Galway United produced a stunning final few minutes of attacking prowess to grab a vital win on the road.
The Tribesmen led for the majority of the contest courtesy of a stunning strike from Rob Manley, before Athlone grabbed what looked to be a late equaliser. However, substitutes Francely Lomboto and Manu Dimas stepped up the plate with a vital brace of goals to earn a crucial victory.
It was a tie that was slow to get going, the home side looking the more composed on the ball as both teams tried to get to grips with what the other could be bringing to the table.
Athlone had the first chance to break the deadlock with a dangerous corner from Gary Armstrong, but after some pinball in the box United eventually cleared their lines.
Making his first start for the Tribesmen was Oisin O’Reilly. Throughout the opening half he was a big danger, his pacey runs and eye to pick out the right pass seeing him become a mainstay in many United counter attacks.
He too came close to breaking the deadlock, dribbling forward and creating space to shoot, only to be denied by a good save from Vladislav Velikin.
Athlone looked a threat from set pieces, with the through balls of Osaze Irhue and Thomas Oluwa being a valuable weapon to their attack. Oluwa threaded in a ball towards the feet of on inrushing Glen McCauley on eight minutes but was denied brilliantly by Conor Kearns.
The midfield battle was key in these early exchanges, a physical approach from the Midlanders in the air helping them on their way to the lion’s share of possession. Yet anytime United broke forward, their superior speed looked likely to create goal chances.
Rob Manley came close to a second goal in just three appearances on 14 minutes. A David Hurley corner was met by the head of James Finnerty, who cushioned it towards goal. Velikin did well to get to the ball ahead of the Dubliner. After coming so close, he didn’t need to wait long to rattle the net.
Five minutes later the former Bray Wanderers striker showed his endless work rate when getting to the ball ahead of Oisin Duffy. He duly flew past the defender before unleashing a bullet on goal to give the visitors the lead.
United upped the intensity from here and their superior fitness started to put Athlone under pressure down the channels. A quick free on 26 minutes from Conor McCormack found the in-form debutant O’Reilly. He whipped in a perfect cross, but sadly nobody in a Galway jersey got a foot on it.
Shortly afterwards Max Hemmings attacked down the other wing and found Hurley free on the edge of box. With ease he glided past the challenge of two defenders only for his close range attempt to be saved by Velikin, a man who was keeping the hosts in the tie.
Chances were few for Athlone, but they did come close to equalising on 40 minutes. Former United attacker Oluwa got a counterattack going via a lung bursting run forward that was brought to a halt near goal.
From the resulting free McCauley produced a powerful effort, but when needed most Kearns again jumped into action with a superb save that left the Tribesmen ahead at the break, 1-0.
Buoyed by two changes, Athlone came out of the blocks strong, keeping hold of possession a lot more and trying to play the ball on the deck. However, chances were slim as John Caulfield’s troops got in the big blocks and tackles when needed.
Their endless pressure almost bared fruit on 56 minutes, a corner from McCauley passing by everyone but McBride on the edge of the box. Luckily for United, his effort curled just wide of the target.
Looking to freshen thing ups, Caulfield made three changes just after the hour mark, Diego Portilla, Francely Lomboto and Manu Dimas replacing O’Reilly, Wilson Waweru and Manley.
Lomboto was the brightest of the three, his strength and speed causing the Athlone defence huge problems. Meanwhile United captain Conor McCormack was getting more ball out wide and his crosses from the right channel posed them great difficulty.
The best of the early second half chances to double the United lead came on 65 minutes. A Stephen Walsh header was blocked down by a defender and into the path of McCormack, but sadly he could not keep his effort down as it glided over the crossbar.
The home side never backed down and in the final ten minutes dominated the possession, coming agonisingly close to levelling via Aaron Connolly. Athlone broke at speed from a Galway attack with the midfielder launching a shot on goal from close range, only for it to once more drift wide.
By now United were soaking up wave after wave of attacks from the Midlanders, who regularly pumped the ball from one end of the field to the next in the hope of stretching the defence. They were rewarded with a goal on 88 minutes.
Andy Spain won the ball back from Hurley and duly ran at the Galway defence before unleashing an effort from range that finally got past Kearns.
The visitors had a mountain to climb as they entered the final stages. But to their credit, they produced an unbelievable finish to proceedings to end up leaving Lissywollen with the three points.
Two minutes after Spain’s leveller United remarkably regained the lead, Portilla launching a ball over the top and into the path of Lomboto, who from a tight angle cushioned the ball nicely into the bottom left corner of the net.
The Tribesmen sealed all three points on 91minutes when Stephen Walsh played a lovely through ball into the path of Hurley. The Cork native duly pinged in a ball across the box for an inrushing Dimas who buried the ball home to dubious scenes from the large travelling support.
Off the ball just seconds after the goal Aaron Connolly was giving his marching orders by referee Alan Patchell, but at this stage it had little impact on proceedings as United bagged a crucial win as they look to keep the pressure on league leaders Cork City.
Next up is a third away trip in a row, with Caulfield’s troops making the journey up to Dublin this Sunday to play Bluebell United in the first round of the FAI Cup.
Galway United (John Caulfield, manager)
Kearns; C. O’Keeffe, J. Finnerty, C. Lyons; M. Hemmings (D. Tarmey, 90), C. McCormack, D. Hurley, O. O’Reilly (D. Portilla, 61); W. Waweru (M. Dimas, 61); R. Manley (F. Lomboto, 61), S. Walsh (M. Rowe, 90).
Athlone Town (Gordon Brett, manager)
Velikin; O. Duffy (A. Spain, HT), A. McBride, N. Van Geenan, O. Irhue (C. Kelly, HT); P. Hickey; A. Lennon, A. Connolly, G. Armstrong, T. Oluwa; G. McAuley (V. Dolia, 78).
Sent off: A. Connolly (92)
Referee: Alan Patchell.