.C held by Athlone Town in season opener

Image Credit: Cahal McAuley

Cahal McAuley reports on the Student’s 2-2 draw at home to Athlone in the opening game of the 2021 season.

UCD A.F.C. got their Airtricity League First Division campaign underway with a 2-2 draw against Athlone Town after a last gasp equaliser from Adam Wixted saved a point for the visitors in an exciting encounter at UCD Bowl on Friday evening.

The Students twice surrendered the lead as Mark Dignam’s first half goal was cancelled out by a Stephen Meaney header before the break. UCD substitute Dara Keane put the Students back ahead, but they could not hold out for the win as Wixted salvaged a point at the death for the Town.

Athlone came flying out of the blocks, coming agonisingly close to taking the lead in the first thirty seconds of the match. James Doona was played in behind and managed to find Stephen Meaney with a cross from the left-hand side. Meany drew a fine save from UCD keeper Lorcan Healy and the students were eventually able to clear their lines after a very nervy start.

All eleven Athlone players were making their competitive debuts for the club with only four members of last season’s squad who finished bottom of the division making the bench. The Town’s transfer policy seemed to be paying dividends as they were well on top with Healy forced into another save after Doona had a shot blocked from an Athlone corner.

The Students caused themselves problems as Sam Todd, making his competitive debut for UCD, played a loose pass into the midfield which was picked up by Athlone’s Dan McKenna. McKenna chipped a forward pass to Kurtis Byrne who rattled the crossbar with a looping half-volley that had Healy well beaten just after ten minutes.

Despite all the pressure being applied by Athlone, it was the Students who opened the scoring on 22 minutes. After picking up the ball on the edge of the box after a UCD corner, Liam Kerrigan blasted a powerful shot against the underside of the crossbar with Mark Dignam reacting quickest to turn the ball past Michael Schlingermann to give UCD the lead, wholly against the run of play.

The Students could have doubled their advantage five minutes later as Schlingermann spilled an Evan Weir free kick into the path of Kerrigan. Schlingermann made up for his error, however, as he was able to turn the shot over the bar at point blank range.

Athlone must have been beginning to think it might be one of those nights as a ball kicked off an unaware Kurtis Byrne drew an incredible fingertip save onto the post from Healy.

Healy was called into action again seconds later to get down to his left- hand side and parry a Stephen Meaney shot from just outside the box as the Students came under intense pressure.

The UCD ‘keeper was finally beaten six minutes before half-time after Adam Friel picked out Meaney who directed a fine header inside the far post, made even more impressive by the fact the ball was slightly behind him.

Meaney almost got in for his second Athlone goal as the new signing from Drogheda United was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Sam Todd after Healy had come off his line and failed to make contact with the ball.

The sides went in level at the break, but Athlone had the chances to put the game to bed with the Students looking nervous in defence and causing themselves problems with poor passes out from the back. Athlone were consistently able to get past UCD’s high line and players like James Doona regularly found themselves with space to run into.

The intensity levels of both sides predictably dropped off with the restart, after a breathless first half. The Students made a promising start to the half as Evan Farrell looked to have played in Colm Whelan who couldn’t pick out a blue shirt with his cross after a poor first touch forced him out wide.

Athlone re-established control, however, as Adam Wixted found himself through on goal but a weak shot enabled Healy to get down and turn the effort round the post. Healy made yet another important save on the hour mark as he narrowed the angle well to deny James Doona, who caused the UCD defence problems all night.

The Students put in an under-par performance overall with attacks breaking down due to simple passes being misplaced and numerous poor first touches. However, they took the lead against the run of play for the second time as substitute Dara Keane, who had offered a much- needed change in attack, did well to bring down a pinpoint through ball from Mark Dignam, and finish coolly into the bottom corner to restore the UCD advantage on 74 minutes.

Athlone continued to exert pressure but couldn’t create any clear- cut chances as the Students looked to have done just enough to claim a victory until the Town struck deep into stoppage time to claim a well-deserved point.

Healy, who had put in a valiant performance to keep UCD in the game was caught in no man’s land as Wixted latched on to a ball over the top to round the keeper and turn the ball home with the last kick of the game, opening his Athlone account after also signing from Drogheda.

UCD will be disappointed to concede so late but the Students were lucky to get anything out of the game at all as Athlone could easily have scored three or four just in the first half after an underwhelming performance all round.

Athlone Town face Galway United at home on Friday April 2 while UCD are away to Cobh Ramblers on April 3.